THUNDER BAY — John-Bryan Gardner has worked at family-owned Everest of Thunder Bay for 44 years, and has never seen the funeral home sector under as much stress as it is today.
The local funeral director says the lack of licensed directors has created a crisis in Northwestern Ontario that's "flying below the radar, and nobody seems to be listening."
In a letter to Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Kevin Holland, he said the region needs six to 12 additional funeral directors to handle current shortages, and four to six additional people per year to cover off normal attrition.
Gardiner told TBnewswatch that four funeral homes in the Northwest have closed over the past 14 months, and close to a dozen licensed directors have retired or gone to other professions, further increasing the workload for the remaining ones.
"We're not replacing them fast enough, and we couldn't replace them fast enough under the current system," he said.
On Family Day weekend last month, Everest was called to begin funeral arrangements for 12 people, including four from out in the region, and had only one licensee and one support worker available to handle all of them.
Gardiner has been urging politicians and the industry regulator — the Bereavement Authority of Ontario — to work on fixing the problem.
A spokesperson for Holland said he was unavailable for comment, but the office of Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford issued a statement.
"Our government is acutely aware of the staffing shortages facing the bereavement sector in Northern Ontario," the statement reads.
The statement noted that the Bereavement Authority of Ontario is "in discussions with partners on how to generate additional licensees across Ontario."
Gardiner said he has submitted some ideas of his own, but that he has only received "lip service" from the regulator.
He believes one way to address the shortage is to facilitate more funeral director training at the local level.
"Currently, the only way for somebody to become a licensed funeral director is to attend a year in college, typically in Toronto, and then a year internship in a funeral home," Gardiner said.
"That has always been a challenge for Northern Ontario people, but in recent years it's become quite a barrier, especially with older people where it's a second career for them or they're already working in a funeral home," he explained. "It's just not feasible for them to give up their job for a year and move away from family and so on."
Gardiner said other provinces have apprenticeship programs.
"You do six weeks in school, and then on the job, and then a year later six more weeks of school or something along those lines," he said.
He feels that would be much more practical, both for trainees and for funeral homes in Northwestern Ontario.
Gardiner also believes it's important to incentivize existing staff and other "adult students" to obtain their licenses.
"The young people that are coming out of Humber College to do internships in funeral homes...many of them are under 20 years old. There are some I can't even hire because they don't even have a driver's licence. And the attrition rates with those younger kids is phenomenal."
At Blake Funeral Chapel in Thunder Bay, funeral director and manager Greg Sargent said his staffing situation is "in a good spot" currently but he's aware there's a shortage of funeral directors elsewhere in the area.
Sargent thinks changes in the training system could help.
"There are a lot of people interested in becoming funeral directors, but the cost of moving to Toronto for the year of schooling has deterred people from doing it. We have talked to the funeral board about potentially changing the program to make it more online learning, so people maybe have to travel to Toronto once a month for a few days to do some lab work there," he said.
Sargent said this would likely open up more applications from residents of the North.
"Right now, trying to entice people from southern Ontario to come up as apprentices is getting harder and harder.... You can't find people that are willing to stray too far from where they've grown up."
Industry stakeholders are discussing how to generate more licensed professionals
TBnewswatch reached out to the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which responded in writing to submitted questions.
It stated that smaller Ontario communities are more prone to shortages in many sectors, including the funeral and death care sector, and that in the North there are fewer staffing resources.
"In addition, there appears to be a generational change occurring whereby the younger generation is not interested in or willing to take over the family business," the authority said.
Although the bereavement authority is focused on consumer protection and on guiding licensed professionals in meeting legal requirements, it said it has "started discussions with the sector, colleges and associations on how to generate additional licensees across the sector."
Darren Denomme, executive director of the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals, agreed the need for staff has become more critical in some areas of the province than others, and said he's aware of the shortage in the Northwest.
"We're working on ways right now to entice more individuals into the sector. We're working with the BAO and the two colleges that do funeral director education to see if there are ways to work on expediting licensing, adapting education, enticing people into the sector," he said.
Denomme said he sees value in reviewing how education is offered, including online remote training overseen by OACFP members or educational institutions.
From his perspective, the staffing issue is "a high priority" for the BAO, and "they are entertaining all sorts of suggestions as to how we can alleviate the shortage."
Toronto-area funeral director and funeral home operator Graeme Hogle teaches in the funeral service education program at Humber College.
He said enrolment in the program and graduation rates have held steady for years, but across Ontario it's not uncommon for funeral homes to have trouble getting enough staff.
That's not a recent development, Hogle said, as there has always been "a constant turnover of people coming in and leaving for whatever reason."
During the height of the COVID pandemic, Humber provided training online, and he believes different hybrid models for delivering the course are currently under consideration.
"Most of the people could stay home, which was a big advantage to a lot of people. Maybe that would be attractive to a lot more people taking the program, and then still come in to do their hands-on learning experiences."
But Hogle cautioned that the issue of retention still remains to be dealt with.
"I think we really need to look at why people aren't staying in our industry. Should we be looking at different ways of running our funeral homes? Running them in ways that people are more comfortable to stay longer-term."