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Harper defends veteran spending after concerns over federal burial fund

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen walk toward the monument to national hero Jose Rizal for a wreath-laying ceremony during their visit to Rizal Park in Manila November 10, 2012. Mr. Harper is on a three-day visit in Manila.


Stephen Harper offered no acknowledgment Saturday of concerns raised by veterans' groups, funeral home directors and many others that a federal burial fund for poor veterans is rejecting most applications for help.

The prime minister was asked how he felt about the fact that the Last Post Fund has turned down 67 per cent of applications since 2006 because of narrow eligibility requirements.

Mr. Harper is set to visit the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery in Hong Kong on Remembrance Day, a site that includes the graves of 283 Canadian soldiers from the Second World War.

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"Let me just say that government of Canada puts as you know a very high priority on care for our veterans. This government has made enormous, billions of dollars worth of investments in programs particularly for the most needy veterans," Mr. Harper told reporters at a news conference with the Philippine president Benigno Aquino.

"Obviously those programs are under constant review and we will continue to assess their suitability going forward."

But Veterans Affairs Canada reviewed the Last Post Fund in 2010. The amount paid out through the fund — $3,600 — has not changed in 12 years, and is less than some provinces contribute to help defray the hefty costs of funerals for homeless people or those on welfare.

The executive director of the Last Post Fund, an independent agency, has been lobbying for changes to the eligibility requirements, which do not include veterans from the most recent conflicts including Afghanistan.

The fund is currently reviewing the case of a younger homeless veteran found on the streets of Calgary who does not strictly meet the current eligibility requirements.

Overhauling eligibility and increasing the funeral stipend, which hasn't been raised in a decade, could cost between $5-million and $7-million annually. By contrast, the government has put $28 million into commemorating the War of 1812.

The Last Post Fund is not the only sore spot for the Harper government on the veterans file.

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Over the past several years, it has had to answer questions about breaches of privacy involving the medical files of veterans applying for benefits, over the new lump-sum payment system for veterans that replaced pensions for life, and its general attitude towards newer veterans as compared to those from the two World Wars and the Korean War.

On Thursday, a group of veterans and widows held a news conference on Parliament Hill to express their displeasure.

Meanwhile, the government has ended its legal fight to maintain tax clawbacks on disability payments for soldiers. It has also put money into "helmets-to-hardhats" programs to help former servicemen and women crack the workforce.

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