November 5, 2012
A federal government that spends $28 million to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 should not be penny-pinching its war veterans when it comes to funeral and burial expenses.
Yet that seems to be the sad case. When you pin that poppy above your heart this Remembrance Day, save a little emotional room for some quiet outrage — and then contact your member of Parliament.
Here are the sorry facts. Two weeks ago, Canadian funeral directors reported that they are routinely subsidizing the burials of this country’s most impoverished war veterans because the federal government pays so little for the service. Ottawa contributes just over $3,600 toward the funeral cost of destitute ex-soldiers, less than half the average cost of a funeral in Canada today, and a figure that is substantially lower than what some social services departments pay toward the burial of the homeless and those on social assistance. The federal stipend hasn’t been adjusted in 10 years.
Last week it was revealed that since 2006, two-thirds of the close to 30,000 applications to the veterans funeral and burial program have been rejected, either for violating eligibility criteria or failing a means test. Under the existing rules, most modern-day soldiers don’t qualify for the federal assistance. Implicit in that scenario is the shameful message that this country owes more to soldiers who fought in the two Worlds Wars than it does to those who faced combat in Afghanistan.
The Last Post Fund, the independent agency that has for decades administered the burial fund on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada, routinely resorts to donated funds to help veterans in financial need at the time of death who have fallen between the gaping eligibility cracks. Earlier this year, the family of one Alberta veteran tapped into that donated money to have his remains sent to a funeral home in Prince Edward Island, and a burial marker erected. In another Alberta case this year, a divorced and homeless vet died on the streets and the Last Post donations helped to pay for his cremation and the cost of transporting the remains to a relative in New Brunswick.
The Last Post recently began private fundraising to ensure all veterans receive a dignified final salute, and hopes to raise $9 million over the next three years. But it is clearly the federal government that is duty-bound to do more.
The funeral and burial stipend should be increased and the eligibility criteria should be overhauled.
Guy Parent, Canada’s veterans ombudsman, has long called for major changes to Ottawa’s funeral and burial program for veterans. “Veterans who have served and sacrificed for their country deserve to depart with dignity and respect,” Parent declared last year.
Those words rang true then and they ring especially true on this week of remembrance, when all of us can demonstrate our commitment to support Canada’s veterans, to the very end.