The solid rock in a hard place

A memorable one-on-one with the McMurray Legion’s Bill Rockwell

By Dawn Booth, Connect Weekly

Michael Gray, Ryan Pitchers and Bill Rockwell, members of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 165, at the flag raising ceremony held on August 27. Photo by Norm Rockwell

Michael Gray, Ryan Pitchers and Bill Rockwell, members of the RoyalCanadian Legion Branch No. 165, at the flag raising ceremony held on August 27. Photo by Norm Rockwell

The Legion Hall – it’s an establishment placed in communities across Canada to create unity for the many men and women who have served our country.

“It’s driven by people who don’t even know how good they are, which is amazing to me,” said Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 165’s Communication Officer Bill Rockwell of the local Fort McMurray organization’s members.

Though Rockwell said the Legion’s “prime purpose is Remembrance, and helping service people.” He calls it ‘The Soul of the Community’.

“In our community, people can be fluent. People can come and go. They work. They leave. But the Legion is an unchanging thing and can provided continuity.”

McMurray Branch No. 165
Fort McMurray’s Legion – known as the McMurray Branch – was first established in 1945. Once settled on the corner of MacDonald Avenue and Richard Street, the Waterways location opened its doors in 1962.

In December 2013, the Legion faced a financial crisis and was at risk to closing. Rockwell took his position at the establishment in April 2015. It was at a time where the Branch had begun reviving the building with the help from a grant of $495,000 provided by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

“Our Legion is very well run,” he expressed. “There are so many people to name… They came together and they rejuvenated this place. The municipality has been very generous and has helped us. And, so what we are doing in turn is providing a venue for veterans. We are looking after the veterans, and we are looking after the community at large.”

Reopening after the disaster
With the original plans of reopening after the Fort McMurray wildfire on August 9, the Legion had some setbacks due to the re-enter of the Waterways neighbourhood, and the devastation within it. Weeks later, representatives held a flag raising ceremony to honour local heroes, the residents’ return and the official grand reopening of the Huggard Street Branch on August 27. By October 4, full access to the premise was applied.

“It’s a visible sign that the community is going up. It’s a visible sign that the community is moving forward,”Rockwell said of the reopening in Waterways. “It provides a place for people within this neighbourhood to come when they are rebuilding their homes. It’s a place they came to before, and now they can come again.”

While residents were evacuated, over 1,400 Legion Branches across Canada raised an estimated $1.2 million for relief funds. The Legion has already begun disbursing donations to organizations and members of the public throughout the region.

“We did our best to be a key part of helping the community regrow and we are still doing it,” he said. “We are look forward to continue working with non-profits.”

Remember Them
As the community will congregate during the traditional Remembrance Day ceremonies, Rockwell – who served in the Canadian military for over a decade in Europe, the United States, and the Congo – said it is important to remember the past for what we have today.

“It’s important to remember them because our people paid for what we have,” he explained. “For example, you and I can sit in here. You and I can have a meal. And, you and I can talk freely. Nobody comes in wearing a trench coat and a hat, looking at us and threatening us because we don’t do or say the right things. Nobody comes into our business with a weapon and demands half of what we make. Because, we have democracy. We have law. And it’s all paid for. It’s all paid for in blood. So, we need to remember that.”

“It’s remembering the sacrifices,” Rockwell said.

“But it’s also a time to take pride in the accomplishments of what we’ve done. Canada has always been a big deal in terms of defending democracy and freedom.

“For example, in Afghanistan, we inarguably had one of the more difficult and dangerous places to deal with. On peacekeeping, we went to parts of the world that we’re frequently forgotten and dangerous and violent and did what was best to help the locals.

“In Korea, we fought communism. I know it’s not trendy to say that nowadays, but that’s what happened.

“And in World War II, they stopped Hitler. Look at D-Day, Canada had its own beach. The US, Canada and England had their own beaches. Canada’s population at that time was equal to the city of London, and we had a beach. And, we did our job well. There’s some pride in the things done, but there’s also remembrance.”

And for Rockwell, Remembrance Day gets personal.

“To me, Remembrance is a personal thing,” he exclaimed. “I knew a guy named Mike Ralph (Sergeant Cornelius Michael Ralph of the 22 Field Squadron). Ralphy served with me on the reserves. Ralphy was a great guy. He was married and had two kids. He was the first guy killed in Yugoslavia. He drove a vehicle over a landmine. He had two little girls. So, I remember how Ralphy supported… that’s how that works. That’s why it’s important.”

– Connect Weekly –