Alberta Oil Downturn Has Families Looking To Leave Province

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Lora Major, her husband Danny, and their three children Arya, four, Roland, six, and Everett, eight, are selling all their belongs and moving to Ecudaor. | Jeff McIntosh/CP

CALGARY — Amid the dozens of Calgarians posting online moving sale ads in the aftermath of the oil price crash, Lora and Danny Major's story is typical, even if their relocation destination isn't.

Next month, the couple plans to move with their three preteen children to Cuenca, Ecuador. Until that moment arrives, they'll be selling almost everything they own in garage sales and leaving an uncertain future in the oilpatch.

Lora, 37, says the idea of moving overseas grew out of a "cyclical conversation" since Danny, 38, was laid off last October from his job as a process engineer for a major oilsands producer. He found employment with an engineering/design firm soon after, but hasn't been happy with a job he says is less challenging, more stressful and offers fewer benefits.

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The Major family is filling their garage with items for sale before their move from Calgary to Ecuador. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)

"He said, 'Well, someone's got to pay for this house,'" recalls Lora, who trained as a biomedical engineer but has been home with the children since the family moved from Edmonton eight years ago.

"Then we looked at each other and said, 'Well, why? Why do we have to pay for this house? Why are we here? Why don't we take the opportunity we've always talked about and try something new?'"

Largest outmigration since 2009

Statistics Canada says Alberta lost a net 1,790 residents to other parts of Canada in the first three months of this year, the largest quarterly decrease since late 2009, the last time oil prices took a nosedive.

The outmigration should be good news for moving companies. But Doug Jasper, general manager of AMJ Campbell Calgary and a 30-year industry veteran, says that's not the case.

"It's a different kind of move this year," he says.

"Most people right now — you hear about all the people who have been laid off and everything — they are moving small quantities either by themselves or by freight because what we're seeing in the houses we go into, the furniture has all been sold.

"Instead of having the three-bedroom house that you look at and go, 'Wow, that will fill a trailer,' that's not the case this year. Before, you might have one, maybe two families' (belongings) on a trailer. Now you're having 10 or 11 families on a trailer."

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The Lora Major organizes items for sale before her family's move from Calgary to Ecuador. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Jasper says families leaving Calgary are trying to save money on their move because they don't have an employer to pay for it.

A furnished house move from Alberta to Ontario that might have weighed 5,400 kilograms — and cost $12,000 based on weight — now weighs and pays half as much. And customers who book a move are generally doing their own packing to cut costs, Jasper says.

For Jasper, that means residential moving revenue in the 2015-16 fiscal year ending June 30 was down 22 to 23 per cent from the previous year.

"For the most part it's mementoes, it's their real, personal things that they don't want to part with. It's the family pictures, it's the grandmother's china and so on that form part of that move."

Fred Haladay, chief commercial officer for Atlas Van Lines, Canada's largest association of moving companies, says internal industry statistics show the overall weight moved by the country's top five van lines for corporate clients in Alberta last year fell by about 18 per cent from 2014. It is down another six per cent so far this year.

Haladay says moves from Alberta paid for by individuals, which represent about half of the provincial moving business, declined by about 13 per cent last year but have rebounded about two per cent so far this year.

"Some of the severance packages are starting to run out. They have to make a decision," says Haladay.

"They don't want to spend a great deal on relocation costs so they are making that ultimate decision on what really needs to go. And for the most part it's mementoes, it's their real, personal things that they don't want to part with. It's the family pictures, it's the grandmother's china and so on that form part of that move.

"The appliances, the sofas, you know, things they can get rid of at a yard sale, they would."

Move-it-yourself trend

Gordon Anderson, southern Alberta president for U-Haul, says the move-it-yourself trend has been great for his truck and trailer renting business. He says more of his customers are leaving Alberta than returning.

"While that makes it challenging to keep the amount of equipment on hand to meet demand, we're doing all we can to take care of our customers during this busy moving season," he says.

Lora Major says the family's garage sales feature beds, a poker table, toys, clothing, Christmas decorations and housewares. Some bigger or more prized items will go to friends or family under long-term lending arrangements.

"We're planning on getting rid of almost everything," she says. "We're not taking anything with us or leaving anything in the house."

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The Major family is moving from Calgary to Ecuador. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)

After deciding to leave the country, the Majors concluded Ecuador was a cheap, safe place to live and they travelled there in April to check it out.

The two-week visit sold them. Danny gave notice he would leave his job by mid-July.

"This is pretty much the first time in my career where circumstances allow me to take some time off. The job market's down a lot. How long will I have a job? I don't know," he says.

"It's kind of now or never because the economy will turn. It always does. When things pick up, I'm not going to be able to justify taking two years off."

The couple plan to live on revenue from their interests in a half dozen residential condo properties in Edmonton, plus rent from their Calgary house if it doesn't sell. Both grew up in Alberta and neither speaks Spanish well, but they're excited.

"We'll give it a try for two years and we may stay if the budget situation works out and if we're happy there," says Lora.

Follow @HealingSlowly on Twitter.

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