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McMurray Branch 165 honours the fallen, gets ready for revitalization

RCMP and Army Cadets participate in this year's ceremony at the legion.

McMurray Branch 165 had its busiest day of the year, with the public, veterans and members of the RCMP, fire department and others gathering for Remembrance Day. About 150 people watched as Army Cadets stood guard around the cenotaph outside, and more people made their way indoors after the branch’s ceremony at MacDonald Island Park.

“I joined the Air Force to travel and learn a trade and I did just that,” says 79-year-old Dick Nash, who trained as a radio technician. “I’m proud of the five years I had in the Air Force, so that’s one of the reasons I come here too. I have to admit, when I got out of school I didn’t even know you had to work. I was pretty dumb hey.”

In 1953, the Vernon B.C. native  joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, just days before the Korean War ended. He lived and worked across Canada and spent time in France. When Nash ended his military service in 1958 he couldn’t find a job where he was based in Vancouver. On his last $50, Nash bought a one-way ticket to Edmonton after seeing an ad in the paper. He eventually moved to Fort McMurray where he worked as a radio technician for oilsands companies. Although he gives thanks and pays his respects, Nash says he lost interest in the local branch. He cancelled his membership about 15 years ago.

“You come here on a regular day and there’s almost no one here and they can’t operate a bar or a kitchen with a small crowd,” says Nash. “I don’t think there’s any younger vets belonging to the legion here. You’ve got people coming out of the army, they’ve been in Afghanistan and what not and I don’t see them here. They probably have the same feeling, like why join?”

President Pat Duggan and the Board of Directors have been quietly trying to change that. As part of their business plan, they’ve hired crews for repairs and retrofitting, and they’re hoping for a soft launch for the public and the RMWB next month. Retrofitting started in the upstairs community hall, where Wi-Fi and teleconference capabilities will be installed for groups that need to rent boardroom space.

“Part of our business plan was the whole trying to reduce overhead, so leasing out of the kitchen, upgrading the building” says Duggan.

“We want to be able to show the community and council that their money is being spent as was promised and the legion is reaping some benefits from that. We actually are already now with additional bookings.”

At about the same time last year, the legion was at risk of closing its doors. It was $200,000 in debt, and Alberta-Northwest Territories Legion Command stripped its charter, commissioned an audit and said the building was in disrepair. In the spring Duggan stepped into his role, the legion got its charter back and he presented a new business plan to mayor and council. Members voted unanimously to give a $495,000 grant to the legion.

Now, it’s on its way to reaching an agreement with part owners of Mitchell’s. The pair will be leasing the kitchen and using the brand new stainless steel equipment to prepare menu items and offer catering services. Duggan is meeting with the Fort McMurray Airport Authority this week to sign a deal as an emergency displacement centre. St. John’s Ambulance is looking to move into a proposed 10,000 sq. foot expansion. It’s also working with Communities in Bloom for landscaping which includes a memorial garden at the front of the building.

The board believes the plans will set up the legion for success, but it’s not letting the community service work overshadow the fact that it’s in the business of supporting military personnel and veterans. The legion has helped vets find housing and jobs, and the board is trying to work more with the Helmets to Hardhats program, which helps returning personnel transition into the workforce. Duggan says if the region’s young vets were anything like he was, the legion will need to do more outreach and advertising at work camps.

“I never classified myself as a veteran,” said Duggan. “It actually took someone else to say, ‘well you realize you’re a vet.’”

He was with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and served with the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry when he was sent to Yugoslavia, doing work with the United Nations.

“Some of the[ younger guys] they feel awkward because we’ve all grown up respecting and venerating the veterans of the Korean War or World War Two, World War One, other actions –where it’s odd when you do it yourself. That’s what I volunteered to do, that’s what I was paid by my country to do, I went where my country told me to go. People who are called veterans, they usually never call themselves veterans,” says Duggan.

The branch hopes the renovations will be done sometime in December. Council and the public will be invited to an open house where conceptual drawings for the expansion space will be presented.