The idea that Royal Canadian Legions are just bars for old people is outdated, and members of the Bradford branch want local residents to know how much it has to offer.
“We don’t want to be known as an old people drinking (and) Bingo party,” said Tammy Paglia, first vice president of the Bradford legion.
While the legion may have “competitive bar rates,” said poppy campaign chair Mike Webster, it offers much more — from “fill your boots” Friday night dinners for $10, a popular darts league and karaoke nights, a patio in the summer, and many other regular events.
As well, the legion is driven by military and community service activities, such as the annual Remembrance Day parade and ceremonies, poppy campaign that raises money for veterans, bursary funds for youth, and fundraisers for eight to 10 local charities.
The legion also has a sergeant-at-arms, veteran George Neilson, who reaches out to other local veterans and their families to get them the help they need, including financial or medical.
To do it all, “you need an army of help,” Webster said, and the legion welcomes new members and volunteers with open arms.
“It’s mostly older people, and they can’t help as much as they need to. It’s not easy to modernize when you need money to modernize,” said Paglia.
But the main draw of the legion is the social aspect, Webster added.
“The camaraderie here is almost instantaneous,” he said. “Nobody comes all the way to 115 Back St. to save 75 cents on a bottle of beer. They come in here because of the people.”
Plus, he added, people do not need to be a member to participate in any of the legion’s events — only to be able to vote on bylaws and major changes and expenditures.
People also do not have to be a veteran or related to one to join the legion.
“We will never turn you away without a (legion) card,” he said.
The legion has about 200 members, but “membership has been declining everywhere in Ontario,” said Paglia, who also runs the legion’s Nevada gaming ticket sales, the proceeds from which go to local charities.
However, more young people are starting to become members locally, and the legion now sponsors the new Orville Hand Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron running out of Bradford West Gwillimbury.
And several legion members, such as Matt Walker, actively recruit new people to check out the legion and all that it has to offer.
“The guy is a local legend. He’s bringing people in by the dozens,” Webster said. “To swear in eight new members is unheard of in our jurisdictions.”
Bradford resident Norm Longridge has been a member of the local legion for 20 years, despite not being a veteran.
“As a Canadian citizen, I think it’s my duty to join an organization like the legion to honour our veterans. It’s the least I could do,” he said.
Longridge is always the first person to sign up for the annual poppy campaign and can often be spotted collecting donations outside The Beer Store in BWG.
“Places like The Beer Store is a gold mine,” he said, adding many residents will donate to the campaign even if they already have poppies.
Once, he said, a man took four poppies and gave him $100 as a donation.
Longridge said he hopes more people will join the legion, especially young people, and he has high hopes for members of the air cadet squadron to participate in activities.
“It’d be nice to get a lot more of the younger veterans. The cadet corps — that’s going to be a big thing for us,” he said.
“A lot of people still think the legion is an old Anglo Saxon watering hole for a bunch of old drunks. It’s not. It’s about camaraderie.”
And good times can often be on display during the legion’s Monday and Thursday night non-competitive dart leagues, which run September to April, followed by playoffs and a banquet.
Run by Shelly Christadler and her so-called “darts husband” Bob Harrison, the league gets about 50 people showing up to the legion each week to throw darts and get social.
Players get split up based on ability level to make the teams as fair as possible, so people do not have to show up with a team.
Each week, there is a raffle draw for a $25 gift card to a local business in town, and the proceeds go toward a charity chosen by legion members. For the last few years, the Helping Hand Food Bank has been the recipient.
Bradford resident Lee Leivo, the mother of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Joshua Leivo, is not a legion member, but she said she has been playing darts there for four years.
“It’s just a great place to hang out. It’s a homey feeling,” she said.
Plus, it’s fun. One of the last times she played, her team name was We’re Sexy and We Throw It.
“It’s a great group of people,” added Carol-Anne Haxton, of Bond Head, who was a ladies auxiliary member for 11 years and has been a legion member for two years.
“They’re like family. Some of those people I’ve known for 13 years.”
For 78-year-old Neilson, the legion’s sergeant-at-arms and a 25-year veteran, all the local veterans are also like family.
Neilson wears many hats at the legion, including being the liaison for the new air cadet squadron, helping local veterans with financial or medical needs, and teaching colour party training to a small group of volunteers who march and carry flags at events.
More colour party volunteers are wanted.
During a recent training session, Neilson was precise and patient — expertly instructing some men and women on how to take proper steps and where to put their hands.
“The guy who messes up is going to buy drinks after,” he said to them, jokingly.
“Once you train together, you’re going to stay together.”
Neilson said the precision of each step in the colour party is done in tribute to all soldiers.
“(It) is an honour to the fallen… to do it the way they were taught,” he said.
Neilson said being a veteran has allowed other veterans to open up to him about what help they need, such as rent money or medical equipment.
“We’ll find them and help them,” but that is sometimes easier said than done, he noted. “Military people are very proud people. They’d rather be homeless than ask for help. That’s why I joined here… to make sure they could get (help).”
The Bradford legion does not keep a lot of the money it makes, rather gives it away to charities and people in need, said Neilson.
“We’ve got a really good legion here,” he said, adding it gives him “great pride” to help fellow veterans.
“When we joined the (armed) forces, we wanted Canada to be free, so we went through a lot. We weren’t afraid to get shot at. We didn’t want Canada to turn into some of the places we’ve been.
“I’m still a military person in my heart. I don’t think I’ll ever change.”
For more information on the legion, including hours, events and to sign up for a distribution list, visit the legion’s website. The legion is located at 115 Back St., Bradford.
Anyone interested in joining the Bradford legion’s colour party is asked to call the legion at 905-775-5025 and ask for George Neilson.