Impoverished soldiers deserve more dignified burials: Royal Canadian Legion

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OTTAWA - The Royal Canadian Legion is launching a national letter-writing campaign aimed at forcing the Conservative government to cover the full cost of burying impoverished soldiers.

Dominion president Gordon Moore is holding a news conference today in Elmira, Ont., to outline the campaign.

Moore will be joined by the executive director of the Last Post Fund, the independent agency that administers the federal government's funeral and burial program for Veterans Affairs Canada.

Last fall, The Canadian Press reported the fund had rejected 20,147 applications submitted by the families of poor soldiers who passed away — roughly two-thirds of the total number of pleas it had received since 2006.

Moore, who has been fighting since 2008 to have the criteria updated, says he's dismayed at the government's "inaction."

The legion is calling on its 330,000 members across Canada, along with the general public, to write members of Parliament to demand the funeral stipend be raised from the current $3,600 per soldier.

"I ask, what is the Canadian government waiting for?" Moore said in an interview.

A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the government is already being generous.

"While all of our programs are under constant review as we look for ways to improve them through a challenging fiscal climate, Canada's funeral and burial program is one of the most comprehensive among allied nations and is the only program to cover full burial costs," said Niklaus Schwenker

Yet, the Legion, an advocacy group formed in the aftermath of the First World War, says the government is being "misleading."

Currently, the surviving families of veterans are subjected to a means test, where they are eligible for reimbursement if their income falls below $12,010 per year. The threshold used to be $24,000, but was cut by Jean Chretien's Liberal government as part of its second deficit-fighting budget.

The program is also restricted to those who served in the Second World War and Korea, as well as soldiers who collected a veterans disability pension.

Moore said the legion wants that eligibility criteria updated, noting that the exemption line "is considerably less than the poverty level and has not been adjusted since 1995."

When complaints about the fund surfaced last November, the Harper government insisted it was contributing more than $3,600 to those that did qualify, and in fact some of the payments went as high as $10,000.

In order to come up with that figure, Moore said the government is combining two potential benefits in order to confuse the issue.

"This is misleading veterans and their families and the Canadian public," he said. "This is misleading and deceptive."

Moore said $3,600 does not begin to cover the costs for a simple and dignified funeral, which typically includes a funeral service director, a casket or urn, and grave site services.

Moore noted the federal government does pay separately for the "cheapest plot," which is defined as the "lowest cost earth burial" in the area where the veteran has died.

Overhauling eligibility and increasing the funeral exemption could cost between $5 million and $7 million annually, but Moore says veterans officials have privately pegged the full cost at $14 million.

"I have no idea where they got that figure," he said.

Through Veterans Affairs, the Conservatives have poured millions of dollars into the restoration of local war monuments — photo-op friendly projects that are unveiled by local MPs — in the last two federal budgets.

Organizations: Royal Canadian Legion, Veterans Affairs Canada, Last Post Fund Canadian Press Conservatives

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Canada, Elmira Korea

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