Veterans and community, Bonnie O’Neill a passionate volunteer

·4 min read

Bonnie O’Neill, 69, does not see herself ever stopping from volunteering with the Royal Canadian Legion to which she has dedicated more than 30 years.

The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 139 service officer and zone commander for the Cariboo was recognized by the organization on Dec. 29 for her unwavering service with a life membership.

“It’s always so nice to be recognized, but of course, you don’t get that on your own,” O’Neill said.

“It might have been all my time and effort that I’m being recognized for but you’re a part of a team, and I’ve been surrounded by wonderful teams for the last 25, 26 years in which I’ve been volunteering there.”

O’Neill grew up outside the small rural community of Minton, Sask. located approximately 144 kilometres south of Regina.

Before she was born, her father had volunteered during the Second World War to serve in the army. While he was of age, he had lied to join as he was a farmer and told he was an essential worker.

However, he never did see combat as he was sent back home after injuring his knee in practice jumping from a plane.

O’Neill said although her father never talked about his experience, she recalled his military memorabilia including his large, heavy, wool coat which would be draped across her and her siblings in the winter as he drove them by horse and sleigh to their one-room school approximately eight miles away from the family farm.

When she was 14-years-old, she had to write an essay on Remembrance Day for a school contest and got her dad, a legion member at the nearby town of Bengough, to open up.

“Standing on that stage, reading out my essay opened up my eyes to how much respect Canadians have for veterans,” O’Neill said.

From that age on, O’Neill said the only Remembrance Day service she missed was in 1970 when she and her first husband moved to Williams Lake. It was that very day they had left Strathmore, Alta. to work at the mills.

She said she was encouraged to become a Legion member by her father as well as William Lake resident Al Blair.

After splitting from her first husband in 1977, O’Neill took up work as a single mother at West Fraser planer for the next 31 years and often found herself attending different legion events.

One of those was a pool tournament in which she was randomly partnered with Blair whom she had got to know through her previous waitressing job at the Chilcotin Inn, where Blair would stop in for coffee from his work at Lake City Ford. Because the tournament was members only, O’Neill said Blair had talked her into becoming a Legion member, which her father called a great organization.

“Once I got into it and picked up it was more than steak nights, dancing and serving meals and cheap beer I started going to the meetings and realized this is all about serving veterans, their families and their communities, and if you want a place that gives you a good feeling that’s the place.”

Over the years, O’Neill would serve numerous roles, including director, second vice-president, first vice-president and president, and deputy zone commander.

She has been Cariboo Zone commander since 2018.

O’Neill currently resides at South Lakeside with her husband, Dennis, whose family has a rich military history. She met him through an ad she placed in the Williams Lake Tribune and calls him a great support.

O’Neill identifies herself as a recovering-alcoholic and said she has been sober for the past 33-years.

“I don’t do it for pats on my back,” she said of volunteering in which is also a member of the Lions Club and is on the executive boards of the Go-Bus Society and United Church. O’Neill is a first aid instructor at Thompson Rivers University and helps fundraise for TRU Williams Lake Grit Gala. As an Emergency Social Services volunteer, she had assisted during the 2017 wildfires in Williams Lake and Kamloops.

“I just do it to be part of a group which has the same goal as me,” O’Neill said.

Rebecca Dyok, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Williams Lake Tribune