Sunday, December 16, 2007

Looking Back: Some History of the Legion on Commercial Drive

by Lyle Neff

An extremely abridged version of this story ran in '05 in the Vancouver Courier, one of your better neighbourhood papers ya know.

The Royal Canadian Legion was bracing itself, 60 years ago this month, for the return of our surviving boys from the just-closed Pacific theatre of war. Already some of the demobilized had begun trickling in from Europe. Veterans of (mostly) 20th-century battles themselves, the officers of the Legion knew how it worked: occupation and other duties would delay the return of the vast bulk of overseas soldiers, many for years. Best to begin planning right away, then.
Commander RA Bowcott and the other founding members of what's now called the Grandview Branch, or just #179, may have felt a special responsibility, since the Legion was essentially born in British Columbia. (A small group of Imperial veterans over on the Island was calling itself the Canadian Legion by 1917; the Legion proper, which came to unify almost all ex-servicemen's groups in the Dominion, gained its charter in July of 1926.)
Bowcott and his East End comrades swiftly built an organization to prepare for the influx of new veterans. They began by gaining their charter from Pacific Command in August of 1945, at which time meetings were held in the YMCA at Napier and Commercial. Branch 179 bounced around the Drive a bit in the following decades. It grew with each move, until landing in its present, surprisingly sumptuous, hall on the corner of 6th Avenue.
That was where Peter and Barbie Salmon, the married couple who are President and Secretary respectively on the 179 Executive, sat for a talk with the *Courier* on a sunny Saturday recently. Well, Barbie Salmon, an energetic 56-year-old, didn't sit much. She kept jumping up to fetch documents or take care of some bit of business. Peter Salmon, the 59-year-old son of a Royal Canadian Navy soldier, observed that his wife had first caught his eye at the Legion in the late '80s. "She was running around," he laughed, "causing dissension." Mrs Salmon came back and reported an interesting fact, that a former Legion president had owned the old *Highland Echo* newspaper -- predecessor of the *Courier.*
The Grandview Legion on a Saturday afternoon confirmed, in some ways, the stereotype many younger Canadians have of the Legion as a whole. None of those present could've been much under 40; there was a blue haze in the smoking room; war stories were definitely being told. But against the cliché, the barroom was enormous, well-lit and sparklingly clean. Today's Legion is crammed with electronic games, a superb darts area, pool tables and all the other mod cons of a good pub. There's an enormous concert hall upstairs, where straight-edge and underage rock bands play Friday nights, on top of a spring-loaded dance floor. #179 also has an absorbing collection of historical artifacts and signage, some of the pieces being unexpectedly beautiful. Best of all at the Legion, the drinks are cheap and the company is excellent.
For example, talk of the branch's 60th anniversary brought a relevant comment from Dick Storie, a survivor of the bloody conflict in Korea. Alert and determined at 72, Storie reminded us that "the Princess Pats are still out there on the Afghan Whale. And they're shooting." It was a sombre reminder that the Royal Canadian Legion was born in war, that future wars are likelier than not, and that freedom's institutions may be the essential thing that gets us through desperate times. Aside from its many good works for charity (which are legion, as the Salmons will tell you) and its freewheeling social aspect, the Grandview Legion is probably the most serious and necessary of the East End's community establishments. #179 deserves a very good 61st year.

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