Chilliwack’s oldest branch of the Royal Canadian Legion is closing its doors and lowering the flag this week.
But when that flag is lowered, another will soon be raised.
The last day of operation for Chilliwack Branch 4 is Friday, Sept. 10, but its members aren’t going very far. They’re moving south to the Vedder Golden Branch 280 – their new temporary home for the next two years.
The move comes as part of an amalgamation between the two branches. They’ve been talking about it for the past five years as membership has dwindled and costs to keep two branches open in Chilliwack has become more challenging, especially during COVID.
“The best thing was to get the two branches together so that we could be one strong legion and lead the community,” said Sharon Churchill, president of Branch 4.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Krista Smith, president of Branch 280. “They’re upset, we’re upset but it’s the only way we’re going to survive past about 10 years.”
They’re dropping the branch numbers 4 and 280, and will soon be known as Chilliwack-Vedder Branch 295. Eventually, Branch 295 will move out of the Vedder Golden building on Vedder Road and into a new home together.
Before they become 295, the members of Branch 4 will be saying goodbye to their legion, some of whom have called it home for decades. A branch closing ceremony with a lowering of the flag will happen on Friday, Sept. 10.
“I hate to see it come to an end,” said 88-year-old veteran George Smith (no relation to Krista Smith). “I love it. I’m going to miss it terribly.”
He’s been a member of Branch 4 for 60 years. He’s a past president and has been actively involved in the legion for all those years.
“I’m going to be pretty upset (on Sept. 10), but I have to accept it,” he said.
He smiled and laughed when asked about the memories he has of Branch 4.
“I was president from ’85 to ’90. I was the president that locked the union out… it had to be done. I love going out with the poppy campaign, I enjoy doing that every year.”
Now he’ll be joining his fellow members as they come together to continue to bring fundraisers like the poppy campaign to people in Chilliwack.
It’s not just veterans that the legion helps out.
They donate to the RCMP, Chilliwack Fire Department, Meals on Wheels, Chilliwack Salvation Army Food Bank, the Alzheimer’s Society of BC (Chilliwack Chapter), hockey teams, dragon boat teams, Chilliwack Hospital Foundation, Chilliwack Hospice, the BCSPCA and more. They also hand out student bursaries, and donate to the air cadets, sea cadets and army cadets.
All of these donations will soon be coming from Branch 295.
“People still have that misconception that this is only for military people. Anyone can join. It’s about supporting veterans, families and community. We do a lot for this community that aren’t veterans,” Krista Smith said.
Over the past five or so years, membership has declined at both branches. In 2016, Branch 280 had about 1,000 members and now they’re at about 550. Branch 4 currently has about 230 members.
It was a long and difficult decision to amalgamate, but the vast majority of the members voted for it. From Branch 280, 97 per cent were in favour, while over at Branch 4, 95 per cent were in favour. As part of that vote, both branches also agreed to sell their buildings and move to a neutral site.
The current legion buildings are too big for what is needed. The layout is not ideal at either branch with the kitchens at different levels from the main dining areas at both branches. Parking is an issue, as is accessibility, especially for those with mobility issues.
Both branches sold their buildings within months of each other this past spring. Branch 4 has to hand over the keys at the end of September while the Vedder Legion has made an agreement with the new owner to stay in their building until Dec. 31, 2023.
Once the Branch 4 members move in to the current Branch 280 location at 5661 Vedder Rd., it will be the temporary home of the new Chilliwack-Vedder Branch 295. They have until the end of 2023 to find a new home.
In the meantime, they have a lot of work ahead of them as the two branches merge bank accounts, email accounts, licensing, lottery and gaming, HST/GST and other business accounts. There’s the coming together of a new executive, ladies auxiliary and poppy committee.
The folks at Branch 280 also want to ensure the Branch 4 members feel welcome when they move in.
“They need to feel like they’re at home, they need to feel comfortable. That’s why we’re asking them to pick what’s most important to you so that we’re making sure we’re displaying it prominently so they can feel at home,” Krista Smith said.
Branch 4 was the first, and for a long time the only, Royal Canadian Legion branch in Chilliwack. It’s been around since 1926. The Vedder Golden Branch 280 opened its doors in 1976. They’re celebrating their 45th anniversary on Sept. 25.
And what about Remembrance Day?
“Every cenotaph in the country has to be attended on Remembrance Day,” Krista Smith said, adding that they are working on having a colour party at each cenotaph on Nov. 11.
But before members of the legion gather for Remembrance Day, many will be gathering this week to bid farewell to 95 years at Branch 4.
The closing ceremony and lowering of the flag at Branch 4 (9350 Mary St.) takes place on Sept. 10 at 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome and people are asked to be there closer to 10 a.m.
“There’s going to be a lot of sad people and I’ll be one of them, too,” Churchill said. “It’s sad, but yet it’s happy because we’re going to be together as one strong legion to serve the City of Chilliwack.”
Annual membership fees are $55 per person. Anyone can join. To sign up, call Steve Hames at 604-703-9032, or call the branch at 604-858-3600 and leave a message.