Fiona ripped the shingles off the Seruntines’ roof. Photo contributed

Cliff Seruntine and his wife Daphne live in a 180-year-old wooden house in Merigomish, Pictou County, in the Barney’s River area. During tropical storm Fiona five days ago, the wind blew off parts of the roof. Like thousands of people living in Cumberland, Colchester, and Pictou Counties in northern Nova Scotia, Cliff is without electricity. 

“A police officer did a safety check here two days ago and told us at that time there will probably be no power nor phones for at least a week, but we have a generator,” said Seruntine.” We are presently sleeping in the two rooms of the house that, for one reason or another, did not get water damage as we try to figure out what to do. We are scrambling to find someone to patch the roof and wanting to get an estimate for a steel roof, but we don’t even know if the house can be saved due to the extensive water damage.”

The Halifax Examiner is communicating with Seruntine by email. He has an internet connection thanks to satellite service via Starlink. 

Seruntine is a psychotherapist by profession who works out of his home office. He and Daphne moved to Nova Scotia 16 years ago. They did not have insurance on their home when Fiona hit because the company that had been insuring their property — Anderson McTague — declined to renew their coverage. 

The couple lost insurance coverage in May 2021, more than a year ago. Seruntine says despite his efforts, he was unable to find any other company that would insure him. One company refused on the grounds his two milking goats and vegetable garden constituted “a farm.” 

According to Seruntine the house is well-built and was in “good condition” prior to the storm. 

 “We tried every other rural property insurer we could find listed for Nova Scotia,” said Seruntine. “There were not many offering insurance on older homes in rural settings anymore. They all flat-out refused us on the basis that we use wood heat. One insurance agent told us that with real estate prices skyrocketing, insurance companies were opting only to insure modern, high value homes meeting the latest standards. There would be no more grandfathering in older homes. From what we have been able to gather, this means many rural Nova Scotians, just like us, were suddenly left dangling with no insurance.”

Seruntine continued:

I think that the Fiona disaster is going to lead to the public becoming more aware of this. I work as a psychotherapist, and I see people every single week suffering as much from the predatory practices of Canada’s insurance companies as I do from the events that led to their initial trauma.  I hope to see Nova Scotia one day develop socialized insurance more similar to that available in British Columbia.

What’s next?

Seruntine is in the process of seeing if he is eligible to receive any of the Disaster Relief Assistance announced by Premier Tim Houston on Monday. (It’s not been easy during the past two days when Seruntine’s focus has been on working to keep the pouring rain from damaging the remainder of the house). 

Houston said the purpose of the provincial Disaster Relief Fund is to help cover “uninsurable losses” or gaps in coverage experienced by homeowners (on primary residences) and small businesses. 

Before he applies, Seruntine asked his former insurance agent for a letter explaining why his home was no longer insurable. He provided a copy of that letter to the Examiner.

“The letter from the insurance company essentially says the insurance backers have decided to pursue more lucrative structures in the current market,” said Seruntine in an email. “But that’s what the agent had told us; they were dropping insurees to insure more expensive, modern places. Since all this happened, we’ve learned a lot of other rural Scotians occupying older homes are facing the same dilemma we are.”

The dilemma is finding any company willing to insure a heritage home that heats with wood in a rural area. This is a big issue, according to Seruntine, and one that needs to be addressed by politicians and regulators alike. Meanwhile…

“Now that we have that letter from the insurance agent, we can at least begin applying for the province’s disaster aid. Yesterday, I went to New Glasgow where they finally had some services available, and I re-activated my cell phone and stocked up on generator fuel. Today, we hope to get a roofer here to at least mount a tarp over the roof.”

a collection of buckets under a leaky roof
The Seruntines have placed buckets under the worst parts of the broken roof. Photo contributed

Cliff and Daphne have an outdoorsy background, having offered workshops on conservation and natural history topics such as foraging.

“We lived in the Alaskan bush for many years and we teach courses on back-to-basics skills, so we have the skillset to work through this, given time and resources,” said Seruntine. “For me, the challenge at the moment is working, because I work from home and must have phone access. At this time, I am still trying to figure out the best plan.” 

At the time of this writing, the afternoon of Sept. 28, the Seruntines’ phone service had just been restored. 

How long that will last, or how long it will be before the lights come back on in rural areas of northern Nova Scotia, is very uncertain given the magnitude of the area and the magnitude of the destruction caused by so many fallen trees and power poles. About 100,000 households are still waiting to be re-connected and Nova Scotia Power said today while most customers should get power back by Friday, others will be waiting “into next week.”

Hard-hit residents such as the Seruntines are being encouraged to apply for the Disaster Financial Relief through their provincial MLA’s office. Houston estimated all the relief programs will cost about $40 million (this includes small cheques for people on income assistance, seniors, and households with food spoilage due to prolonged outages). 

Hopefully it won’t take too long to get the money into the hands of people who desperately need it for immediate repairs.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Another important aspect regarding insurability of homes is that mortgage companies insist on the owners having insurance as part of the mortgage lending agreement. This could become a huge problem.

  2. I’m currently in France, where we live in a 450 year old house, and where wood heat – both logs and pellets – is widely used, yet everyone has insurance, at a reasonable price, with no problem.
    this is all about greed, and nothing more, on the part of Canadian insurance companies.

  3. We have a 70’s era mobile home. It was built CSA approved with newly ungraded electrical infrastructure, electric heat and a woodstove. The house has tornado strapping and is in good repair. Insurance company wouldn’t even look at it because it was too old.
    Insurance should no longer be a requirement as we cannot, as a society, afford to rebuild all housing stock every 50 years.

    1. Depending on when those shingles were installed and who did it, they may not have had the resources or knowledge. It may not have been a requirement either. With that many shingles gone, underlayment wouldn’t help in any case.

      1. The shingles look quite new. The chimney looks quite new as does the flashing around the chimney. The roof is boards and the boards should have been covered with sheets of 4 x 8 plywood and then the underlay and then the shingles. Not cheap. Our whole roof was replaced 3 years after we bought the house (built in 1917).

  4. Jennifer: Worth noting that auto insurance is government run in BC (and MB, SK, and to a limited degree in QC) – and not without its own issues. Property Insurance in all of Canada is in the private sector.
    Cases like this are unfortunate, but very complicated. Like someone trying to get a drivers license, not every property can meet the basic qualifications. A government run program is not going to fix that.
    You will soon see some form of widely available flood insurance program that is back stopped by the GofC. But, some properties will simply not qualify, because of their precarious locations.

    1. I don’t know why you addressed Jennifer directly as it was the homeowners comment. Indicating that an alternative option has flaws suggests you believe an option should be perfect to be a realistic option. Neither reflect an opening that would lead the reader to a deeper understanding of alternatives to the current closed door that all insurance companies have for this situation. I join the homeowner in believing there needs to be insurance offered when people are living in an imperfect but not derelict home. In my reading, the so called “reasons” are unreasonable and self serving for the company. They are not in accordance with what should be the goal of the house insurance industry: insuring homeowners in a way that both the company and client are fairly served.

      1. Well, Jennifer wrote the article, obviously it was not her comment.
        “Penny Wise”, should premiums be commensurate with the risk, or should we all pay the same for home insurance? If the former, the subjects of the story may still be out of luck relative a homeowner who lives in the quiet private enjoyment of their home, with no business carried out there, not to mention various building updates, and heat sources.
        Insurance is by nature the purest form of a socialized financial instrument.