The family of a celebrated aboriginal veteran had to fight its own war with one of Alberta's largest utility providers over a fee he was charged — for dying.
Charlie St. Germain, who survived D-Day, died in June while on a trip to France for the 70th anniversary of the invasion that marked the turning point of the Second World War. His daughter and estate administrator, Linda Denison, phoned Direct Energy days after the funeral to close her father's account. She was reassured the power would be shut off by the end of the month.
Direct Energy then mailed her a bill: $420 for an "early termination fee."
"It's an insult. It's a terrible insult to people that have passed away and the family left to handle this stuff," Denison said.
Her father signed a fixed-term contract with the company four years earlier. There was one year left on the contract. He terminated it early, by dying.
Surprised, Denison phoned Direct Energy a second time. She said the company told her then it could not act without a copy of her father's death certificate and a letter proving she was in charge of the estate.
Denison applied for that paperwork through the courts. The bills kept coming. Her father’s account was charged about $28 in new energy use charges, $46.12 in new distribution charges and a late payment penalty.
St. Germain owed $118.57 at the time of his death. Two months later, his total bill had jumped to $613.32. On Aug. 21, Direct Energy sent a final notice letter that warned the sum must be paid "immediately" or the account would be forwarded to a collection agency.
Family calls extra charges 'slap in face'
Denison called the situation a "slap in the face" to a man who worked hard for his country and his family. Her father worked in construction and welding and retired with modest life savings. He lived in subsidized housing built for Métis seniors in his hometown of Paddle Prairie, about 200 kilometres north of Peace River.
While he left enough money to cover bills and funeral expenses, his family is not wealthy. They didn't qualify for financial help from Veterans Affairs for his memorial and four family members had to pool resources to cover the up-front costs.
"It's the principle of the matter that I'm saying, 'No, I'm not paying it.'" Denison said.
"They shouldn't be allowed to do this to somebody that has passed away. There should be a clause in these contracts."
On Sept. 23, Denison sent Direct Energy a money order for the original $118.57 owed and copies of the death certificate and estate administrator letter. As of Monday, she had received no reply from the company.
When CBC phoned Direct Energy, a spokesman apologized.
"We found that something just didn't go right in our systems, or we just hadn't gotten around yet to finishing up the account after the death certificate and letter were sent to us," said Micah Hirschfield.
"But after you brought it to our attention, we're going to go ahead and credit the account and make sure there's a zero balance."
Hirschfield said it is company policy to charge an early termination fee while waiting for proof of a customer's death. The company then waives penalty fees as soon as the necessary paperwork is received.
He called this a "rare and isolated case," and said he would like to get in touch with the family to apologize in person.