Wounded returned veteran on a back porch with his pet dog, Red Deer, c. 1919. (Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: Legion continues its tireless work on behalf of veterans

On Saturday, March 23, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 35 held the official grand opening of its newly renovated premises on Bremner Avenue in Red Deer.

It was the start of another chapter in the century-long history of the organization in our community.

The first meeting of what was initially known as the European War Veterans Association of Red Deer and District was held in mid-March 1917.

There were only 10 veterans present. Moreover, there were only two chairs in the tiny room where they gathered. Consequently, most of the men had to stand through the whole meeting.

Nevertheless, enough interest was shown that a second meeting was held at the Red Deer Armouries on 49th Street on April 2, 1917.

Plans were made for fundraising events, particularly dances at the armouries. Once enough funds were secured, it was hoped to rent or buy space to be used as a veterans’ “club room.”

In some respects, the creation of the Veterans’ Association seems surprising. The war was still raging overseas. The famous Canadian military victory at Vimy Ridge did not take place until April 9, 1917.

With the huge losses of life at Vimy, and at other epic battles such as the Somme and St. Julien, there was a rapidly escalating shortage of soldiers on the front lines. Hence, few were able to return home unless they were suffering from severe injuries to their bodies and/or minds.

In the summer of 1916, the Alberta Ladies College on Red Deer’s East Hill was purchased by the provincial government for use as a hospital, or sanitarium, for returned soldiers suffering from shell shock, or PTSD.

The Red Deer Memorial Hospital on the South Hill was full of veterans suffering from all kinds of injuries and illnesses. Moreover, the Memorial Hospital had such severe financial problems that it was often virtually bankrupt.

The federal, provincial and municipal governments were ill prepared for the massive wave of sick and wounded who had been sent home. Most supports came from families, or such charitable organizations as the Patriotic Fund.

Many people quite rightly concluded that there was a growing and urgent need to create an advocacy group to secure supports and services for returned veterans.

They also rightly concluded that among the most effective advocates would be the veterans themselves, since they had risked their lives to serve their country and had already paid a significant price while doing so.

Moreover, many realized that many of the best people to directly help those who had suffered and sacrificed so much in the war, were those who had also experienced the horror of the front.

The first president of the Red Deer veterans’ group was Rube Gee. He had been badly wounded in the war and suffered significant health issues for the rest of his life.

The vice-president was Donald McLevin, who had been forced home after being severely wounded in the thigh.

In April 1917, the founding meeting of the Alberta chapter of the Great War Veterans’ Association was held in Calgary.

In August 1917, the Red Deer group decided to become part of the association. After using the armouries for its activities for a few months, the Red Deer association was able to rent its own club rooms in the old D.S. Long harness shop on Ross Street (the building later used as the Club Cafe).

The facility provided meeting space, but also a spot for recreational activities, including an area for playing pool. Also, since some veterans were returning home without a ready place to stay, temporary accommodations were provided in the premises.

In 1919, the association building was taken over by the provincial government for use as an employment bureau. The veterans’ organization then moved back to the armouries, where it shared the facility with the militia.

In 1924, a new building was acquired by the association on the northeast corner of Ross Street and 51st Avenue.

In 1926, the association amalgamated nationally with a number of other veterans’ organizations to become the Canadian Legion. Over the years, other buildings in Red Deer were rented or purchased by the Legion for its activities.

While the name and locations may have changed, the commitment to serving veterans and their families and to advocate for improved services and supports for them has never faltered.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears every Wednesday.

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