Legion lobbies for better benefits

'There should be no doubt that the issue of adequate funeral and burial support is an urgent issue'

Mike Youds / Kamloops Daily News
February 6, 2013 01:00 AM

Royal Canadian Legion parade commander Craig Thomson salutes during a Remembrance Day ceremony at Riverside Park in this file photo.

Old soldiers are dying - by the thousands - and the Royal Canadian Legion is demanding that their last needs not be overlooked.

The legion is appealing to its members and the general public to join in a national letter-writing campaign to push for improved funeral benefits for veterans.

With time marching on, the matter is pressing, the legion says.

"There should be no doubt that the issue of adequate funeral and burial support is an urgent issue for Second World War and Korean War veterans," said Gordon Moore, dominion president of the national body. "The majority of these men and women are in their 90s; approximately 2,000 pass on each month."

The legion has asked the federal government to make benefit improvements since 2004 and is dismayed by the federal government's inaction, he added.

The $3,600 provided for funeral service costs covers only a portion of actual costs and hasn't been increased since 2001. As well, the legion wants funeral benefits granted to low-income veterans.

Kamloops Legion is familiar with the issue but hasn't yet discussed the campaign at an executive level, said first vice-president Dave Warriner. In general, they support all initiatives on behalf of veterans, he added.

"The older vets don't have the pension plans that younger vets have, so they have nothing to fall back on. They weren't in long enough to get pensions, and if they get a disability pension, it's very small and they're fighting tooth and nail to get that."

Often surviving spouses of older vets receive no benefits. Women in the post-war years often stayed home to raise large families. Many never joined the workforce and therefore have few resources of their own to fall back on.

"Basically what they wind up with is a special supplement What can they do with that amount of money? Yes, they're down and out and destitute, big-time," Warriner said.

Many can't cover funeral costs. The survivor estate exemption was cut in 1995 to $12,000 from $24,000. If a veteran's estate is greater than $12,000, the surviving spouse is ineligible for a funeral support benefit.

The average cost of funeral in Canada is in the neighbourhood of $6,000, and $10,000 is not unusual. In some cases, funeral directors have picked up the difference for veterans.

The funeral rate paid for serving members is $13,000.

Don Cameron, a former Kamloops MP and a veteran of the Second World War, said he considers himself one of the lucky ones. He did well enough in civilian life that he won't need benefit support.

"There's a lot of boys who need help and the government should do something about it," he said.

But the government of Canada does better for its aging veterans than most, said MP Cathy McLeod.

"I think it's important to note, first of all, that we provide all burial costs for veterans in need," McLeod said. The $3,600 benefit goes toward funeral service costs over and above burial costs. Since 2006, Ottawa has paid for burial costs for 10,000 veterans, she noted.

"When you look at our allies, we're already providing one of the most comprehensive programs compared to any country," she said.

Australia and the U.K. provide funeral-service benefits of $2,000 to $3,000, while the U.S. offers no-cost burials in one of its national cemeteries.

McLeod is aware of a review of the existing program, but said the government is continually looking at what's provided.

"We have put significantly more dollars into veterans programs," she said, citing a $2-million allocation for the Veterans' Independence Program, which enables vets to remain in their homes.

However, veterans must prove their financial need to qualify for funeral and burial benefits, and two-thirds of applications are rejected because of existing rules.

Anyone wishing to support the legion's efforts can download the letter at legion.ca.

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