Justice minister clears the air for Haida Gwaii’s volunteer undertaker

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton introduced George Westwood to the Legislature as an esteemed and admired citizen of Haida Gwaii.

George Westwood

George Westwood

George Westwood knows grace well enough to see it in others, politicians included.

Speaking last Thursday among the green marble columns of the B.C. Legislature, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton introduced him as “an esteemed and admired citizen of Haida Gwaii,” noting the many years Westwood has helped people here to bury and honour their dead.

For the occasion, Westwood wore his Haida vest with Eagle and Killer Whale crests he was adopted three decades ago by Charlie Wesley, Chief Cumshewa and a smile.

Westwood can relax now. He spoke with the Observer after enjoying his first prime-rib Eggs Benedict in a restaurant that overlooks Victoria Harbour.

But just over two years ago, Consumer Protection B.C. stopped his volunteer undertaker service with a warning, and the same justice minister said in the same Legislature that Westwood was “not suited” for a service he has now provided for 26 years at no charge.

Minister Anton had already corrected that statement, and Consumer Protection had dropped its case, but the legal uncertainty still cast a cloud over Westwood’s work, making it hard for him and his colleague Matthew Pierce to recruit volunteers to a new non-profit funeral society on Haida Gwaii.

The justice minister’s welcome last week made it all crystal clear.

“Under the circumstances, I think it was quite gracious,” said Westwood.

“It’s rewarding to see that our major politicians can actually step back and apologize for what they said and did.”

Not only did Westwood get a warm reception in Victoria, he also got 90 minutes with the policy director responsible for B.C. funerary services.

The B.C. government has yet to change any of the rules governing funeral directors since the Consumer Protection investigation.

Friends and family can handle funeral services for loved ones, but volunteer or not, anyone who acts like a funeral director without a B.C. licence is still technically violating three provincial acts.

It may be years away, but Westwood has proposed some changes for small, remote places like Haida Gwaii, where the cost to ferry a licensed funeral director and coach from Prince Rupert is too high, and the population is too low to support a local funeral home.

One idea is to have the province allow for non-profit, non-embalming ‘funeral commissioners,’ so long as candidates are well vetted, have solid character references, and live in the community.

“We had a good discussion,” said Toby Louie, the executive director of corporate policy and planning for B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

“We will look into his ideas further, and see what might be possible,” he added, noting that the current laws are intended to protect bereaved people at a vulnerable time.

Westwood agrees such checks are important.

“You go into an absolute fog until everything is dealt with,” he said.

“Being as you’re in an extremely vulnerable position when someone dies, it’s too easy to take advantage.”

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice is among George Westwood’s supporters, and she too welcomed Anton’s gesture last week.

“What I find really interesting is that this is a government that prides itself on cutting red tape, and this clearly is an example of how red tape actually gets in the way of a necessary service,” said Rice.

They may be reluctant to come forward, but Rice said other North Coast communities face similar legal uncertainties.

“I don’t know if the answer is funeral commissioners, but the essence of what George is talking about is something that I certainly support,” she said.

Another of Westwood’s supporters is Queen Charlotte Mayor Greg Martin, who at one point offered to pay any fines levied against him.

Martin also played a small, but notable role in the charm offensive on Victoria back when there was talk of getting Westwood to “tow the line.”

He sent the justice minister flowers and a card that quoted Johnny Cash, who sang, I guess there’ll come a time / Maybe I’ll tow the line / Right now I’m doing fine.