An 18-year-old living in Yellowknife found out in mid-November that her father had passed away. And, in the midst of grieving the loss, found herself with a dilemma — she needed thousands of dollars to cover the cost of his funeral.
Amber Kunnizzi wanted her father, Robert Kunnizzi, buried near her in Yellowknife.
“I want him beside me,” she said. “I want to get the chance to get to go see him.”
Kunnizzi ended up getting her wish, but she was forced to navigate the confusing and costly world of arranging a funeral for a loved one who lives outside the territory.
Her dad was originally from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., but his last permanent address was in Whitehorse. Robert passed away at the age of 50, in Edmonton while visiting family. He had no identification on him when he passed away, which was why it took so long for Amber to be notified.
Robert was the only child of now deceased parents. Amber was his only child.
Meagan Wowk, principal of Kalemi Dene School in Ndilǫ, launched a GoFundMe that raised $1,285 to go toward the funeral costs after hearing about Kunnizzi family’s financial hardship.
“I’ve known the family for many years,” she said. “We just give all our condolences to Amber, losing your dad is really hard.”
One in eight GoFundMe fundraisers in the N.W.T. have fallen under the website’s memorial category so far this year, according to Caitlin Stanley, a GoFundMe spokesperson.
Kunnizzi didn’t find herself relying entirely on GoFundMe. Her dad was Gwich’in, and as a result the Gwich’in Tribal Council and community members in Fort McPherson were able to raise money to help with the costs. But she still found herself more than $5,000 short for the funeral.
As a result, services that were scheduled for Nov. 30 were delayed. The funeral was held at the McKenna Funeral Home in Yellowknife on Dec. 2, a week after his body arrived in the N.W.T., and nearly a month after he passed away.
Martha Franki, Amber’s mother who had not had a relationship with Robert for a while, said since her daughter’s father didn’t have an N.W.T. health card, his funeral costs initially didn’t qualify for financial assistance provided through the territorial government.
Spokespersons for the territorial government told CBC News they couldn’t comment on Kunnizzi’s situation, citing privacy concerns.
Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, said in an email that to be eligible for help covering funeral, burial and cremation expenses, the deceased must be an N.W.T. resident and must also be eligible for social assistance.
According to the health department’s funeral and burial guidelines, someone who isn’t qualified for social assistance can still apply and a test will be completed to determine their financial ability to pay for the funeral.
Shortly after speaking with CBC News, Franki said she received a call from someone with the territorial government, informing her the costs of the funeral would be covered. She said she’s unsure why the government changed its mind.
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority, also wouldn’t confirm if the territory covered the expenses, citing privacy concerns.
According to the funeral and burial guidelines, the N.W.T.’s deputy minister can consider appeals for applications that are denied.
A business like any other
Michael Carruthers has run Inuvik Funeral Services since 1999, and said payment for his services can be a “sticky issue” as most of his clients receive their funding from social services.
Carruthers said the average cost of a funeral runs from $3,000 to $6,000 but can reach $10,000.
Brandon Lamontagne runs Northwest Funeral Services in Iqaluit, and said he requires payment before proceeding with any services. There are a number of costs associated with preserving a body, he said, and those costs are significantly higher in the North.
“I got to make a living,” he said.
Janice McKenna, the owner of the McKenna Funeral Home, did not want to be interviewed by CBC News but said that she runs a business — no different from a clothing store — and therefore requires payment in order to provide services.
She said her business has never had a situation where a family hasn’t been able to pay for the services and directed questions on financial assistance for funerals to the territorial government.
Franki said not knowing why the funeral expenses were covered means her daughter’s hardship can’t serve as a lesson to other people who find themselves in this situation.
“It can happen to any other family,” Franki said. “Because they’re not from the N.W.T…. then, you know, how would they come and bring them back home without the funding.”
That said, she’s glad the situation is over and that Amber is feeling better knowing her father is close by.