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Canadian snowbirds

by Bill Graves

Canadians flock to the southern states and Mexico by the motorhome-load every northern winter. Thing is, they’re doing it tough with a weak dollar and spiralling health insurance costs. Not fair! At least they can find a house sitter who will not only work for free but who will pay their share of utility bills (phew).

November 2000

Economics, good weather and early retirement bring northern neighbours to the Sun Belt.

Once upon a time, you had to visit Canada or go to a hockey game to meet a Canadian. Now you just need to be where RVers gather in the winter. Arizona and Florida attract most of them. Still, RVs sporting maple leaf stickers are everywhere in the deserts of Southern California and on the beaches of Texas and Mexico during the winter.

Even from the frozen fields of the Yukon, they come by the thousands. RV park operators in Arizona and Southern California say that 15 to 20 percent of their winter guests are from Canada. Generally, they are a younger crowd than their American counterparts, and they stay in the Sun Belt for shorter periods.There are some very good reasons for this, most of them economic.

The national health insurance plans in Canada provide medical coverage only to Canadians who are physically in the country, or specifically, in their home province. If a Canadian is going to leave home for the winter, he is well advised to purchase private insurance to cover him and his family should the need for medical care arise while outside the country.

So how does that make the Canadian crowd younger and their stays shorter? Simply stated, only the young or young seniors can afford it in most cases. The older you are, the more expensive the insurance. And if you are not in reasonably good health, it becomes more expensive yet, often prohibitive, even for short periods.

Many of the Canadian snowbirds buy insurance for two or three months, with plans to arrive back home the day their health insurance policies expire. Their snowbird neighbors from Washington or Minnesota, for example, usually spend four to six months down here in the sun.

‘I’ll bet the majority of those condos and park models for sale around here are owned by Canadians. They bought them a few years back and now, as they have grown older and maybe their health has changed, it has become just too expensive for them to come down here anymore.’ Lin Wolf is a retired Air Canada pilot. We were sitting in the shade of his motorhome in Yuma, Arizona, talking about how insurance costs affect lifestyles. ‘It’s really a shame, too. These are the years that they should be down here if they want to. In many cases, they can’t, because the cost of insurance coverage has grown beyond their means.’

Lin said that he has seen most of the world from 35,000 feet. Now he is enjoying seeing it at ground level with his wife and daughter. Their first winter here, they were making daily sightseeing trips around Arizona and into nearby Mexico.

They have a satellite dish on which they receive programming from Canada, similar to the DirecTV (DDS/USSB) and Dish Network systems that are available in the states. Lin said that once they get 50 miles south of the Canadian border, they are in an information void. ‘Can’t get news about Canada in the American media,’ he said. ‘With the dish, we know that Canada still exists, even down here.’

Walking around Aluma RV park, John and Helen Schaly’s winter residence attracted me -not just because of the Canadian flag flying out front, but because of the ingenious way John had rigged their satellite dish. John had fabricated an extendible pole that attaches to the tow pin of his fifth-wheel. On the end, he mounts the dish. The pole extends out 8 feet horizontally and swings about 200 degrees.

‘I get to see all the hockey games,’ John said. ‘That’s the best part of having the dish. ‘John buys the basic programming service from Canada that gives him 21 Canadian stations for $8.95 a month.

John, age 56, is a retired welder from Barrie, Ontario. ‘Within an hour of John’s retirement,’ Helen said, ‘we were gone. Florida was first. We were exploring, so we worked our way to Texas, and then to Apache Junction, getting home about the end of March. We traveled 23,000 kilometers last year and that’s too much.’

This year they came directly to Yuma. Florida is too damp, John insisted, but Helen liked the strawberries there. Apache Junction, Arizona, was too busy, they agreed, and too smoggy. They like the weather here and say the cost of living is less in Yuma. And, I discovered, living costs take on a highly relevant and ominous significance down here when paid for with Canadian dollars.

The current exchange rate of the American versus the Canadian dollar makes every purchase here for a Canadian almost half again more expensive than for us. The number fluctuates, of course, but one US dollar costs roughly $1.20 in Canadian money. ‘It makes things not just more expensive, but it makes things cost more. Does that make sense?’ Jerry Stevenson asked, as he quoted me exchange rates. ‘In other words, it is as much a physiological thing as a very real economic fact. I am used to price tags with dollar signs. But down here I have to remember that there is like a hidden tax – analogous to a sales tax of almost 50 percent.’ Jerry is from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Richard Sadowick and his wife Shirli have spent winters in Arizona and in Mexico. Moving his hands simulating a scale, Richard said, ‘Prices used to be lower here than in Canada, but I have seen them slowly move up to where they are about even now.’ He added, ‘I might save $100 a month on utilities by being down here, and liquor is cheaper, especially in Mexico, but there the savings end.’

The Sadowicks operate an RV park in Prince George, British Columbia, and are still a number of years away from age 55, coincidentally the usual retirement age in Canada. ‘And that’s a problem down here,’ Richard said. ‘We encounter age discrimination. The parks here call themselves ‘adult parks,’ which means if you are not 55 or over, you are not an adult, I guess.’ Richard laughed. ‘I have gray hair. I can pass for 55. I just tell them that Shirli is my daughter.’

I mentioned that most of the Canadians I have met display the Canadian flag or have flag decals on their RVs. ‘We sure do,’ Shirli was quick to say. ‘Our RV park business is about 80 percent Americans. They tell us we Canadians are a friendly bunch. We want people to know that we are from Canada.’

A Canadian, who spends his winters in Mexico, told me that he displays the Canadian flag for very selfish reasons. He claimed that he was treated better when he crossed the border into Mexico. ‘There can be an RV with American tags being worked over, but they always smile and wave us on through,’ he said. ‘One reason they don’t bother us, they know that I am not carrying a gun.’

Connie and Hans Bron run a plant nursery in Grand Forks, British Columbia. So it’s appropriate, I guess, that Hans would plant a lawn next to his Komfort fifth-wheel. ‘A green spot in the desert,’ he calls it. ‘It’s just rye grass, good here for a few months,’ Hans said. ‘But he fertilizes it all the time,’ Connie was quick to add. This is their sixth winter down here and their third in Yuma.

I happened to catch Hans mowing the lawn and I had to stop for a picture. The lawn mower – they call it the ‘John Deere’ – they picked up at a garage sale. Hans painted it the colors of John Deere equipment and says he shares it with another fellow in the park.

Hans watches the Weather Channel every day. ‘This is the hottest place in the country. We love it and are here all winter.’ Connie is 51 and Hans is 60. They told me that they paid $900 for 150 days of private medical insurance.

Connie thinks that food is cheaper here than in Canada and Hans is not one to complain about the low cost of the Canadian dollar versus the American. As a Canadian businessman, it works to his advantage. His nursery ships into Washington, Idaho and Colorado by the semiload, he said. The low cost of Canadian currency makes his products less expensive in the States.

Ken and Paulette Arcand are in their early 70s and have spent the past nine winters in Arizona or in Mexico. I met them camped in the desert near Quartzsite. ‘I am a farmer, grain not cattle, so that’s how I can be gone all winter – nothing to keep us there. We seed in April and finish up in October.’ Their home is in Dollard, Saskatchewan.

Ken said that he uses his motorhome in farming and lives in it often in the summer since distances are so great. Winters used to be action-filled with kids and snowmobiling. But then the kids grew up and winters there got boring. So now they just pack the motorhome and head south as soon as the crop is out of the field.

‘It just seemed the natural thing to do,’ Ken said. ‘As long as the winter days are warm down here, we will keep coming back.’

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Bill Graves

About the author: Bill Graves

Bill Graves writes for US-based magazine, Trailer Life.