Families whose prepaid funeral money vanished say P.E.I.'s legislation failed them

Alleged victims of Lowell Oakes and Dawson Funeral Home says they deserve compensation from the province to replace their lost funds, since legislation they expected to protect them dates back to the 1980s.

Criminal charges have been laid over alleged mishandling of customers' funeral funds

Mary and Raymond Matters
Mary and Raymond Matters are pictured in 2014, the year they purchased the prearranged funeral packages from Dawson Funeral Home Ltd. in Crapaud, P.E.I. (Submitted by Debbie Matters)

P.E.I. families recently briefed on an insolvency trustee's proposal to compensate them for only some of the money they lost when prepaid funeral arrangement funds vanished are upset more isn't being done to help them. 

At least two families who spoke to CBC News feel the P.E.I. government should step up and pay for any losses beyond what the insolvency process will give them, pointing out that the Pre-Arranged Funeral Services Act has been in place under the Department of Justice and Public Safety since the 1980s. 

Money to fund dozens of prepaid funerals was supposed to be held in trust by the owner of Dawson Funeral Home Ltd. in Crapaud, P.E.I.

But owner Lowell Oakes is now facing 66 fraud charges, which are still being dealt with in criminal court, as well as a number of claims in small claims court. His funeral home licence was revoked in March 2022, and he was also fined $10,000 at that time. 

Dawson Funeral Home has been closed for a year now, and the premises are in the process of being sold to help pay off some of the company's debt. Insolvency trustees have told creditors that when all of the personal and corporate assets are liquidated, there will be enough money to cover only about one-third of their original investment. 

Families want accountability

Debbie Matters, as well as Joe and Mary Beth Amelia, are representing elderly family members who no longer have the prepaid funerals they were counting on. They are calling for the government to help victims. 

In April of 2022, RCMP on P.E.I. were asking anyone who made prearranged funeral payments to Dawson Funeral Home between 1998 to 2021 to contact police. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

Matters is helping her parents, Mary and Raymond Matters, who in 2014 paid more than $18,000 for prearranged funerals. 

"I think it's really disheartening for a lot of people and really challenging," said Matters, who was one of the many family members who met recently with insolvency trustees. 

The Amelias are speaking out for 92-year-old Margaret Gallant, Joe's stepmother-in-law, who lives with them. Gallant paid Dawson $4,200 for a prearranged funeral in 2011.

Margaret Gallant and Joe Amelia
Margaret Gallant, 92, sits beside her stepson-in-law Joe Amelia during a recent CBC interview. Gallant bought a prepaid funeral package from Dawson Funeral Home for $4,200, but expects to get about $1,000 if a proposed settlement goes ahead. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"The law was on the books," said Joe Amelia. "There was no enforcement, there was no investigation.

"These people were taken advantage of ... the P.E.I. government should pay. 

We should not have to beg, fight and sue for this.— Joe Amelia

"We should not have to beg, fight and sue for this." 

His wife said inspections should have been happening every year, to verify trust accounts were in place.

Mary Beth Amelia said the families are not happy with the proposal to pay people back one-third of what they had paid, adding: "They thought it was all safe and secure." 

'It's been horrible'

Documents connected to the settlement proposal show about 60 people are owed money by Dawson as a corporation and Oakes as an individual, as well as businesses, suppliers and Revenue Canada. The total amount owed totals more than $1 million. 

Matters said her parents were horrified that they lost money they thought was safely set aside. 

"It's been horrible," she said. "I would like to see the provincial government step up ... and do something for the victims." 

Mary and Debbie Matters
Debbie Matters, right, is shown with her mother Mary Matters in a photo from her 2017 graduation from St. Francis Xavier University. (Submitted by Debbie Matters)

Matters questions why the Pre-Arranged Funeral Services Act in place for almost 40 years did not safeguard people dealing with Dawson Funeral Home. 

"There was a law in place and this was to protect people from exactly what happened," she said. "I'm not sure how this continued…. It started, from my understanding, in the late 90s and continued since then. 

Somebody dropped the ball.— Debbie Matters

"Somebody dropped the ball." 

A spokesperson with the province told CBC there would be no further comment as the matter is before the court. 

Mary and Raymond Matters shown in photo.
Mary and Raymond Matters celebrated 57 years of marriage in July 2022. (Submitted by Debbie Matters)

The fraud charges against Oakes have not been proven in court. 

However, among the insolvency trustee documents given to creditors was an affidavit in which Oakes was asked the reasons for his financial difficulties. His reply was: "misappropriated pre-arranged funeral funds."

The cover letter to creditors, written by the accounting firm handling the proposal, said in part: "Oakes has advised us that some funds were used by Dawson to fund its operating expenses, funds were also used to pay for the expenses of a plumbing and heating company that Oakes operated, and some funds were used by Oakes to fund his gambling addiction, a condition for which Oakes advised he is receiving counselling."

Matters has sent letters to various federal and provincial politicians asking for some kind of compensation and is encouraging others to do the same. 

"A fund could be created to support the victims because there were laws in place, and from my understanding, they weren't enforced." 

Board votes to have annual inspections

Amy Kilbride, registrar with the P.E.I. Funeral Services and Professions Board, told CBC News the Pre-Arranged Funeral Services Act is not something they oversee, because it is not part of the Funeral Services Professions Act that sets out its mandate. 

She added that the board voted this month to hold mandatory annual inspections of all funeral homes.

"Due to the board conducting regularly held inspections, any issues identified will be dealt with immediately," Kilbride said in an emailed statement 

Kilbride said the board does want to raise awareness to make sure people are asking the right questions when they get a prearranged funeral. She said they should have a written contract, ask for proof the money has been deposited with a bank or financial institution, and keep a copy of that trust account information. 

People need to know [that] they need to have the paperwork from the funeral home and the paperwork from the financial institution in their hands.— Debbie Matters

Matters said she is not against prepaid funerals despite her family's experience, but she too says people should ask a lot of questions when arranging for one. 

"People need to know [that] they need to have the paperwork from the funeral home and the paperwork from the financial institution in their hands," she said.


Laura Meader is a video journalist for CBC P.E.I.


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