Julie Hlibka moved to Aurora four years ago not really knowing anybody.
Shortly after unpacking, neighbours took her out to dinner at the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. As soon as she walked through their doors on Industrial Parkway North, she was struck by the warm and inviting members and people and immediately felt a fit.
Now an active member of the Aurora Legion’s Ladies Auxiliary, she’s part of the changing face of the Royal Canadian Legion. It’s not, in the words of Branch President Lori Hoyes, “a club for old men sitting around drinking,” but a community hub offering something for everyone.
This year, Branch 385 of the Royal Canadian Legion celebrates its 75th anniversary.
In an ordinary year, it would be an occasion for a whole program of public celebrations, but this is not an ordinary year. Now, as they mark their milestone in a much quieter fashion than they had hoped, they’re looking back on where they have come from and where they ultimately want to be once they’re able to fully open their doors again.
Branch 385, now named after Victoria Cross recipient Col. Fred Tilson, was founded in 1946 by a group of 200 local veterans who were members of the North York Vets and the Retuned Veterans of Aurora.
At its inception, regular meetings were held in the Aurora Armoury at Town Park but a permanent home was built in the early 1950s on Yonge Street at a cost of $30,000.
As their numbers swelled, it was clear by the late 1960s that their new home had served its purpose, particularly from a parking standpoint, and their new home on Industrial opened its doors in 1974.
“This is a huge milestone,” says Past President Rick Preston. “The Legion does so much in the community which, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand. It even took me a while to understand that because I am a third-generation Legion member, my mother is a past president and my dad worked here forever, but I actually just joined to play horseshoes! As I evolved, I got to understand what the Legion is about, how much we help the veterans, the youth and the community.
“It’s a great organization and I wish more people knew about it. We’ve got a great person in Lori because she is very connected to the community and it has brought us leaps and bounds closer to the community than maybe we were in years gone by.”
Indeed, this is how Ms. Hoyes defines her mandate. Part of the Legion’s mission, she says, is to reach out to the community and support volunteerism. She underscores this principle to each new member when they are sworn in.
“I like to engage the community,” she says. “The Legion used to be a social hub. If you go to a lot of the smaller towns the Legion is a social hub. Everybody goes there for their wedding, for funerals, everything. Because Aurora is quite a bigger Town, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but I really want to be there for the community and help out as much as we can and show them that we care for our veterans and also for the community.
“For me personally, because I have two sons in the military, I just want to reach the younger generation of military people as well and show them that the Legion is not just a club for old men sitting around drinking; we want to show them that we can support them and show them that through our Poppy Fund and other programs, scholarships for children of veterans or veterans themselves…that we’re here to support them.”
Everybody joins the Legion for different reasons.
For long-time Branch member Trevor Stephens, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force between 1964 and 1978, the Legion is as much of a social experience as it is a continuation and reflection of his service.
As a member of the Legion’s Colour Guard, he is a familiar face at local ceremonies where he proudly carries the flag in parade.
“We haven’t been able to do anything since the pandemic started and, unfortunately, we don’t have that camaraderie,” says Stephens, who comes from a long line of servicepersons.
Other members, including Bill Miedema and Ed Marshall are working hard behind the scenes to secure the Legion’s future.
The two men have been volunteering their time to renovate the Legion Hall, a banqueting facility that, while popular when gatherings were allowed to take place, was underused and showing its age.
“This facility has been well used and a lot of people have appreciated what the Legion has to offer,” says Mr. Miedema. “Our feeling is this: that when the work has to be done, if we can volunteer to do that work, it is what we should do and we enjoy doing it because the Legion is there for us. The Legion has paid us back many times and in many ways. It is a place for friends to be, to meet friends, to make new friends, for lonely people to come out, and it makes for an enjoyable night. The Legion has a lot to offer and we’re grateful for it.”
Only time will tell when the Legion will be able to re-open at full capacity and, until that time, a true celebration of their 75th anniversary will have to wait. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead to COVID being behind us and planning for the 80th.
“We want to make sure not only do we remember the veterans of the past, but also remember those who are serving today,” says member Claude Arcand. “As a teacher, over the years I had at least six students who ended up going into the military and I believe these people should feel as welcome as those who served 60 – 75 years ago.”
Adds Mr. Preston: “We want the legion to be more at the forefront of people’s minds [in 2026]. That is definitely something we have to work on: letting people know that we’re here, that we’re open, there’s all kinds of activities going on and that we’re a hub for the community.”
Ms. Hoyes sums it up: “I want us to still be here, still be relevant, and continuing to support the community.”
Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran