The year 1995 was a pivotal one in the history of Canada’s national symbol of Remembrance – the poppy. It was in December of that year that veterans stopped making wreaths and poppies and production shifted to civilian contractors. This would not have been possible without the help and support of Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion.
For more almost 75 years, the federal government had hired Vetcraft Industries Ltd. to produce wreaths and poppies. This long-standing sheltered employment workshop arrangement came under review in July 1994 after Treasury Board ruled that persons employed by Vetcraft must be counted as public servants at a time when there was pressure to reduce the number of public servants throughout the federal government. There was also concern that the employees may be determined to be eligible for Public Service benefits. So the senior civilian management at VAC opted to end its relationship with Vetcraft Industries.
To be fair, Vetcraft had gone from a peak of 346 veterans in 1924 to about 150 full and part-time employees in 1994, located in ether Montreal or Toronto, many of whom had some military experience or were a widowed spouse of a veteran and many were Legionnaires.
In order to forestall any potential public backlash against the federal government being seen as firing veterans, VAC asked the Legion for help. The Legion, after all, was the largest purchaser of poppies and wreaths.
The Legion Dominion Command conducted its own analysis of the VAC report in September 1994. It’s analysis preferred the status quo but recognized that this option was unrealistic. The second most preferred option was to find an outside supplier since this would offer the “least risk” to the Legion. Under this option, the Legion recognized that veterans would most likely never be employed by the outside supplier. According to the VAC Shop Managers, it was difficult to find any veterans that wanted to work at Vetcraft anyway and that the veteran shop workers that have continued to work with Vetcraft do so more for the feeling of self-worth than for financial need. Taking comfort in this assertion, the Legion requested that the veterans let go would still be treated fairly and with respect. Besides, the Legion felt that production could triple by employing people without disabilities and that consolidating production in one location would lead to direct cost savings.
Based on internal correspondence, the Legion’s biggest preoccupation with closing down Vetcraft was not about the Veterans but whether it would still enjoy the GST exemption (valued at approx. $100K in 1994 dollars). While it may not be exempt from the GST, VAC was prepared to “sell” all of the assets, valued at $1M, to the Legion for a nominal fee of $1. This would provide the Legion with a huge profit margin for the 1995 national poppy Campaign since there would be a much reduced production cost. On January 13th, 1995, Treasury Board officially approved the closure of Vetcraft Industries Ltd. by December 31st, 1995.
The media released the story in April 1995. Needless to say, letting Veterans go was not a unanimous policy among Legion members or the employees at Vetcraft. The Legion received several letters of protests and/or expressions of serious disappointment with the decision – particularly by Legion members at how Dominion Command of the Legion was treating veterans and fellow Legionnaires. Legion Dominion Secretary, Fred Harrington responded to the criticism stating to the Montreal Gazette and the Canadian Press that, in 1992, the Legion’s National Poppy Campaign raised $8.5M but the campaign cost $8.8M. In other words, the Legion was losing money, therefore privatization was necessary. Apparently veterans could not work as effectively as civilians! Ironically, Vetcraft employees pointed out that between 1979 and 1994 VAC reduced the number of employees at the Vetcraft Montreal location by half without any impact on production! Moreover, records showed that VAC budgeted $1.4M every year to operate Vetcraft so it is unclear how it cost the Legion $8.8M when VAC costs amounted to $1.4M.
The Legion awarded the outside supplier contract to Toronto -based Dominion Regalia beginning in 1996. It was replaced by an Ottawa-based company called TRICO Group in 2014. Today, there are some 14 full-time employees at TRICO producing poppies and wreaths while the assembly of Poppies is contracted out to a third party who has hired an undertermined number of people with developmental delays (through the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities – OCAPDD) and prison inmates (through Correctional Services Canada or Corcan). – a far cry from the espoused reasons given when the Legion agreed to have VAC let go its Veterans responsible for assembling poppies. In hindsight, it remains a controversial part of the Legion’s legacy when it opted to forsake its pledge to veterans and fellow Legionnaires at the behest of the government of the day in 1995.