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They fought for your right to party

Winnipeg’s legions seek young hipsters in a battle for survival

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Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press

Server Janice Kennedy cleans a table at the St. James Legion on Portage Ave.

Spend any time at the St. James Legion and you’ll eventually get invited to a luncheon.

The Portage Avenue legion is typical — an architectural abomination of Brutalist stucco that hides one of the friendliest bars in Winnipeg, where Saturday afternoon meat draws inevitably end in a round of jokes with the folks at the next table and an invite to the next legion event.

LEGION GEMS

St. James Branch #4 – 1755 Portage Ave.

A busy lounge with line-dancing several nights a week and regular poker, darts and pool tournaments. Check out the copy of the act of military surrender on the wall, signed by all the allied and German commanders, May 8, 1945. And order some pub food from Ken’s kitchen, which is very good.

Winnipeg Polish Canadian Branch #246 – 1335 Main St.

Come for the Polish beer, stay for the Tina Turner karaoke. This legion’s bar is a little smaller and about 80 per cent Polish, with portraits of that country’s national heroes on the wall. There are also, on a good day, four kinds of Polish beer. A taste of the old North End.

Winnipeg Branch #1 - 626 Sargent Ave.

Canada’s first legion, it’s a little rougher around the edges but super-friendly. It’s got an Alpine ski-lodge feel on the main floor, complete with big chandeliers. Be sure to check out the small memorial to Tommy Prince, one of Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldiers. The legion’s real gem, though, is the basement hall, with its round, brown pleather banquettes and vintage lights. If Don Draper was a member of the Elks Lodge, this is where he’d go.

Norwood St. Bonface Branch #43 - 134 Marion St.

You can play shuffleboard and have a few cheap beers here, but the real gem is the secret museum upstairs, which has rows of uniforms, local military photos, vintage war posters and medals. It also has the comforting smell of your great aunt’s basement rec room. Ask to see it, or pop by on a Wednesday afternoon, when you can meet the collectors.

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So far, only a couple of Winnipeg’s 18 legions have been discovered by hipsters, to the dismay of many volunteers struggling to keep the gathering places alive as many veterans pass on.

The Army, Navy Air & Force Club on River Avenue, known as Club 60, was among the first to relax its rules, and hosts an excellent karaoke night favoured by the Osborne Village crowd. The legion in the Exchange District is also on the cusp of coolness. And, a lively and talented group of young swing dancers take over the small basement hall of the South Osborne Legion every Saturday night. In exchange for the free space, the swing dancers volunteer to sell poppies for Remembrance Day.

There are several other legion gems in Winnipeg waiting, a little desperately, to be discovered by the next generation as more than just a cheap place to throw a social.

Hit especially hard by the indoor smoking ban, legions are struggling to survive. Membership in Manitoba has dwindled steadily and is half of what it was 20 years ago. The new generation of vets, those who served in Afghanistan, have shied away. Rows of VLTs have helped keep legions afloat, but there is frequent talk of amalgamating some of Winnipeg’s many branches. Only an infusion of youth will keep the veterans clubs, with all their history and public service, solvent.

"That’s what we’re looking for," said Norwood St. Boniface Legion president Faye Mitchell, taking a seat near her legion’s fallow pool tables one Saturday night. "We need to change the dynamics here."

Most legions are trying hard. There are the old-time dances at Mitchell’s branch, where dozens of seniors abandon their rum and cokes while they pack the dance floor. There’s the relaxed poker tournaments at the Fort Garry Legion. There’s line-dancing lessons, dart leagues and, of course, the traditional meat draws.

But the St. James Legion might be the best example of the real attraction — insanely cheap beer served in jerk-free surroundings where the authentically funky 1960s vibe has been perfectly preserved.

The St. James branch boasts tartan felt walls and moody red plastic sconces that wouldn’t be out of place in a Swedish design museum. And, beer is half the price charged by some downtown dance clubs.

"When young people come in, they can’t get over it that a bottle is $3.60 and a paralyzer is $6.75," said server Janice Kennedy, her old-fashioned metal change dispenser hanging from her waist. "They’re, like, ‘Really?’ "

Most weeknights at St. James are just busy enough, but Saturday night dances are still a huge draw, depending on which band is booked.

"If you’re not here by seven on a Friday or Saturday night, you don’t get a seat," said Bud Hawkins, a longtime member of the St. James branch.

Hawkins, and most legion members, know young people are intimidated by the rules, most of which are long gone. Anyone can buy an annual membership to a local legion for roughly $40. You don’t have to be a veteran or even related to one. And if you don’t have a membership, you just sign in at the door, much like everyone used to do at the popular King’s Head Pub.

The only other rules are old-school ones involving respectful dress. No tube tops. No muscle shirts. No hats. Folks can be pretty gruff about the no-hat rule because it’s a sign of respect to the veterans.

Legions are also a chance to interact with veterans. Kennedy said the old-timers at the St. James branch are often thrilled to chat with young people about their overseas service, the history of the Canadian Forces and anything else that comes up.

In fact, staff at the Polish Legion on Main Street say if you drop by just before noon on a Wednesday, you’ll run into one of the city’s few remaining Second World War veterans, who pops in for one or two beers once a week, like clockwork.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Find your local legion

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