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Fund rejecting final salute to vets

A federal burial fund meant to give impoverished veterans a final, dignified salute has rejected over two-thirds of the applications it's received since 2006.

And of the requests that are accepted, Ottawa contributes just over $3,600 toward the funeral cost of destitute ex-soldiers, a figure that is substantially lower than what some social services departments pay towards the burial of the homeless and those on welfare.

According to figures put before Parliament, of the 29,853 requests made to the veterans funeral and burial program, 20,147 pleas for funding 67.4 per cent were rejected.

They either did not meet the eligibility criteria, or failed a means test, which says a qualifying veteran's annual income must have been less than $12,010 per year.

The executive director of the Last Post Fund, the independent agency that has for decades administered the program on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada, acknowledges the high rejection rate, but says the nature of the criteria excludes many modern day soldiers who served in the Cold War and Afghanistan.

Jean-Pierre Goyer says they have been petitioning Stephen Harper's Conservative government to not only overhaul the rules, but to increase the stipend given to those who do qualify for assistance.

"Our prime minister and his government don't see it as a priority and it hasn't made the list for the last budget," said Goyer. "We came close last budget, I'm told, and our improvements were taken off the list at almost the last minute. We hope in the next federal budget we can see this through."

"Veterans affairs and their minister, Steven Blaney, they are committed to see this change through. I would tell, and you can quote me on that, the problem is with the government of Canada."

Overhauling eligibility and increasing the funeral stipend, which hasn't been raised in a decade, could cost between $5 million and $7 million annually.

The Harper government through veterans affairs has poured millions of dollars into the restoration of local war monuments over the last two federal budgets. These photo-op friendly projects are unveiled by local MPs with much fanfare.

It has also spent $28 million to celebrate the War of 1812, including advertising, historical recreations and the presentation of battle honours to regiments that fought in a war that pre-dated Confederation.

A spokesman for the veterans minister said the government has been working with the veterans and their families to respond to their priorities and concerns.

"The department is constantly reviewing all of its programs to deliver better services to veterans and their families," said Niklaus Schwenker.

The government has also recently invested millions in improved veterans benefits, but critics say ignoring the burial issue is tantamount to a final insult.

"There's an awful lot of photo-ops and spin and propaganda about how this government purportedly loves veterans. They talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk," said Liberal veterans critic Sean Casey.

"This has been repeatedly raised."

Just recently, funeral directors meeting in Ottawa complained they were often subsidizing the shortfall between the federal government's $3,600 stipend and the nearly $10,000 price tag of modern funerals.

Goyer says the fund sometimes is bypassed now and requests go directly to provincial social services, which in some cases contribute up to $5,000.

The Royal Canadian Legion has also been lobbying to see the stipend increased for the funeral rate paid for serving members of the Forces, which is now over $13,000. The Legion argues the eligibility rules flaunt the Canadian Forces Military and Veterans Re-Establishment and Compensation Act.

The criteria of the fund restrict eligibility to soldiers who fought in both world wars, Korea and to those who were in receipt of a veterans disability benefit something Goyer says is badly in need of revision.

"What is the difference between modern-day veterans that we send to Afghanistan or in Africa to represent the country and fight for freedom and ensure that nobody's abused," and those who fought before them? Goyer asked.

The Last Post still receives pleas to bury modern-day veterans and currently has nine cases under consideration, including a former homeless soldier found dead on the streets of Calgary.

It recently took to private fundraising, for the first time, in order to bury veterans who fall outside of the federal criteria and is aiming to raise $9 million over the next three years.

The agency, like other arms of government, has been subject to both the strategic review and the deficit reduction plan and was told to cut its budget.

The Canadian Press


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