Cranbrook's Wandering War Memorial
G.W.V.A. - Cranbrook Chapter
The local chapter of the Great War Veterans' Association was led by men who were politically aware and hardworking. They were also politically sophisticated and not afraid to address an issue publically. These were tough times for soldiers, immediately following WW I, and it took tough men to speak directly to power and wealth.
The first official request for the formation of a returned soldiers group appeared in the November 15, 1917 edition of The Cranbrook Herald. At that point the Great War Veterans' Association had formed about ninety branches across Canada, including ones in Nelson and Fernie. Dominion membership stood at over 25,000 members. R.T. Williams of Cranbrook began to collect names and then called a meeting at the Y.M.C.A. for 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 11, 1917, with the purpose of forming a Cranbrook branch.
With war-weariness setting in and federal debates over the raising of funds necessary to sustain the war, as well as conscription, there was a growing unrest. War casualties were returning home with few facilities or measures to sustain them. Local reports of men killed in action were still appearing in Cranbrook newspapers. Unemployment for returned soldiers was becoming an issue. At the Tuesday meeting a local branch of the G.W.V.A. was formed with R.T. Williams as President and E.B. Offin as Secretary-Treasurer.
The Cranbrook Branch G.W.V.A. moved quickly to build their ranks and establish a Ladies Auxiliary. Dr. F.W. Green was added to the membership roll as Honorary President in January, 1918. Dr. Green was a medical partner of Dr. James Horace King, both Cranbrook physicians. Dr. King sat in the B.C. Legislature for Kootenay from 1916 to 1922 as Minister of Public Works. Then he was called to the federal Cabinet and sat there from 1922 until 1930, first as Minister of Public Works and then as Minister of Health and Minister of Soldiers' Civil Reestablishment. It was clear to many that the Cranbrook Branch had an avenue to political power when it came to the affairs of returned soldiers.
The Ladies' Auxiliary was formed on January 21st, 1918 at an afternoon meeting in City Hall. Mrs. J. Laurie was elected President , with Mrs. J.A. Genest as Vice-President. The fact that the Wartime Elections Act (September 20, 1917) and the Military Voters Act gave the federal vote to wives, sisters and mothers of men serving with the Canadian and British armed forces was not lost on the politically astute G.W.V.A. As well, after a referendum of electors in 1916 the right of women to vote provincially in British Columbia came into effect in 1917. Acting in concert the expanded Cranbrook Branch of the G.W.V.A. quickly assembled a considerable political voice. Needless to say, politically aware as they were, they were willing to use their substantial voting block to further their causes.
Meeting in City Hall and conversing with city officials, it quickly came to be that the City offered the old Royal Hotel to the G.W.V.A. The City had received ownership of the building in early 1918 and had sold the contents to apply against back taxes. The G.W.V.A. became tenants and, eventually took an ownership position in the building and grounds. They continually worked on and invested in the building until, in June of 1926 they sold the property on Cranbrook Street to George Tater and it became the Byng Hotel.
The Cranbrook Chapter was noted for its organizational abilities and its hard work. It supported a steady flow of returned soldiers who were on the tramp through the interior of B.C., looking for work. And they weren't an easy touch. Those looking for help were confronted with a large woodpile and instructed to address that situation before their own would be looked into. The local G.W.V.A. hooked into the parent organization and sent delegates across the country investigating veterans' affairs and attending conferences.
The Cranbrook G.W.V.A. was no shrinking violet when it came to controversy, particularly if the issue involved the rights of returned soldiers or the continuation of the memory of what was given by Canada's fighting men in WW I. They hosted all-candidates meetings where the federal candidates were allowed into the hall one at a time, and questioned by an audience comprised solely of returned soldiers. In November of 1921 the executive engaged in a particularly bitter battle with the Cranbrook school board. The request in front of the Board was the granting of a school holiday on November 11th and the participation of some high school girls in the selling of poppies.
When the requests were denied the G.W.V.A. hit the newspapers. The public rebuke of the Board says, in part: "...the Association feels very keenly the fact that your Board seemed quite unable to realize the significance of the day of all days dearest to the heart of Canadian people, Armistice Day.... To the men who on November 11th walked into the Mons and other places of war-famed memory, this slight from the Board with no consideration for the feeling of those men who made the fear of the German heel of militarism a broken bubble for those who remained at home, is to be very much regretted." And that is the polite part.
The Great War Veterans' Association continued to stir up support for the plight of soldiers and to organize events locally. They became the lead organization in the 24th of May celebrations, the sponsor of one of Cranbrook's most delightful dance nights in the Auditorium, and founded the G.W.V.A. band. And throughout it all they furthered the public representation of the soldier and the memory of Canada's fighting men.
Finally, on July 16th, 1926, the members of the G.W.V.A. Cranbrook branch in an extraordinary general meeting, voted to wind up the affairs of the organization and join the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League. Believing that there was more to be accomplished with a consolidated force, the more than 200,000 members of the G.W.VA. joined with a number of other organizations under the umbrella of the Canadian Legion. The goals remained the same, among others
"To see that their services [Canada's soldiers] generally shall not be forgotten by the nation, and that due attention is paid to their welfare and that of their dependents."