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Kitsilano war veterans' legion fights for survival

An association that brings together war veterans in one of Canada’s most expensive neighbourhoods is struggling to pay its taxes….

By Jenna Owsianik , in City , on December 2, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

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Members gather for drinks and conversation at the legion's weekly meat draw

An association that brings together war veterans in one of Canada’s most expensive neighbourhoods is struggling to pay its taxes.

The City of Vancouver has so far not taken action to recover the funds, but people who run the Billy Bishop Legion, a branch of The Royal Canadian Legion, are not taking any chances.

“We have never been able to make our tax payment on time,” said branch President Derek Allen, referring to the last three years.

Vancouver does not offer tax breaks for veterans’ associations, unlike other municipalities. The 60-year-old Billy Bishop owes $20,000 in property taxes for 2009 and it still hasn’t paid off last years bill.

Overdue payments in addition to interest and penalty charges put the legion at risk.

“We saw a perfect storm this summer when we were aggressively paying the taxes off and we were still making a little bit of money,” said Treasurer Ted Ross.  Membership dried up during the hot summer months and an economic slowdown left the legion scraping by.

With an average of 400 members who pay a $60 annual fee, only a small percentage of members are active at the legion. Their dues are insufficient to sustain the building, and the legion is restricted from tapping into charitable funds.

Monies collected for the annual Poppy Campaign must go directly to the Poppy Trust Fund.

The legion holds a weekly meat draw, but most of the money collected must be donated to charity under provincial gaming regulations.

The legion raised $200,000 for the Poppy Campaign in the last three years. It also raises money for the veterans’ ward at the University of British Columbia Hospital, cadets, sick children and a dog training organization for the blind.

Defending the home front

“Lots of legions have closed because they no longer can keep in operation,” said Allen. He explained they lack the necessary resources to continue because they are unsuccessful in recruiting young members while many veterans are aging and dying.

Linda Sawyer, executive director of the BC/Yukon Command of The Royal Canadian Legion, said the Vancouver legions face particular “hardship” because of high property taxes. Vancouver’s Charter does not qualify the legions for tax exemptions unlike legions in North Vancouver.

The people who run the Billy Bishop are working to get an exemption from the City of Vancouver.

For the time being the Billy Bishop Legion remains standing at 1407 Laburnum Street
For the time being the Billy Bishop Legion remains standing at 1407 Laburnum Street

“We are trying to get an appointment to talk to the mayor,” said Valerie Merrett, the branch’s Poppy Chairman.

The city can apply to the provincial government to amend the charter and give tax relief to veterans’ organizations.

Merrett said the city is resisting making this change because it would then have to exempt all types of charitable organizations.

Allen is not taking any chances. In case the legion cannot find a way to pay, he’s established a non-profit society called Kits Point Military History Museum Society.

The idea is to be able to accept charitable donations, so the Society can accept money to put towards the operation of the legion. If the legion is forced to close he would transfer the collection of war memorabilia to the Society.

The cost of closing

“It would be devastating,” said Merrett about the possibility of the Billy Bishop Legion closing. She met her husband, Bert, a 90-year-old World War Two veteran, at the branch 30 years ago.

This place has been the center of their social life ever since. Bert even has a post named after him. It’s a wooden beam next to the piano. The two of them visit regularly to sit around the piano and reminisce with friends.

The majority of members are children of World War Two veterans and seniors. Groups join together for drinks and listen to live music in the downstairs English-style pub where hundreds of military plaques cover the walls. Upstairs is a rental hall used for dancing, yoga classes and child-care.

“For the older people I think that would be a loss to them in terms of comradeship,” said longtime member and Treasurer Ted Ross. “It’s sort of a community in there and I think for the older community it will be difficult for them to go to an alternative,” he added.

Legions in other municipalities receive more support because they are a focal point of the community. They also don’t have to compete for membership with other organizations, continued Ross.

“Whereas in a city like Vancouver, there’s 6 or 7 legions plus a bunch of veterans’ organizations, army, navy clubs, things like that,” Ross added.

On Sept. 15 the Billy Bishop Legion started a “media blitz” campaign and recruited 150 new members.

“We have active members who are active in Afghanistan right now, when they come home they have a place where they can communicate with people who recognize the sacrifice they are giving,” said Ross.

Legion members insist the role the Billy Bishop plays is important in Kitsilano. “It does not make sense for the city to insist we pay heavy taxes,” said Allen. “If we close, will the city step up?”

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