Will local Legions survive COVID-19? Prescott branch president expresses worry

The Prescott Legion in 2013. ©Google

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

PRESCOTT — Even when relaxing on Saturday afternoon aboard a friend’s boat in the town harbour, Eric Place becomes intense when discussing the fate of Eastern Ontario Legion branches.

Although not privy to their financial affairs, Place, president of Legion branch 97 in Prescott, says some of the branches are struggling under COVID-19 conditions and some may not be able to reopen when the time finally comes.

Under those conditions, rural Legion halls and bars have mostly been closed tight since March. Their main sources of revenue have been cut off and, so far, no government compensation has come forward.

Place quotes some national statistics: It’s estimated that 124 of 1,381 Legion branches across the country will close permanently due to COVID while 357 are facing serious financial hardship. Prescott is so far weathering the storm thanks mainly to a substantial bequest received last fall.

“Branches have been closed for almost four months with no help in sight,” he states. “It’s very sad that our veterans and our service to communities have been forgotten in all of this.”

Place wonders why that is. It seems so many other organizations and businesses are being assisted by the provincial and federal levels. What of those self-sacrificing Canadians involved in past conflicts represented for generations coast-to-coast by the Royal Canadian Legion which keeps the memory alive through its programs and its branches — many of them in rural areas — where members including veterans and supporters gather to hoist a few and share a meal!

They can’t be allowed to fade away. It seems, says Place, that when it comes to COVID relief, the venerable Legion organization has been an afterthought. Premier Doug Ford recently stated the situation is being looked into; to date, Legion branches have been given no idea when they can reopen.

Even physically reopening will be a challenge for smaller branches which rely heavily on volunteers and may not be able afford mass sanitizing, masks, distancing, Plexiglass shields and other protective measures required by area health units.

Place and Prescott Legion executive members decided recently to write directly to the Leeds-Grenville MP Michael Barrett and MPP Steve Clark, as well as town council, asking for support in getting compensation. They’re encouraging other branches to do the same.

“It’s to keep the doors open for veterans who rely on us for help, for the kids who we sponsor with bursaries and opportunities, for seniors who come to us to socialize, and for the organizations we support.”

Among those organizations are the Lions Club, food bank, and various health charities. Children’s programs are a big part of Branch 97 activities, with Christmas, Easter and other special event parties, and an annual public speaking contest. It’s a magnet for adults too, with karaoke Friday nights, dinners Thursday nights, various leagues, and special events Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Even with no employees to pay at the moment and no events occurring, there are still gas, hydro and water bills. Otherwise closed, the Prescott Legion is currently being used two days a week by volunteers working with the area food bank and charitable group King’s Kitchen to prepare and deliver no-charge meals to low-income residents; as of the end of June, almost 2,000 meals had been delivered.

Some have wondered why Branch 97 hasn’t tried to generate income by establishing a patio in part of its parking lot. Place says set-up difficulties and costs involved make a patio seem unviable.

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