Losing members at home, Royal Canadian Legion opens new branch in Mexico

N.W.T., Royal Canadian Legion.The Royal Canadian Legion, which has been losing members steadily as older veterans die and younger ones appear uninterested in joining, has a small piece of good news to celebrate.

It's opened a new legion branch — in Mexico.

The branch at Lake Chapala, so new it doesn't show up yet on the legion's list of branches, opened officially this week with Canada's consul-general in the state of Guadalajara in attendance.

Branch 182 has 45 members, according to the legion's news release.

"The fact that through your branch we have now expanded the Legion's presence into Mexico speaks to the vitality of the Legion through active members in the Lake Chapala community," Dominion president Gordon Moore said.

The legion says it has about 1,450 branches, including two in Europe (Germany and the Netherlands) and three in the United States.

But the legion's membership figures to the end of October show a decline in numbers. Last year's paid membership totalled more than 332,000 but it was down to just under 315,000 this October.

Almost 70 legion branches have closed since 2006, the National Post reports, though a new branch opened in Pasadena, Nfld., in 2008, the first in more than 30 years.

The headquarters of a thriving branch in Regina, whose building was officially opened in 1951 by then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is being partially torn down to be replaced by a parking garage, the Regina Leader-Post reports. Part of the building will remain as a museum.

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So the new Mexican branch is welcome news.

"The American Legion have two branches here," says Frank Corbeil, who served three years with the Canadian airborne medical corps in the early 1960s, according to the Post. "The Americans were doing lots of activities and they would involve us, just to be nice, but we felt we wanted our own legion.

"We wanted to focus on the things that were important to Canadians — Canada Day, Remembrance Day — and we wanted to be active in this community without simply being an adjunct to the Americans."

Corbeil's wife Mary Beth, who goes by the name Sam, is the new branch's president. She and her husband, a retired Calgary teacher, moved to Lake Chapala from their first retirement home in Victoria four years ago.

"This is a very folksy place," Frank Corbeil says. "It is like a step back in time. People here are very friendly, and for me there is a fascination with the Spanish language, and that really got me hooked."

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"Chapala has the second largest population of Canadians outside of Canada, after Florida," Sam Corbeil says. "There had been a move, in recent years, to see what the potential for starting a legion was."

The new Mexican branch doesn't have a bricks-and-mortar presence in Chapala.  Members meet every second Friday at Bar Tomas, a local watering hole owned by a pair of Canadian ex-pats, the Post says.

The branch has a handful of American vets as members and it's also open to retired Mexican soldiers, though none have joined so far.