HUMBOLDT — Niki Sokolan cannot not remember a time when she wasn’t a part of the Humboldt Legion Branch #28.
Thanks to her grandpa, Nick Sokolan, the current and third generation Humboldt Legion president feels fortunate to have knowledge and understanding of what he went through in the Second World War.
While everyday is important for honouring veterans, for Niki and her family, not honouring veterans on Remembrance Day is a foreign concept.
“It seems odd to me when people think of Remembrance Day and they are like, ‘oh, we got a day off.’ Yeah, you do, but do you really understand why you have that off. It’s to remember people who fought for your freedom and continue to fight.”
Grandpa’s stories and years of volunteering with the Humboldt Legion have been two constants in her life, Niki said. While she can’t remember the first time she stepped foot in the Humboldt Legion or specific years of such events, like poppy campaigns, Remembrance Day ceremonies, or barbecues, she has always associated the Humboldt Legion with warmth, friendship, and the people she got to know throughout the years.
Joining the Legion, she said, has been a way she can carry on her grandpa’s legacy as a Second World War veteran, and as a Legion member and volunteer, first in Wynyard and later on in Humboldt.
Nick had always been a storyteller, she said, especially on road trips to hockey games starting when she was six years old with Nick along for the ride to go watch her play.
She wasn’t a good long distance traveller, she said, so to keep her entertained, Nick would tell her stories; sometimes about life on the farm in Wishart or working for CP Rail. If you really got him going, he would tell stories about fighting with the Regina Rifles during Second World War. Niki still remembers many of them, including ones where he was seeing heavy fighting on the frontlines in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.
Nick was a volunteer for the Rifles. Niki laughed as she recalled him saying that he wanted to become a paratrooper just because he wanted a pair of their brown boots. According to his papers that the family still has, Nick was a “spitfire” but, thankfully, didn’t make it into the division because he was too short and underweight. Niki doesn’t think he would have survived the war if they would have taken the 19-year-old “spitfire” on as a paratrooper.
In another long remembered story, Hardtack, a buddy of Nick’s, got shot and Nick patched him up the best he could before he had to move on. He didn’t hear what happened to the Hardtack until his granddaughter called him up in the early 2010s to say that he survived thanks to him.
These stories have been a gift, she said, because of the appreciation she has gained from listening to them all her life, as well as the ability to share these stories with others.
With Canada fast losing their Second World War veterans, Niki sees a shift happening from honouring First and Second World War veterans to honouring those who served recently, including those veterans from Afghanistan.
“It’s going to be interesting to see in a few years what that shift looks like and what Remembrance Day will turn into.”
Her hope is that more young people step up to keep the Legion branches going, but more has to be done to educate young people on the role they can play.
“I think the biggest thing is that people just don’t know what we’re all about. People just think it’s an old school men’s club. No, it’s open to everybody. You don’t have to know a member that was in the military.”
The Humboldt Legion also welcomes members of the RCMP, ambulance and fire services into their fold since the mandate of people helping people aligns with that of the military. What Niki would also like to see is more young adults joining the Legion. Besides her and her sisters, there aren’t many members, let alone members her age.
As the average age of veterans shifts to a younger demographic, Niki said she does see a shift in veteran needs; from coping with PTSD to receiving benefits. Finding these veterans and discussing their needs is a challenge onto itself, she said, but an important one to address.
While she doesn’t have the answers to dropping membership numbers, and she knows many other organizations are dealing with the same issue, the main goal is getting young people involved.
“It worries me because the Legion is such a good thing to have. I just don’t know what the answer is.”