I met many of them. Most were soldiers or air crew, others were with the navy or merchant marines. Some suffered wounds. All spoke, quietly, of those who did not come home.
They did not always get along after the war, or maybe even during it, yet they got a lot done. As one of them — Flight Lieutenant G R Bohdan Panchuk, OBE, wrote — they were the “heroes of their day.” They set up a Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association, in Manchester, later moving UCSA’s HQ to London, where they ran a club at 218 Sussex Gardens, a “home away from home” for the thousands of Ukrainian Canadians voluntarily serving overseas. That became the nucleus around which a postwar British Ukrainian community formed. It was also where the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau took root, helping Displaced Persons — my own parents amongst them — find asylum, rather than being tossed back into the maws of their Communist foes.
These warriors wanted to perpetuate the fellowship they knew overseas. They were young then – idealistic, able, and willing — and their simple gospel, as Panchuk recorded it in his diary, was “Do something!” They knew interwar Ukrainian Canadian society had been rent between competing religious and political factions. They wanted none of that. These veterans hoped the comradely sentiment — “we’re all in this together” — could be replanted and nurtured “back home.”
At first, they weren’t sure whether it would be better to maintain what they had known, UCSA, or instead join The Royal Canadian Legion. Many recalled encountering prejudice when enlisting, how others mocked them for having “unpronounceable names,” (I can empathize!). But, having proven their loyalty and mettle in battle, they insisted that never again would they accept being dealt with as anything other than the equals of all other veterans, of all other Canadians. So a majority opted for the Legion. They set up Branch #360, in Toronto, on Queen Street West, not then the trendy downtown neighbourhood it is now. They named their post after a First World War hero, Corporal Filip Konowal, whose valour at the Battle of Hill 70, near Lens, France, earned him a Victoria Cross. They would erect trilingual historical plaques honouring him across Canada, then in his home village in Ukraine, and, finally, in France. And thanks to Branch #360’s members Konowal’s long-missing Victoria Cross was recovered. It is now on permanent display in the Canadian War Museum.
When they bought a building they were also prescient. A time would come, they knew, when their ranks would thin, when they would falter, when what they would sow would have to be reaped. So the founders laid plans. They crafted a trust document stipulating that what wealth remained after their passing be dedicated for research, commemorative and educational projects within the Ukrainian Canadian community. They trusted the Legion to honour this testament.
Most of Branch #360’s founders are gone now. The members left were not prepared for the gaggle of Legion bureaucrats who swooped down upon CLUB 360 û Canadian Legion Ukrainian Branch — in June 2005, alleging violations of their charter, padlocking the premises, perhaps hoping to so secure for the Legion’s benefit a building whose location alone makes it a multimillion dollar asset. And so a Ukrainian Canadian community centre that veterans bought, and improved over decades, has stood empty for more than a year. Branch #360’s members still meet, sadly elsewhere. Meanwhile, the memory of all the good Legion work they did fades away, even as they do.
Most other veterans do not know what happened. Legion Magazine has not published a word about Branch #360’s forced liquidation. Have other branches suffered a similar fate? Would other veterans approve of how Branch #360 was treated if they knew? At least the Legion will not soon, if ever, be enriched, for Branch #360’s case is now before the courts. Veterans suing the Legion is how this story will end, no matter the outcome. I doubt that is what anyone fought for.
I have chaffed at the boors who do not stop on Remembrance Day to hallow the fallen. At Vimy Ridge, and elsewhere, I have paused to pray for those who sacrificed their futures for ours. For as long as I can remember I have bought and worn a poppy. And this year you will find me, as always, standing in silence with all who respectfully mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the Great War ended. But if I am wearing a poppy it will only be if I find one that has fallen off someone else’s lapel. I will not put a penny into the coffers of the Legion, for it has broken faith with those who died.
Professor Lubomyr Luciuk remains a member of Branch #360.