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Jack Knox: Veterans' club faces an uphill battle for survival

Aug 02 2012

The room feels like a comfortable old slipper, the kind your dad wore when he smoked his pipe.

Mounted flags and dartboards share wall space with framed pictures of warships and warplanes.

Little round tables, the type that used to be covered in red terry cloth, nudge up against the shuffleboard and pool tables.

But there are "out of order" signs on the keno machines. B.C. Lotteries pulled the plug last week when its bill wasn't paid in full - just one of the cuts threatening to bleed the life out of the oldest veterans' club in the province.

"We've just got to get more people in here or it's going to go down the tubes, and we've been around almost 95 years," says Ed Emerick, president of the Anavets unit on View Street.

The weight of history hangs heavily on the Victoria arm of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada - the lesser-known, but older, cousin of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Having gained its charter way back in 1918, the downtown club is feeling its age.

The old guard has grown grey, not enough new blood flowing in as veterans die off. Most of the 200 members are in their mid-50s through mid-70s. It's hard to attract the younger crowd to a club whose members are less concerned with being hip than breaking one.

Those who remain have been turned off by the music thumping through the ceiling from the upstairs nightclub, whose customers block the Anavets' door as they line up on the sidewalk at night. The insurance went up $1,000 last year after some yobbo on the street broke the front window. The HST hurt. The beer bill looms. So does the rent.

"All these things have built up," says Nancy Arntzen, the club's former manager. "We just scrape by at the best of times."

So they have brought in karaoke, live music, whatever to get some butts in the seats, carry the club through to September when darts season resumes - if the landlord gives them that long.

"We're trying everything we can," says Emerick. He has been a member for 42 years. His father was in for 65. The prospect of severing roots that deep dismays him.

Still, the obvious question in a city where the average nightclub has the lifespan of a fruit fly is why the public should care about another downtown watering hole going dry.

What we forget is how much veterans and service clubs mean - or at least used to mean - to the community. In its heyday, the Anavets club had more than 1,000 members, owned its own three-storey building on Wharf Street, raised enough to join other units in building a veterans' seniors housing complex near Saanich municipal hall.

It's still part of the poppy drive, donates money to the cadets, has supported Women in Need, once bought a truck for Meals on Wheels and just this past March hosted a 50-hour dartathon that raised $20,000 for the Lions. Close a club like that and you pull a thread out of the fabric of the city.

It's the same across Canada, where community groups - the drink-a-beer, flip-a-burger, build-a-playground kind - have been declining for years. The Ottawa headquarters of the Anavets says veterans' organizations in general have been shrinking for the past few decades, though membership levelled out four years ago. Some units, like the one in Sidney, are relatively robust, but many struggle. "Veterans clubs are going to die out if this keeps up," Emerick says.

The Victoria unit has been at 753 View St. since 1987, save for the year after fire swept through the building in 2000. It opens every day at 11 a.m., usually closes well before midnight. (The liquor licence says 1 a.m., but no one stays up that late.) Anyone can join (only half the members are ex-military) and dues range from $40 to $50 a year, which buys familiarity, cheap beer, free pool and anything you want to eat, as long as it's a hot dog.

Longtime members like Emerick and Arntzen think it's worth saving - if only Victorians would walk through the doors and give it a chance while they still can.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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