Respecting Gaspé woman's last wishes meant a 700-km detour for her casket

Marie-Claire Arsenau's children had to pay an extra $2,300 to have their mother's remains transported to Quebec City before they could be airlifted to the Magdalen Islands for their mother's funeral. And that was just one chapter in the Gaspé family's costly ordeal.

With funeral parlour not certified to have remains flown to Magdalen Islands, hearse first sent to Quebec City

Marie-Claire Arseneau was living in a long-term care home in Gaspé, Que., but had expressed her wishes to be buried in the Magdalen Islands, where she grew up. (Submitted by Yvette Theriault)

Marie-Claire Arseneau got her final wish: to be buried on the Magdalen Islands, where she grew up. But it meant a circuitous journey for her remains — and a costly one for her family.

Arseneau, 83, died on Dec. 12, 2019. She had been living in a long-term care home in Gaspé but had made it clear she wanted to be laid to rest in her home community.

When her daughter, Yvette Theriault, began making funeral arrangements, she got her first shock.

Air Canada no longer has any competitors in the region, and its monopoly means the cost of travel from Gaspé to the Magdalen Islands has soared, said Theriault. 

"Being from an island, we're used to air travel. But it's sad to see how expensive the service has gotten."

"It's not normal that a 45-minute flight costs $1,000," said Theriault. "You can go to Europe or down south for cheaper than that."

Then, when she and other members of her family went online to try to book tickets, Theriault said, Air Canada's website kept crashing.

As other travellers have also found out in recent weeks, due to changes to Air Canada's reservation system, reaching customer service by phone was also a dead end.

Finally, Theriault's brother went to the Gaspé airport to catch an Air Canada agent while another flight was boarding. He was able to buy two tickets at Air Canada's bereavement fare of $550 return, but the agent was also having trouble with the reservations system, so they decided to go back online to try to buy the other four tickets later.

Theriault said when that didn't work, the family ended up using reward points that they had been saving for a vacation to pay for the other four tickets through a travel website.

"It was really stressful, not knowing if we were going to get a seat on the plane," she said.

An unexpected hurdle

The night before their scheduled flights, Theriault got a phone call from the funeral home.

"They told me my mother's body couldn't be flown out of Gaspé," Theriault said.

The home said it didn't have the accreditation now required by Transport Canada to send the body on an airplane.

Her mother's remains had to be sent by car to Quebec City to a funeral parlour that had the proper accreditation. That 700-kilometre road trip cost $2,300.

The body was then airlifted to the Magdalen Islands — making a scheduled stop in Gaspé en route, before the final leg of the trip.

Yvette Theriault, right, said the most stressful part of the ordeal was not knowing if her family would all make it to the Magdalen Islands for the funeral. (Submitted by Yvette Theriault)

Dan Gleeton, president of H.G. Division funeral parlours, said in 30 years of operation, the funeral home in Gaspé had never before had to send a body by plane. It was only made aware of the new rules when it tried to arrange the transport.

The company is now investing $6,000 to train its employees and bring them up to code, Gleeson said, to ensure the situation doesn't arise again. The training course is scheduled for Jan. 15.

Theriault is relieved her entire family did make it to her mother's funeral service on Dec. 19.

However, she said the whole ordeal was made worse by Air Canada's lack of communication and deficient customer service.

In an emailed statement to CBC, Air Canada said it did offer Theriault's family its reduced bereavement fare for family emergencies such as funerals — in this case, $550 return. The airline did not address the communication and reservation system problems.

As for the extra expenses involved in transporting Arsenau's remains, Air Canada said in its statement that "Air Canada and Air Canada Cargo are subject to the strict rules of Transport Canada's Air Cargo Security Program. Pursuant to this program, companies wishing to transport air cargo are responsible for becoming a member." 

Air Canada also said the Gaspé airport is not equipped with detection equipment required to screen a coffin.

"We were obliged to communicate with the client, who in this case was Groupe Garneau in Quebec City, who made transportation arrangements," Air Canada said.

The Gaspé airport refused CBC's interview request.


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