The Royal Canadian Legion, once counted on by the government to be the voice of reason among veterans groups, is striking a more defiant tone and demanding federal officials address the issue of burial expenses for poor and homeless ex-soldiers.
A major annual conference among veterans groups is set to get underway in Charlottetown on Thursday, but the issue of the Last Post Fund – and the fact it has rejected two-thirds of applications since 2006 – is not on the agenda set by Veterans Affairs.
Brad White, an ex-army officer and the Legion’s Dominion Secretary, said his organization will not drop the issue of funeral coverage.
“I can’t understand why they won’t fix that,” said Mr. White.
Over the last six years, 20,147 applications were rejected by the Last Post Fund because the deceased veteran did not meet the eligibility criteria. To qualify a veteran must have earned less than $12,010 a year and served in Second World War, Korea or been in receipt of a veterans disability pension.
There was a public outcry prior to Remembrance Day over the fund, which is an independent agency that administers the burial program on behalf of the federal government.
Mr. White says the fund was not even on the agenda for the meeting, but “we’re going to put it on the agenda.”
The fund has petitioned the Harper government not only to overhaul the rules, but to increase the stipend given to those who do qualify for assistance – so far to no avail.
Mr. White said the intransigence has left many in his organization, and veterans at large, dismayed.
“There’s obviously a need out there. It’s obvious it has to be addressed, but we’re celebrating the War of 1812 more than we’re celebrating the lives of the people who are relevant today,” he said.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney defended the rejection rate by noting that over 10,000 applications to the fund had been approved and the government had every intention to maintain the program. A spokesman for Mr. Blaney said there’s no reluctance on the part of the government to discuss the issue, and he expects it will come up.
“This will be discussed at the meeting as will many other subjects important to veterans,” Niklaus Schwenker said.
The Legion’s assertive public tone reflects a major shift for the organization, which has advocated on behalf of ex-soldiers since the 1920s. Throughout the Afghan war, it was increasingly seen by modern-day veterans as too compliant with government, an image Mr. White concedes they’re trying to change.
“I don’t think we were ever quiet, we were just quiet in how we did our business,” he said. “We never did things too loudly. We were more in the backrooms working the deals, and for a lot years that kind of stuff worked.”
The relationship has grown irritable because the Legion gets the sense Veteran Affairs officials are “talking down to us” and that the institution wasn’t changing with the times and adapting to the needs of Afghan soldiers, Mr. White added.
Despite the distance, the Legion is still onside with the government when it comes to the contentious New Veterans Charter, the 2006 overhaul of benefits and entitlements for ex-service members. The system was changed from one based largely on pensions-for-life to lump-sum settlements for disabilities.
The charter is currently being challenged in class-action lawsuit by some veterans, who say the payouts under the new system are unjust.