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Internal audit raises red flags over maintenance of graves, cemeteries for veterans

An internal report by Veterans Affairs Canada is raising red flags over the country’s military graves and cemeteries, warning that more permanent funding is needed to keep them from falling into disrepair.
Grade 3 and 4 students from St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School in Innisfail spent time this week honouring Canadian veterans. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools)

An internal report by Veterans Affairs Canada is raising red flags over the country’s military graves and cemeteries, warning that more permanent funding is needed to keep them from falling into disrepair.

The report is the result of an internal audit following up on a similar review six years ago. At that time, nearly 45,000 out of the estimated 207,000 graves of Canada’s veterans were in a state of disrepair because of a lack of resources.

The Trudeau government subsequently committed nearly $25 million over five years in temporary funding starting in 2018, which the new report says has largely addressed the problem by facilitating thousands of repairs.

Yet auditors found that without a permanent increase to the department’s funding, that success will be short-lived.

“While five-year funding for the backlog project has allowed the grave marker maintenance team to reduce the backlog of repairs significantly, maintaining an adequate inspection cycle post-project will be challenging,” the audit report reads.

“The evaluation finds that the current $1.25 million allocated to the cemetery and grave marker maintenance program is insufficient to prevent a future maintenance backlog.”

The audit report goes on to note that the annual $1.25 million budget has remained largely unchanged since 2009, even though the number of graves tracked and maintained by the department has increased by more than 40 per cent over the past decade.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre confirmed in an email to The Canadian Press that the department has not increased baseline funding for the maintenance program, though he said it has taken $900,000 from other areas to ensure sufficient funds.

“The department is exploring opportunities to seek ongoing funding to address the increasing cost of maintaining the grave marker inventory and to develop and implement an appropriate grave inspection/maintenance cycle,” he added.

The Liberals have been repeatedly criticized for refusing to make permanent investments in Veterans Affairs operations over the past few years, as it has relied instead on temporary funds and staff to address long-standing problems.

That included hiring of hundreds of temporary staff to process a backlog of disability claims from ill and injured veterans, and dozens of temporary case managers to help permanent staff with their overwhelming workloads.

The temporary measures have been criticized by veterans, service providers and others such as auditor general Karen Hogan, who has blasted the continued use of what she calls ad hoc funding.

During their review of grave marking maintenance, auditors interviewed staff from Veterans Affairs as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the graves of 110,000 Canadian soldiers killed and buried overseas in the First and Second World Wars.

Their conclusion: “Returning to the financial status quo after the backlog project will result in a situation where grave markers cannot be inspected and maintained within the current 12-year cycle.

“Further, the 12-year inspection cycle itself was adopted in response to funding levels, not as a best practice. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission currently inspects the graves it is responsible for on a six-year basis.”

In addition to Canadian war graves, the commission also cares for those of British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian soldiers killed during the two great wars.

Auditors found problems in the operation of the two cemeteries that Veterans Affairs owns and operates: Fort Massey Cemetery in Halifax and God’s Acre Cemetery in Esquimalt, B.C., which was recently expanded to accept more graves.

“The upgraded facilities were supposed to allow for on-site staffing to facilitate increasing burials at the cemetery,” the audit report says of God’s Acre. “However, health and safety concerns with the structure have restricted on-site activities.”

Concerns were also raised about a lack of formal policies around who can actually be interred at God’s Acre, how plots are obtained, reserved and priced, while “no business processes are in place for the handling of funeral payments.”

God’s Acre and Fort Massey also did not have up-to-date operational plans or plans for protecting the cultural and historical integrity of either site.