By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
CAYUGA—Jeff Hunt knows a thing or two about perseverance. As president of the Cayuga branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, he is currently stewarding the local chapter through the rough waters of the COVID pandemic and the many challenges that come with it.
Hunt grew up in Flamborough before moving to Cayuga in 1999. He is a married father of two and first got involved with the Legion around the time his firstborn daughter was one.
“After we had our baby we were dying to get out of the house. Our neighbours ran a dart league at the Legion. We started playing in the league and that’s how we started getting involved. Most of the executives and the president at the time were all in the dart league,” said Hunt.
During a game one night, other members suggested Hunt and his wife come to a meeting, and 15 years later he is their leader.
“We have quite a friendly group of people. Cayuga is a friendly little town and a lot of people are willing to help. If you ask for it, pretty much everybody will say they can help in one way or another. Some can’t do physical help so they help with driving…. Our small group has maybe 20 to 30 people who volunteer and it’s always the same 20 or 30 people; they’re very willing to help.”
As the current membership ages, the Cayuga branch is facing a problem that existed prior to COVID, but is only more amplified now – declining membership. The branch currently has just over 100 active members.
“We are one of the smallest Legions in our zone, which consists of 10 branches,” explained Hunt. “People think you have to have been a veteran to be a Legion member. I’m not a veteran. Most of my veterans have passed. There are only a couple left and some of the ones that are alive are very old. Some of them have dementia and don’t remember stuff as well as they used to or even come into the Legion anymore.”
“You can come in. Take a look at the place, have a beer, and socialize with the people that are there. The hardest part is getting people to come in the door,” explained Hunt. “People who are members at the Legion are usually people who participate in something that we do like the dart league or pub grub Fridays. Things like that got people involved and made them think they’d like to be a member.”
November is the most important month of the year at the Legion. Along with the ceremonies and customs observed in remembrance, it is also the time of year when the majority of their fundraising is completed through the sale of poppies.
“The Poppy Fund is a trust. All the funds that we get from Remembrance Day and our poppy campaign all goes into an account that we can’t touch unless we apply to use it. If a veteran comes to us and they need assistance, they come to us and we find out if we can use the funds for housing or something along those lines. They need assistance with an elevator or something like that in their homes, we can assist them.”
Hunt mentioned that with unclear guidance, members of his branch feel unsafe about standing and selling poppies this year, leaving them to rely on poppy donation boxes placed on countertops throughout the community. In addition, another source of funding for the Legion came in the form of wreathes paid for by local businesses and typically laid at the cenotaph during the ceremony on November 11.
“It’s pretty hard to tell people that they have to pay money but they can’t lay their wreath. Usually they would pay and then come and lay the wreath, but Legion rules because of COVID means they must be pre-laid this year,” said Hunt. “It may make the Poppy Fund a lot smaller this year.”
With limited options, the Legion will be conducting a much smaller ceremony for 2020.
“On a normal Remembrance Day, we would have about 75 people at the least and between 200-300 students would walk up from the schools. With gathering sizes capped, if we were allowed to do it at our little cenotaph, who do you pick and choose to be part of it?”
“We decided that we will lay our wreaths around our new flagpole in the same formation they would be around our cenotaph. There will be an executive ceremony at 11 o’clock. That way we’re not excluding anybody.”
Hunt went on to mention that there is still an opportunity for Cayuga residents to come pay their respects.
“We’re going to leave our wreathes around the flagpole for about five days. Anybody that would like to come and admire them can. Normally after the ceremony we would have everybody come back to the Legion to celebrate comradeship in our clubhouse, but we’ve had to cancel that part too…. That’s the best we can do during COVID.”
Despite the difficulties this year has presented, Hunt remains passionate about the cause and the role the Legion has to play in the community.
“I think it’s very important to keep the youth and everybody else knowing that Remembrance Day is about honouring our veterans,” he said. “In those terrible wars, so many people died defending us, and the Legion keeps the memories of those people alive so that their sacrifices are not forgotten.”