01/31/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 04/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Impoverished soldiers deserve more dignified burials: Royal Canadian Legion

OTTAWA - Edward Ledwos served as a gunner on a Canadian corvette in the icy waters of the North Atlantic for three years during the Second World War and came home partially deaf.

Too proud, or perhaps too embarrassed, to fight the government for a full disability pension, the 87-year-old passed away on Oct. 14, 2012, and was buried near his home in Selkirk, Man.

His widow, Helen, worked well into her 80s as a real estate agent to supplement his meagre pension from a local rolling mill.

It was a matter of survival, especially when her husband developed Alzheimer's before passing away.

Helen Ledwos' application to have some of his funeral and burial costs covered by an arm's length veteran's agency was turned down on Nov. 29, 2012, making hers the latest of more than 20,000 applications to be rejected by the Last Post Fund.

"I feel he should have been entitled to something," Ledwos told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

"He was called, so he went. He did it for everybody."

Since Edward Ledwos was not in receipt of a full veterans disability pension and because of his estate was valued at more than the $12,010 per year threshold, his family did not qualify for reimbursement of his $7,100 funeral.

Had the application been accepted, the maximum payout from the veterans fund would have been $3,600.

The Royal Canadian Legion and at least one opposition party launched a letter-writing campaign Thursday aimed at forcing the Conservative government to cover the full cost of burying impoverished soldiers.

Jean-Pierre Goyer, the fund's executive director, said the federal government recognized its duty to impoverished soldiers decades ago, but it has been eroding.

"The Canadian government recognized in 1920 that it was their responsibility to ensure a dignified funeral and burial for its veterans," Goyer said. "They have a program, and it's a good program, but it needs to adjusted. It needs to be modernized."

The legion's dominion president, Gordon Moore, wants the Harper government to increase the $3,600 stipend and re-evaluate the criteria, such the means test, and open up the program to modern day veterans.

Right now, the fund is restricted to those who served in the Second World War and Korea, as well as those in receipt of a full veterans disability pension.

Moore, who has been fighting since 2008 to have the criteria updated, said 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 change.

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

Goyer said the families of modern veterans, those who served in the Cold War, peacekeeping and Afghanistan, are being turned away, something that prompted his agency to begin private fundraising.

But the effort has been skeptical reception by the public.

"We're trying a fundraiser, (but) it's not working as good as we would have liked," Goyer said.

"The main reason for that is the Canadian public, the Canadian people feel this is a Canadian government responsibility."

Through private donations over the last year, the Last Post Fund assisted 12 families of dead modern soldiers, but only partially offset the funeral bills.

The federal Liberals piled on Thursday with the introduction of a motion in Parliament calling on the Conservatives to increase the stipend and make other improvements to the program.

“It is unacceptable that the Conservatives are forcing the families of our brave veterans to pay thousands for funerals while millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted commemorating the War of 1812,” said Liberal veterans affairs critic Sean Casey.

“This is a question of fairness and providing proper support to our vets. We hope all parties will immediately adopt this motion.”

Niklaus Schwenker, 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."

Yet, both the legion and Goyer say 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.

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 has been 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, grave site services and a casket or urn.

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.

Goyer said only seven cases, out of thousands, received $10,000 in reimbursement over the last four years.

Overhauling eligibility and increasing the funeral exemption could cost between $5 million and $7 million annually, but Moore said 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.