“I really want to be there for the ward and help as much as possible and show them we care about our veterans and the ward,” said the branch president
Julie Hlibka moved to Aurora four years ago and doesn’t really know anyone.
Shortly after unpacking, the neighbors took her to the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion for dinner. As soon as she walked through her doors on Industrial Parkway North, she was impressed by the warm and welcoming members and people and immediately felt fit.
She is now an active member of the Aurora Legion’s Ladies Auxiliary and part of the changing face of the Royal Canadian Legion. In the words of Branch President Lori Hoyes, it is not “a club for old men to sit and drink,” but rather a community hub with something for everyone.
This year, Branch 385 of the Royal Canadian Legion is celebrating 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 that they mark their milestone much more calmly than hoped, they look back at their origins and final location as soon as they can fully open their doors again.
Branch 385, now named after the recipient of the Victoria Cross, Col. Fred Tilson, was founded in 1946 by a group of 200 local veterans.
In the beginning, regular meetings were held in the Aurora Armory in Town Park. A permanent home was built on Yonge Street in the early 1950s for $ 30,000.
As their numbers grew, it was clear by the late 1960s that their new home had served its purpose, especially from a parking standpoint, and their new home on Industrial opened its doors in 1974.
“This is a major milestone,” says former President Rick Preston. “The Legion is doing so much in the community that unfortunately many people don’t understand. It even took me a while to understand that because I’m a third generation Legionary, my mom is a past president and my dad worked here forever, but I actually only joined in to play horseshoes. As I grew, I needed 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 have a great person in Lori because she is very connected to the community and has brought us a step closer to the community than we may have been in previous years. “
Indeed, that is how Hoyes defines her mandate. Part of the Legion’s mission, she says, is to reach out to the community and support volunteering. She underlines this principle to every new member when they are sworn in.
“I like to get the community involved,” she says. “The Legion used to be a social center. If you go to a lot of smaller towns, the Legion is a social hub. Everyone goes there for their wedding, for funerals, everything. Since Aurora is a pretty big city it doesn’t have the same impact, but I really want to be there for the community and help as much as possible and show them that we care about our veterans and the community too.
“For me personally, because I have two sons in the military, I just want to reach out to the younger generation of the military and show them that the Legion isn’t just a club for old men to sit around and drink. 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 … we are here to support them. “
Everyone joins the Legion for different reasons.
For longtime branch member Trevor Stephens, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force between 1964 and 1978, the Legion is as much a social experience as it is a continuation and reflection of his service.
As a member of the Legion’s Color 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 began, and unfortunately we don’t have that camaraderie,” says Stephens, who comes from a long line of service employees.
Other members, including Bill Miedema and Ed Marshall, work hard behind the scenes to secure the Legion’s future.
The two men volunteered to renovate the Legion Hall, a banquet facility that was popular as gatherings were allowed but underutilized and shows their age.
“This facility has been well used and many people have appreciated what the Legion has to offer,” says Miedema. “We feel like this: if the job needs to be done, if we can volunteer for the job, that’s what we should be doing, and we like to do it because the Legion is there for us. The Legion has repaid us many times and in many ways. It is a place to be friends, meet friends, make new friends, get out lonely people and have a good night. The Legion has a lot to offer and we are grateful for that. “
Only time will tell when the Legion can reopen at full capacity, and until then a real celebration of its 75th anniversary will have to wait. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to predict that COVID is behind us and planning for the 80th.
“We want to make sure we remember not just the veterans of the past but those who serve today,” says member Claude Arcand. “As a teacher, I’ve had at least six students who went into the military over the years, and I believe these people should feel just as welcome as those who served 60 to 75 years ago.”
Preston added, “We want the Legion to be more at the forefront of people’s thoughts (in 2026). We definitely have to work on that: we have to let people know that we are here, that we are open, that all kinds of activities are happening and that we are a hub for the community. “
Hoyes sums it up: “I want us to be still here, still relevant, and continue to support the community.”
Brock Weir is a federally funded reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative at The Auroran