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Camaraderie of surviving veterans in Chilliwack like ‘second family’

Membership of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry waning, recruitment a challenge
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Members of the PPCLI Veterans’ Association chat following their meeting on May 9, 2024. The association meets on the second Thursday of every month at the Chilliwack-Vedder Branch 295 Legion (Stefan Luciani/Chilliwack Progress)

The banquet room of the Chilliwack-Vedder Branch 295 Legion falls silent as the May meeting of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) association is called to order.

The members listen as association director Mark Benjamin reads the ‘final postings’ of the fallen members of the PPCLI.

Six names are read aloud before a moment of silence is observed for their fallen brethren.

The number of surviving Patricias is small already, and continues to wane as the years go by.

“We have about 50 members all across the province,” Benjamin said. “But we’re having trouble recruiting new members.”

The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, known as the “Patricias” was founded shortly after the start of the first World War officially becoming the first Canadian arms unit to go to battle in the Great War.

No one is sure when the Patricias started gathering in informal groups, but it is believed to have been sometime shortly after some of the initial members were injured in battle.

The regiment was incredibly close-knit with PPCLI members seeking each other out in hospital. Rank was not important, but sharing a Patricia cap badge forged a “brotherly bond.”

Following their return from Europe, many started forming groups to keep in touch as they adjusted to their post-war lives with the first annual dinner of the Patricia Club taking place in 1919.

Despite the dwindling numbers, the association means as much to members now as it ever has.

“These people are very important to me,” said member Gloria Hartley. “It really is like having a second family.”

Hartley, a member of over 15 years, comes from a true Patricia family. Her father served with the regiment for 27 years. Her husband also served while she herself, worked an administration job in the military for most of her adult-life.

But like many, she too is concerned about the lack of new members within the organization.

This is an issue that Benjamin will be bringing up to the regiment at this year’s annual general meeting in Edmonton. One that Benjamin will be attending seeing that it’s a special one – the 110th anniversary of the Patricias.

Benjamin joined the Patricias in 1980 when he was just 17, serving for a decade before leaving the infantry to work in the trades. He concluded his military career there before taking a civilian job in 2001.

He credits the association in helping him with his adjustment to life after serving.

“It was good to talk to army again with people who understand it and swap stories for the camaraderie,” he said.

“It kind of helped me…I had a sense of belonging again.”

It’s clear to see what these meetings provide for many of the members. The agenda itself only takes about 45 minutes to go through, before members then just sit around the table, enjoy a cold beverage, and exchange some of the many unique stories they all have.

Beyond just stories, many of the members share a feeling of being underrepresented.

“The PPCLI was very important in not just the World Wars, but the Korean War and many other conflicts that the Canadian Armed Forces have taken part in,” said member Rollie Keith.

“It seems like people nowadays have come to forget that…that doesn’t seem right.”

The Fraser Valley Branch of the association is now in the midst of their summer break, with meetings picking back up in September.

But for many, they will see each other before the formal meetings start up again, as the relationships formed, help them continue living their post-service lives.

“It’s not like normal jobs where you put in your nine hours and then go your separate ways,” said Benjamin. “There’s a camaraderie because you’re sharing everything with these guys on a daily basis.”

“It was a bit of a struggle to overcome that adjustment and that’s what the association is for.”

The association continues today with branches spread out all across Western Canada. Membership is open to any former or active members of the regiment, including any units absorbed by them, and their spouses, partners or children.

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Stefan Luciani

About the Author: Stefan Luciani

Before joining the team here at the Chilliwack Progress in spring 2024, I was a story editor for TSN in Toronto and digital journalist.
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