On the morning of the big show, Joe Regan went out in his bare feet to collect the paper from his lawn in Largo, Fla. His friend Herb Heyes picked a couple of grapefruit from the tree outside his condominium in nearby Seminole. The temperature would nudge 26° C around Tampa Bay that day, with a light breeze off the Gulf of Mexico to keep things comfortable. As Regan, 73, and Heyes, who is 75, set off together for the Florida State Fairgrounds to join thousands of other, mainly elderly Canadians who winter in the area, they could reflect with satisfaction that back home in southern Ontario the high for the day would be barely above freezing and the skies would stay leaden and low. “But you know,” Regan added after a pause, “as much as I like it here, I get hungry for my own people.”
About two million Canadians are expected to visit Florida this winter, and most will be happy to put Canada out of their minds for the week or two it takes to visit Disney World or soak up a few rays. But for Regan and 400,000 other so-called snowbirds, who spend four to six months a year in the state’s
condo developments and mobile home parks, homesickness can darken even the sunniest morning. For a couple of days in January, though, they can get together and flaunt their Canadianness. Regan and Heyes were heading for the Snowbird Extravaganza, a unique event that attracted 25,000 people when it began in 1994. This year, attendance topped 80,000—and the fairground’s vast parking lot turned into a sea of cars with licence plates from Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, as well as wintry American states like Ohio and Michigan. Organizer Mark Simone calls it, with a only touch of hyperbole, “the biggest gathering of Canadians outside the borders of Canada, aside from wartime.”
ON ASSIGNMENT ANDREW PHILLIPS IN FLORIDA
It is part entertainment, part trade show for seniors, and part organizing session for the Canadian Snowbird Association, the 100,000-member group that speaks for Canadians who trek south each year to winter in the American Sunbelt. Mostly, though, it is a rallying point for Canadians of a certain age who find themselves gazing at citrus groves but hankering for home. All-day entertainment is free, and features veterans of
the old Lawrence Welk orchestra—the music of your life, if you are 67 or thereabouts (the average age of CSA members). Pastel is the fashion statement of choice, and anyone not paying attention in the crowded aisles risks a sharp crack on the ankle from a motorized wheelchair. Companies pushing investment services and immigration counselling jostle with others promoting retirement communities and vision aids. A clinic in Tampa touts treatment for varicose veins, complete with graphic beforeand-after photographs.
£ Still, the gathering offers I snowbirds more than com! fort and nostalgia. The CSA g has an impressive track record in fighting attempts by governments to cut back on out-ofprovince medical coverage—threatening the six-months-away lifestyle of many retirees. And, by default, it has become the place Canadians turn to when they feel less than entirely welcome in the Sunshine State. For the most part, of course, they blend in easily with Americans—but there are tensions. Floridians grouse that Canadians tip badly and clog up the roads (favorite bumper sticker: “When I get old I’m going to move to Canada and drive slow”). And last year, Canadian noses were out of joint when the manager of a mobile home park in Clearwater ordered a couple from Toronto to stop flying their Maple Leaf flag, or at least to fly the Stars and Stripes above it. Clearwater’s mayor and the original complainant later apologized, but the couple never did put the flag back up.
This year, there is the Great Food Flap. In December, Florida’s department of elder affairs issued a memo telling its regional managers not to serve foreigners free meals under a program that provides services to low-income seniors. The department says it used the word “snowbirds,” which could also refer to part-time residents from the northern states. But trouble started when it was widely reported that one draft of the memo had singled out elderly Canadians as freeloaders. No one offered evidence that any Canadian had actually shown up for a free lunch, and Le Soleil de la Floride, a French-language paper aimed at Canadians living in south Florida, accused the state of discrimination. Finally, in early January, the department retreated: it withdrew its memo and said it was sorry.
But the damage was done, and at the
Snowbird Extravaganza Canadian expats were still fuming. “In my experience I have never known any Canadian lining up for a free meal,” huffed Hazen Walters, the 59-year-old treasurer of the CSA, who comes from Gander, Nfld., and winters in Port Charlotte on Florida’s Gulf coast. “There’s been some negative feeling.
You get people saying, ‘Those God damn Canadians coming down here crowding our highways and our golf courses. Now they’re trying to get free meals.’ Many, many Canadians were totally upset that they’d been accused of freeloading.” In fact, the incident has had some positive results.
The town of Panama City Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, decided to do something to make up for the bruised feelings and recognize the importance of Canadian snowbirds to the local economy. In mid-February, it is planning its first-ever Canada Fest, complete with a Canadian Snowbird Open Golf Tournament.
When snowbirds talk about problems with governments, though, they are usually talking about their own. The CSA was born in March, 1992, after cost-conscious governments started cutting back on out-ofprovince health coverage. Ontario led the
way in late 1991, when it reduced the amount it would pay—first to $400 a day for hospital care, then to $100. Other provinces followed suit, and supplemental health insurance premiums went through the roof. Instead of paying $600 or so for six months,
Politicians in Canada take the group very seriously
elderly couples faced bills of up to $3,000 a day. Nothing makes snowbirds angrier than that—unless it is any suggestion that those who can afford to winter down south should also pay more for health insurance. “It’s insulting,” snapped Mary Stewart, an 82-yearold from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough who spends the winter in Lakeland,
Fla. “We figure we’ve been paying taxes and went through a war, and there should be universal coverage.”
The snowbirds’ association is pressuring provinces to pay more—the same as they pay for hospital care at home. “That’s what the Canada Health Act says they should pay,” argues Don Slinger, the CSA’s feisty 75-year-old president. “But they’ve been breaking the law—all of them.” In fact, after being lobbied energetically by the association, Ontario’s Conservative government put its out-of-province hospital payments back up to $400 a day. The CSA is now suing two other provinces: British Columbia, which pays only $75 a day, and Quebec, which cut its payments to $100 last fall. At the same time, it contracted with Medipac International Inc. of North York, Ont., for cheaper group insurance. As a result, a typical couple aged 65 to 70 can expect to pay about $850 for a six-month policy—considerably below what it cost at the peak.
All of which goes to show that snowbirds are not to be taken for granted. Ontario sent its minister responsible for seniors, Cam Jackson, to mix and mingle at the Snowbird Extravaganza and assure the CSA’s supporters that Premier Mike Harris’s government takes their concerns very seriously. Entrepreneurs are fighting for their dollars, and other areas are trying to lure them away from Florida. Half a dozen Mexican states put on a concerted push in Tampa to persuade snowbirds that Florida is overpriced and dangerous, and they should consider the charms of Yucátan or Jalisco instead. At Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara on Mexico’s Pacific coast, some 10,000 Canadians already winter along with 30,000 Americans. And new developments in the Yucátan Peninsula are targeting the Canadian snowbird market. “The cost of living is a third of what it is in America or Canada,” says Braulio Castillo, who promotes a condo project called Progresso on Mexico’s Gulf coast. ‘You get a lot more for your dollar.” Florida overwhelmingly remains the destination of choice, however. But the market is changing fast. Those like Joe Regan and his wife, Evelyn, who dreamed of retiring to the sun and were happy with a modest dwelling in a mobile home park, are a dwindling breed. The value of those homes has plunged; people in their 40s and 50s are looking instead to pricier condo developments on the coasts. Those who study the market expect the next generation of snowbirds to spend less time in the south so they can keep working longer, at least part-time. Baby boomers, they predict, will want to run consulting businesses out of their condos instead of spending all day at the golf course. The Snowbird Extravaganza may well keep going—but to the tunes of Motown and the Beatles rather than Lawrence Welk. □
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