Royal Canadian Legion — 1925 founding in Winnipeg designated national historic event

by Bruce Cherney

When the First World War ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918, tens of thousands of servicemen were anticipating their repatriation to Canada. To repatriate the veterans of the conflict, the federal government promised a policy of “first over, first back.” 

Over 620,000 Canadians served in the armed forces during the war out of a relatively small national population of 7.8-million people. By the end of the war, over 60,000 had been killed and 170,000 wounded. 

As time dragged on and some long-serving members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force feared their return was not imminent, a riot ensued on March 4-5, 1919, at Kinmel Park in England. About 800 soldiers engaged in the riot, which resulted in five being killed and another 25 wounded when Canadian troops fired on their own to restore order. Seventy-eight of the rioters were charged with mutiny. In total, there were 13 riots among soldiers in England waiting to return to Canada.

The pace of repatriation was just one cause of veteran dissatisfaction after the Armistice. The veterans also felt that promises made by the federal government to reintegrate returned soldiers into civilian life were often inadequate or went unfulfilled.  

J.W. Dafoe, the well-regarded editor of the Manitoba Free Press, said the government was engaged in a thankless and herculean task unique in the nation’s history.

“It is going to be demanded of him (Prime Minister Robert Borden) that he do things which are mutually contradictory and destructive, and whatever he does will have more critics than friends.”

The Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment was formed in 1918 to administer hospital and medical care for the sick and wounded, set pensions, select training programs and approve loans for solders settling on farms. All the measures proposed by the government were to be temporary in scope. Under the scheme, according to historian Desmond Morton, able-bodied returned soldiers were left to face economic realities on their own and could expect no handouts from Ottawa. 

For the war wounded, only five per cent qualified for a full pension, while the majority received 25 per cent or less of the full pension. By the end of 1919, 59,865 pensions had been approved. Those who had full pensions received benefits that were the most generous among Allied nations.

Still, ordinary soldiers were miffed that disabled officers received preferential pension treatment.

“That an officer with an arm off should get twice as much pension as a private with an arm off is unfair, unjust, unsound, undemocratic, unreasonable, unBritish, unacceptable, outrageous and rotten,” complained Harris Turner, a blind veteran and Saskatchewan MLA.

In their book, The Veterans Charter and Post-World War II Canada, Peter Neary and J.L. Granatstein wrote that 40,000 disabled veterans had been retrained and 64 per cent had been placed in skill-related jobs. “Then to save money, training, placement, and follow-up had been dissolved. By the end of the 1921 depression, one-fifth of all returned men and most of the disabled were jobless, and there were no plans for more help.”

The Soldier Settlement Act of 1918 was designed to settle willing returned soldiers on farmland. Soldiers who could prove their strength and agricultural experience could borrow up to $7,500 at an interest rate of five per cent. While commodity prices were high at the end of the war, the ensuing depression resulted in their collapse. Saddled with loans they could not hope to repay, half of the 24,709 soldier-settlers abandoned their farms.

In Manitoba, the provincial government’s sole contribution to returning soldiers was to offer property-tax relief.

The high level of unemployment was a contributing factor to many of the returned soldiers — primarily non-commissioned soldiers — supporting the Winnipeg General Strike of May-June 1919. It is estimated that 85 per cent of the veterans were sympathetic to the strike. Other veterans blamed “aliens” for their inability to find gainful employment.

To address the complaints of returned soldiers, new veterans organizations were formed, including the Great War Veterans Association, which was established at a national convention in Winnipeg in April 10-13, 1917. The GWVA, which was originally a Winnipeg-based organization, billed itself as the “advanced guard” of the returning Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

During the convention, the Free Press reported Major G.W. Purney of Halifax, the Dominion association president, said the “members would also conduct themselves in a manner which would warrant any sympathy which the people of Canada may extend to them.”

Throughout the convention, the common refrain was that the GWVA required public support to become successful and help ex-servicemen.

With an initial membership of 20,000, a year after its formation and with labour unrest erupting across the nation, the GWVA claimed 200,000 members across Canada. The aim of most of the post-war organizations, including the GWVA, was to pressure the government to promote job preference for veterans and to increase pensions for soldiers, widows of soldiers and those disabled while fighting overseas.

Among the major items sought was a one-time pension payment of $2,000 for each Canadian Expeditionary Force veteran who had served overseas, However, Borden’s Union government simply ignored this demand. At the time, veterans’ benefits amounted to 21.3 per cent of government expenditures and Borden refused to add to this total. In fact, the program would have cost the government $1 billion, which would have been nearly half of the existing $2-billion national debt.

The GWVA and the other smaller associations were largely unsuccessful in swaying the government into giving more benefits to veterans, which resulted in a move to establish a nationwide organization encompassing all ex-servicemen. The GWVA was also involved in a controversy involving the Poppy Fund introduced in 1921 as a fund-raiser for French and Belgian war orphans. The cash-strapped GWVA used the Poppy Fund to help finance its work for pension claimants and provide relief to veterans. 

At one meeting, the Poppy Day Commmittee addressed so many cases of men seeking money to augment the relief they were receiving from the city that it expended its entire budget of $3,000. 

“In turn, a hostile (Canadian) Senate turned the Poppy Fund into a political scandal that helped discredit the Great War Veterans and bring on the Canadian Legion in 1925,” according to historians Morton and Granatstein in their book, Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-19.

A June 29, 1925, report in the Free Press said the Senate accused the GWVA of “profiteering” through the sale of poppies. At their annual convention in Ottawa, GWVA delegates claimed every cent collected during Poppy Fund campaigns went directly to returned soldiers and their dependents.

During a Senate inquiry, the GWVA accused other veterans’ organizations of entering into a conspiracy to denounce the association. Meanwhile, the other organizations denied the accusation, which was essentially true.

The political nature of the inquiry resulted in scathing testimony against the GWVA and its leadership. Witnesses said the GWVA had a “quasi-monopoly” on the sale of poppies and that in three years the organization had profited to the tune of $25,313.

A June 19, 1925, Free Press editorial, entitled The GWVA and the Senate Inquiry, said any profit made was put to good use.

“Other veterans’ organizations desired to come in on the sale in Winnipeg and some other parts of the country, and they did so. The Dominion command, the provincial command and the locals of the GWVA all made a profit ... that was the object of the plan, the money being used for the benefit of ex-servicemen and dependents.”

The GWVA said the Poppy Fund program to help veterans and their dependents was originally their proposal, and they placed the bulk of orders for the poppies with the federal Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment months in advance while guaranteeing payment for all poppies received.

The director of the department said there was no GWVA monopoly as other organizations could also order poppies, although it was more convenient to deal with a single agency such as the GWVA.

The newspaper editorial attributed political motives to the Senate inquiry, citing digruntled former association members and politicians who blocked legislation favouring ex-servicemen as being especially critical of the GWVA. “These are hardly the men to take a leading part in any impartial investigation of this kind,” according to the editorial. “Their bias is very evident and their whole performance a rather discreditable one.”

Still, the damage had been done and the GWVA was forced to go along with the call for a new Canada-wide veterans’ organization.

The spokesmen for the new veterans’ organization were the colonels and generals who had led the troops overseas. In November 1925, former CEF officers met at the Marlborough Hotel in Winnipeg to promote the concept of unity among the returned soldiers. Following the First World War, the numerous veterans’ groups lacked cohesion and their efforts to support ex-servicemen were fragmented and mostly ineffective.

“Unity among the war veteran associations of Canada was advanced still another step,” reported the Thursday, November 26, 1925, Manitoba Free Press. “Wednesday afternoon, when the National Unity conference was authorized by a resolution, which was carried by a vote of 35 to 11, to proceed with the selection of a name, the adoption of a constitution and the election of national officers and other necessary business.”

The conference had been promoted by Field Marshall Earl Haig during an earlier visit to Canada. Douglas Haig was the commander-in-chief of all British and Empire troops, including Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, on the Western Front during the First World War. Although a commander of limited professional ability, whose orders led to the bloodletting at the Somme and Passchendaele, Haig was sympathetic to veteran concerns following the war.

One of the Canadian generals fully supporting the national body of veterans was Sir Richard Ernest William Turner, who commanded the Second Canadian Division during the Battle of the Somme. Later, when his competency during the  battle was called into question, Turner was removed from battlefield command and stationed in England to oversee the Canadian troops awaiting transfer to the front. After the war, he was a prominent leader of the GWVA and acted as the chairman of the four-day Winnipeg conference.

Turner suggested at a Toronto meeting in August 1925 that the new organization be called the Canadian Legion of Veterans. 

Besides representatives of the GWVA, the other organizations attending the 1925 National Unity conference in Winnipeg included the Army and Navy Veterans in Canada, the Imperial Veterans in Canada, the South African Veterans, the Canadian National Veterans Guild, the Tuberculosis Veterans, the Grand Army of United Veterans, the Disabled Veterans, the Amputations’ Association of the Great War, the Veterans Civil Service Guild, the Guards’ Association in Canada, the Canadian Legion Victoria Branch, the Naval Veterans Winnipeg, as well as representatives from various unorganized veteran clubs.

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, there were 15 veterans’ groups and a number of regimental associations in Canada representing former servicemen after the First World War.

During a November 25 evening banquet at the Marlborough, with British Columbia Lieutenant-Governor Sir Percy Lake presiding, “unity and its need  was stressed by many of the speakers,” reported the Free Press.

“My policy,” said Brigadier-General W.A. Griesbach, the Dominion president of the Army and Navy Veterans, and a senator opposing the GWVA, although he had once been an association member, “will be directed in so erecting this structure that the soldier may take his proper place in this country.”

By the end of the Winnipeg conference, the decision was reached to name the new body as the Canadian Legion of the British Empire. It was officially incorporated by a special act of Parliament in July 1926. 

In 1960, the organization was renamed the “Royal” Canadian Legion by Queen Elizabeth at the request of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

“The founding of the Royal Canadian Legion is of special meaning and value to all Canadians,” said Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia MP and Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Steven Fletcher, during a special ceremony on November 28, 2009, at the Marlborough Hotel, designating the establishment of the Legion as an event of national historic significance on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The designation as a national historic event falls under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada.

“Founded on the twin pillars of loyalty and comradeship,” said Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who is the minister responsible for Parks Canada, “the Legion’s primary purpose since its creation has been to the service of the veteran and the continuation of the memory of those who served.”

Wilfred Edmond, the Dominion president of the Legion, said the tribute was special because it recognizes the active role played by the veteran organization in communities.

The Legion’s value to veterans was soon realized when the War Veterans’ Allowance  Pension Act was amended to make the system fairer, winning financial assistance to thousands who had not been eligible for disability pensions even though they had been incapacitated during war service. In 1933, Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett undertook a massive re-organization of the pension plan, creating a single Canadian Pension Commission with an Appeals Division.

Above all, the government at the urging of the Legion vowed not to repeat the mistakes made during the First World War when Second World War veterans returned to Canada. Veterans of the Second World War received generous benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was created in 1944 to handle repatriation of the troops to Civvy Street. The financial aid given to veterans helped fuel the economic boom in post-war Canada, the antithesis of what happened after the First World War.

Later lobbying by the Legion has led to the War Veterans Allowance Act, the Veterans Charter, the formation of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veteran’s Independence Program and the new Veteran’s Affairs Charter of 2006.

The Legion’s Poppy Fund helps keep the memory of veterans and their sacrifices alive. The Legion also actively promotes housing for veterans and youth sports. With 360,000 members, the Royal Canadian Legion is the largest veterans-based community service organization in Canada, contributing millions of dollars and voluntary hours to help Canadians, especially veterans, seniors and youth.