Incorporated by an act of Parliament, the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Services League was formed in 1926. Renamed in 1960, the Royal Canadian Legion claimed 300,000 members and 1,400 Branches in 2016.
The Legion is best known for its annual Remembrance Day red poppy campaign, which it has a monopoly over distributing. Originally sponsored by the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment in 1922, today about 20 million poppies are sold in the lead-up to November 11. But, poppies abound year-round since the Legion partnered with the Royal Canadian Mint to produce millions of 25-cent coins with a red poppy on them.
Remembrance Day poppies were inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian army officer John McCrae. The pro-war poem calls on Canadians “take up our quarrel with the foe” and was used during the First World War to promote war bonds and recruit soldiers.
Today poppies commemorate Canadians who have died at war. Not being commemorated are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in the 2000s or the Iraqis and Serbians killed in the 1990s or the Koreans killed in the 1950s or the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that. By focusing exclusively on ‘our’ side Remembrance Day poppies reinforce a sense that Canada’s cause is righteous.
In the mid-2000s the Legion battled Canadian War Museum historians over an exhibition about the WWII allied bomber offensive. After shaping its development, the Legion objected to a small part of a multifaceted exhibit, which questioned “the efficacy and the morality of the ... massive bombing of Germany’s industrial and civilian targets.” With the museum refusing to give the veterans an effective veto over its exhibit, Legion Magazine called for a boycott. The Legion’s campaign led to hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and a new display that glossed over a bombing campaign explicitly designed to destroy German cities. It also led to the director of the museum, Joe Guerts, resigning.
The Legion also successfully pressured the CBC. It participated in a campaign to block the three-part series The Valour and the Horror from being rebroadcast or distributed to schools. The 1992 CBC series claimed Canadian soldiers committed unprosecuted war crimes during World War II and that the British-led bomber command killed 600,000 German civilians. The veterans groups’ campaign led to a Senate inquiry, CRTC hearing and lawsuit, as well as a commitment from CBC to not rebroadcast The Valour and the Horror without amendments.
While its core political mandate is improving veterans’ services, the Legion has long advocated militarism and a reactionary worldview. In the early 1930s it pushed for military build-up and its 1950 convention called for “total preparedness”. In 1983 its president, Dave Capperauld, supported US cruise missiles tests in Alberta and into the early 1990s the Legion took “an uncompromising stand on the importance of maintaining a strong Canadian military presence in Europe through NATO, and by supporting the United States build-up of advanced nuclear weapons.”
The Legion has also espoused a racist, paranoid and pro-Empire worldview. In the years after World War II it called for the expulsion of Canadians of Japanese origin and ideological screening for German immigrants. A decade before WWII, reports Branching Out: the story of the Royal Canadian Legion, “Manitoba Command unanimously endorsed a resolution to ban communist activities, and provincial president Ralph Webb … warned that children were being taught to spit on the Union Jack in Manitoba schools.”
Long after the end of the Cold War the organization remains concerned about “subversives”. Legion members have to sign a statement that begins: “I hereby solemnly declare that I am not a member of, nor affiliated with, any group, party or sect whose interests conflict with the avowed purposes of the Legion, and I do not, and will not, support any organization advocating the overthrow of our government by force or which advocates, encourages or participates in subversive action or propaganda.”