By Anne Boys-Hope –
Moored like a boat at the corner of Richmond Road and Winston Avenue, the Westboro Legion stands out amongst the coffee shops and condominiums that surround it. Not a hot spot for foodies or craft beer drinkers, but a home away from home for veterans and their families and a stalwart contributor to good causes in the community. And in case you’re wondering, they are open to the public.
“We’re part of the neighbourhood. Come in here, have a drink, use the Wi-Fi or play a game of pool for 50 cents. We encourage people to consider this as a possibility,” says legion president and Westboro resident, Doug Cody.
The legion’s spacious bar, which is located on the second floor (accessible by elevator), looks and feels like a British pub. It offers the “cheapest beer prices on the block,” along with pool tables, dart boards, and a gallery of military history. Its main floor meeting room is available to rent for weddings, fundraisers, and other events.
The legion was formed by a small group of veterans in 1948 and was then known as Nepean Branch 480. They met in homes and meeting rooms in the community, eventually purchasing their first property, a barbershop, at 375-381 Richmond Road in 1968. In 1973, they bought and renovated their current location – formerly a grocery store – at 389-391 Richmond Road. (It’s thought that the legion has multiple street numbers in its address because it was originally comprised of multiple buildings.)
The branch was one of many Royal Canadian Legions established by and for veterans after the Second World War. Doug Munroe, past legion president, long-time volunteer, and veteran, saw the need first-hand.
“When the people of the Second and First World War got out of the service, they were dumped on the street. My father was dumped in Halifax. No job and no support,” says Munroe. “So the legion was formed to advocate to the Government of Canada for benefits, and we’re still doing that today.”
Cody, who is also a veteran, says “they had served together for a good cause, and they had a real bond of comradery.”
Today, the legion continues to support veterans, promote remembrance and serve the community. It’s perhaps best known for organizing the annual poppy campaign and Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Westboro Cenotaph. Their ongoing fundraising efforts – from bingo nights to strawberry socials put on by the Ladies Auxiliary – help to support veterans and their families, as well as military organizations like the Military Family Resource Centre, the Perley and Rideau Veteran’s Health Centre, Soldiers Helping Soldiers, along with three local cadet groups.
Their fundraising extends to charitable causes across the community, such as special needs camps for children, Meals on Wheels, CHEO Foundation and the Ottawa Food Bank.
Michael Maidment, Ottawa Food Bank CEO, says the Westboro Legion has been a generous donor since 1997.
“Through trivia nights, kitchen parties, and food raisers for our charity, the Westboro Legion has contributed over $12,000 to provide for the 38,400 people who need emergency food every month in Ottawa,” says Maidment. “I cannot think of another organization that has done so much to support veterans, their families, and the community at large.”
And yet, Munroe says that with declining membership, “most branches, including branch 480, are struggling to get enough volunteers to carry on their work.” Membership peaked in the 1980s at about 800 members. Current membership stands at about 300, and those are mostly non-military members. (Legion membership is open to family members of veterans and to Canadian citizens who support the purposes of the legion.)
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“Branches are suffering, closing, and amalgamating to try to lessen the burden, and this branch isn’t any different,” explains Cody.
They’ve considered selling up and moving, but say that would mean being less accessible and visible to their members and the community. Instead, they say they’ll work to bring in new members while continuing to welcome their regulars.
“There are a number of members who literally walk to this branch. Who once a week enjoy coming up here socializing. It would not be the same in the neighbourhood if we were gone,” says Cody.
“We’re here, and we want to improve our visibility a little bit. We’re hoping to open people’s eyes to the fact that they can walk in the door.”
True to the sign they’ve got posted outside their door: everyone is welcome at the Westboro Legion.
Check the legion’s website at rcl480.com for events celebrating their 70th anniversary.