It was late on a mid-June 2015 evening when Ronald Sharkey died at his daughter’s home on Texada Island.
The Texada ferry had already made its final trip for the night, so the family waited until the next day for Gary Jacques, owner of Westcoast Funeral Services, to come across the water to collect Ron’s body for cremation.
Hiring Westcoast, a Powell River-based funeral-services business that had its licence suspended in August 18, 2015, to handle Ronald’s cremation was a decision the family soon regretted.
In the following weeks, the family claimed Westcoast would not return their calls or respond to emails for days.
When Jacques finally did respond, the Sharkeys claimed he gave a range of excuses for problems he was facing to complete the job and return the remains and Ronald’s death certificate.
That may have gone on longer, but the family called Pat Gisle, owner of Stubberfield Funeral Home, to investigate.
Gisle said he soon discovered Ronald’s body was still at the Powell River General Hospital morgue, 21 days after his death. Susan, Ronald’s daughter and a registered nurse, had to identify her father’s remains after the family believed his body had already been cremated weeks before.
It’s something that Ronald’s wife, Dianne, said she still pains over.
“I feel overwhelming guilt for my decision to use [Westcoast],” she said. “It resulted in anguish for my children and grandchildren.”
What the Sharkey family did not realize at the time was that as many as five other families had similar experiences with Westcoast.
In the Sharkey case, Gisle stepped in and completed Ronald’s cremation and processed his death certificate within 24 hours at no cost.
“As far as I’m concerned, she had already paid,” said Gisle.
The experience with Westcoast led Susan to file a formal complaint with Consumer Protection BC (CPBC), the provincial regulatory body for funeral-services businesses, who began an investigation into Westcoast’s business practices.
What investigators found was detailed in a January 7, 2016, compliance order that was recently made public.
The order outlines contraventions of the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act, including making inaccurate representations to consumers that Westcoast would provide funeral goods and services and within a specified period; failure to return refunds within 15 days after receiving notices of cancellation; providing false and misleading information to an inspector; and failure to comply with an inspector’s request for information.
In all, CPBC found that Westcoast owes close to $7,500 to six families, as well as a number of cremated remains that have not yet been returned. The order required Westcoast to return all money owed within 30 days, provide inspectors with a list of cremated remains still in Westcoast’s possession and immediately return all cremated remains to the families.
Jacques claimed he has been in contact with CPBC. He confirmed he is still in possession of some cremated remains, but has been unable to make contact with some of the families. He claimed he is working with CPBC to have the remains returned.
“Once we received that compliance order, we contacted Consumer Protection directly,” said Jacques. “We’re working with Consumer Protection very closely every step of the way and continue to do that.”
According to Shoko Sato, marketing communications coordinator for Consumer Protection BC, after issuing the compliance order on January 12 the government organization did not receive a reconsideration request from Westcoast.
Like the Sharkey family, Robert Dufour also found himself helped by another funeral home after Westcoast did not provide agreed-upon services for his family.
In November 2014, about a year and a half after Dufour’s mother, Henriette, died and her estate was settled, he ordered a stone grave marker from Westcoast.
After not having heard back on the grave marker’s status, Dufour went up to the cemetery during May 2015 and discovered it had not been placed. After a call to Westcoast, he found out that it had not even been made.
Dufour said he was given a number of reasons for the delay. After learning that Westcoast’s licence had been suspended, and still without a marker, Dufour asked for a refund in person at Westcoast’s former office on Marine Avenue.
“[Westcoast] was making promises when I knew other people hadn’t been looked after either,” said Dufour.
In July 2015, Dufour was contacted by Eric Toneff, owner of Toneff Funeral Services in Courtenay. Toneff told Dufour he would help him get the stone he paid for without charge.
“If it costs us a few dollars to let people know this is a caring profession,” said Toneff, “we’re here to help people.”
Dufour said he is thankful that Toneff was able to step in and take care of his mother’s stone marker.
“Everything is looked after now. I’ve seen and touched the gravestone,” said Dufour.
The funeral-home business is a small world with connections. As it turns out, Jacques apprenticed under Gisle at Stubberfield, and Toneff worked there as well as a funeral director.
Westcoast’s funeral director was Rebecca Woodson, who also completed her apprenticeship and courses at Stubberfield. Jacques does not hold a funeral-director licence.
Jacques said he is sorry to anyone affected by the closure of Westcoast, and stands by his claim that he is working with CPBC to resolve the issues.
Jacques maintained that all of the specific complaints from both the Sharkey and Dufour families are being dealt with by CPBC through the compliance order. He claimed he is in “constant contact” with CPBC and is still in the process of complying with the order.
“When we first initiated the business we wanted to provide Powell River with a choice, but it didn’t work out that way,” said Jacques. “We do apologize to anyone who has been affected by the closure.”
Despite the sad circumstances around Ronald’s funeral services, Dianne said she is relieved that Stubberfield was kind enough to help her family out. “Nobody deserves to go through what we went through.”