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Jack Knox: Legion on a mission to find medal-winners' families, but it's a tricky task

Britannia had soldier's medals on display; now that it has closed, legion officials want to return the medals to families
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Royal Canadian Legion Britannia Branch on Summit Street in 2015. The Britannia Branch has since been closed. GOOGLE STREET VIEW

Did your parents or grandparents or great-whatevers serve in the military?

Did they belong to the Royal Canadian Legion in Victoria?

Do you know where their medals are?

The legion’s Britannia 7 branch has a medal muddle on its hands. It has 52 sets of decorations that it wants to return to the families of the people who earned them.

The 52 are what’s left of about 100 that used to be on display at the branch, first at its old Cormorant and Douglas location, then on Summit Street. The decorations, most of them of Second World War vintage, had been donated to the legion, either by the veterans who wore them or their relations.

When the Summit property was sold in 2019, leaving the branch without a bricks-and-mortar home in which to display the medals, the decision was made to return them. Actually, the legion was advised to act as though they were loaned, not donated. “They were given, but we have to treat them as though they were a loan,” says branch president Keith Yow.

The legion managed to track down the families of some of the donors, but other threads have proven harder to follow. The branch is more than a century old, so some of its limbs have fallen off. The branch has the names of those who were awarded the medals, but not of their descendants.

This is where things get complicated. The legion wants to send up a flare that lets the families know it is looking for them, but is wary of people claiming decorations to which they are not entitled.

If it publishes the names of those whose medals it possesses, anybody could say “That was my Uncle Bob” and demand the bling.

In fact, just before the doors closed on Summit Street, three people walked in, said they were family members from Florida and claimed a medal as theirs. They turned out to be scammers and were sent away empty-handed.

So, the branch is keeping its cards close to its chest. It asks those who wonder if they are entitled to the decorations to put forward the name of the veteran in question; the branch will tell them if the name is on its list.

If it is, the legion will still need proof of a family relationship before releasing the medals. If you think you might be among those the legion is looking for, it asks that you write Ken Holding at kjholding@telus.net.

Even when a family connection is proven, things can get tricky, though. What if there are competing claims from different branches of the clan?

The Canadian Scottish regimental museum’s Jim Dumont, who is advising the Britannia branch, said his organization once got caught in the middle of a squabble after one family member donated a set of medals that another wanted returned. Donors must now fill out a form before ceding medals to the museum, which has about 200 sets in its collection.

Dumont said families tend to donate medals for one of two reasons. Either they don’t know what else to do with them, or they figure having them accessible at the Bay Street armoury museum is preferable to them being forgotten at the bottom of some relative’s drawer.

At least the Canadian Scottish have a museum to which families can turn. Sometimes there’s no obvious landing spot for a homeless medal. Note that when a legion branch in Langley closed its doors a few years ago, it did its best to look for the families of the veterans whose medals it held, but ended up passing some to the municipality.

In any case, the legion would prefer that the decorations wind up with the people who are most likely to feel a connection to their recipients.

Holding still has the medals earned by his uncle, a bomber pilot who was shot down over Germany in 1944, five months before Holding was born. “They mean a lot to me personally,” he said.

He hopes Britannia’s medals will find their way to people who feel the same way.

jknox@timescolonist.com