Three months of lockdown due to Covid-19 has Royal Canadian Legion branches reeling financially across the Northwest Territories.
John Mahon, president of the Alberta/NWT Royal Canadian Legion Command, oversees 161 branches in Alberta and five in the NWT. He said that his region, like many others across Canada, faces the challenge of making enough revenue to cover costs.
It’s so much of an obstacle that there 19 branches in his region that could close imminently – one of which is in the NWT – if federal supports aren’t made available. He declined to say which NWT branch.
“Covid-19 is the straw that broke the camel’s back. If you take away the revenue stream this is what can happen,” said Mahon.
National media outlets recently reported that 157 of the 1,381 Legion branches across Canada face permanent closure.
The national headquarters of the Royal Canadian Legion has requested financial assistance from the Prime Minister of Canada’s Office at least two times since the pandemic was declared in mid-March.
In a June 3 news release Thomas D. Irvine, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion, stated that federal relief programs for non-profits do not help branches with operational costs incurred as the result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Legion branches also don’t qualify for relief programs available to business. As a non-profit, the branches raise money for veterans, which includes helping them apply for benefits, combat homelessness and support other community initiatives.
Legions also host Remembrance Day ceremonies and school engagements every year on Nov. 11.
“I am angered to see that businesses whose sole purpose is to provide entertainment are getting relief, while our Legion branches, which are literally helping to save lives and improve communities, are struggling with the fear of closure, with no government help in sight,” Irvine stated in the letter. “Without immediate financial relief, the Legion may soon be unable to continue to provide essential services and supports to Veterans and communities across Canada.”
There are currently 1,107 Legion members in the NWT across all five branches. The most are at the Inuvik Legion McInnes Branch 220 with 428, followed by Hay River (218), Fort Smith (186), Yellowknife (182), and Norman Wells (93).
News/North reached out to all branch presidents in four NWT communities recently and all said they face challenging financial circumstances due to the pandemic.
At Hay River Royal Canadian Legion Branch 250, president Vince McKay said the financial impacts from the initial wave of the Covid-19 pandemic have been significant.
The Legion branch reopened to regular operational hours on July 3 for the first time since closing in mid-March.
“It is relevant to our branch and we are impacted huge,” McKay said of the national body’s call for federal funding support. “The big thing for us is our branch itself is small even though we have a large building.
“We are unable to rent out the space and normally we rely on income off rentals with the property. We aren’t able to do that now.”
In normal times, McKay said bingos or for other events book the hall fairly regularly. But these days, times are tough.
“We have a little bit of support and the town is really working with us. Right now we are working on a yearly financial assessment and the (branch) manager is working to see if we can survive.
“We are always tight because it is a non-profit organization and so at the end of the year we shouldn’t have a lot of money in the bank anyway.”
What’s different, McKay said, is that the Legion is unable to make community donations this year because of Covid-19. In 2019, the organization donated $90,000 for various community causes.
This year due to the pandemic, the Legion won’t be able to give anything, McKay said.
Like other Legion branches, he has access to about $19,000 in Poppy Trust money from the National Poppy Campaign, but that money can only go to veterans causes – not to operational costs like heat, water and hydro.
In Fort Smith, which has a slightly smaller membership than Hay River, the Legion is yet to reopen since closing March 17.
“We haven’t opened yet because we are reserving cash and trying to survive,” said branch president Bill Reimer. “We are in the process of trying to get (it open) a couple of days a week.
“With the restrictions up to recently we weren’t able to really have the doors open without spending a lot more money than we were taking in. We have been in the survival mode.”
Reimer said his branch is looking at a possible early-August date to welcome back members but nothing yet has been decided. The biggest fear for the branch is the possibility of a second Covid wave and the need to close again for months.
“(The chance of a second wave) is one of the reasons that we haven’t rushed to open as soon as we could,” Reimer said, adding that the Legion also let its lottery licence lapse so that revenue from pull-tab tickets isn’t available.
Without enough revenue, Reimer said the Legion can’t pay for staff – all of whom have to be rehired – or operating costs.
Tim Melnyk, president of the Norman Wells branch for 15 years, expressed similar fears of not having adequate finances for operations.
He said his branch has long struggled with finances and only in recent years was he able to build cash reserves after years of being in the negative. Much of the revenue comes from bar sales, he said, although there are meat draws and Chase the Ace events that bring in some money, too.
“Covid impacted everyone quite significantly and coming into mid-March we probably had $35,000 in operating funds available,” he said. “Since then, we went as low as $5,000 before we started operating again. So we went through about $30,000.”
Melnyk said he is worried about a potential second wave in the fall as colder months approach. While finances are currently stable, membership is very low and there isn’t the traffic that he would like to see coming into the Legion.
“I’m not concerned right now for our future, but I am concerned about the second wave because if we have to go into the same lockdown as we did before, we don’t have that head of steam (of cash reserves),” he said. “If a second wave hits in September or October, we would have only been open for about three months since the latter part of June. That is two months to build up cash reserves and when we are going at less than 50 per cent capacity. It is hard to build up reserves in that amount of time.
“So if we have to shut down another three or four months it won’t look good going into winter with costs for heat and power and water.”
Melnyk said the branch executive recently discussed possibly shutting down the building in the event that a second wave hits to avoid having to further dip into reserves to cover costs.
“If the second wave came we debated do we keep the power on or ….turn off the boilers and walk away and that way you would only have the bear absolute minimums of costs,” he said.
Matt Millett, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 220 in Inuvik, said he was aware that the regional command had reached out to the territorial government for support and that the federal government is still being asked for help.
“We are OK,” he said. “I think because we are one of the larger branches that we are probably in a lot better shape that other branches.
“When Covid happened, I was comfortable with where I was sitting to get through (the) shutdown but when we see what reopening actually means, if we have to stay at the current seating capacity and restrictions for too long, we could be in financial trouble.”
The Inuvik branch has brought in revenue from weekly Chase the Ace events, which are usually generate huge interest within the community, Millett said.
However, with the maximum seating restrictions lowered to 25 people from 175 formerly, there’s no point in even holding such events now, given the limited number who would be able to participate, Millett said.
“Revenue from ticket sales and per pot cast was at $30,000 a night and we were doing that for quite some time,” he said. “So we had quite a full house every Friday with people drinking and bar sales, revenue was high on Friday, but not now.”
NNSL Media reached out to the office of Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay recently. Cameron McNeill, his media spokesperson, stated that the federal government has met with Royal Canadian Legion representatives in recent weeks, including regarding the request for financial assistance.
“Any non-profit or charity organization that’s providing support to vulnerable populations whose programs and services have been disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis is eligible for the Emergency Community Support Fund,” McNeill stated in an email. “Legions providing support to their communities or to veterans may be eligible for funding.
The minister says that the federal government’s response to the pandemic is ongoing and is open to “exploring ways to ensure that we’re providing Canadians and our community partners with the support they need. We hope to have more to say on this shortly.”