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After 3 years with no settlement, Fort McMurray woman wants Insurance Act changed

A Fort McMurray woman wants to see changes to the Insurance Act after struggling for three years to get an insurance settlement.

'We are still paying a mortgage on a pile of ashes,' homeowner says

Jaime Harpe says not being able to settle her insurance claim has taken a toll on her mental health. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

After struggling for three years to get a settlement, a Fort McMurray woman wants to see changes to the Insurance Act.

Jamie Harpe lost her home in the May 2016 wildfire that destroyed 15 per cent of the buildings in Alberta's oilsands city.

"Three years into it, we are still paying a mortgage on a pile of ashes, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight," she said.

After the fire, Harpe said, she was able to settle a claim for the cost of her home's contents with her insurance company, Aviva.

But the house claim remains unsettled.

Aviva declined to comment on the case, but Harpe said she will opt for a formal dispute resolution process.

Harpe bought a piece of land two doors down from her original house, and put a prefabricated home, pictured, on the property. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

The most recent estimate for the cost of the rebuild is from two years ago; Two different companies assessed the cost at between $3.1 million and $4.3 million, said Harpe, the president of an oilfield servicing company she owns with her husband.

She estimates the house was about 7,000 square feet. Her lawyer requested a quote for the cost of heating and hoarding — which includes a fence around the construction site to prevent unauthorized access and tarpaulins to cover the site and keep heat contained, allowing construction in winter — and that estimate came in at between $200,000 and $400,000.

The two parties almost came to an agreement recently, she said, except for one unresolved matter: who would pay the heating and hoarding costs.

Harpe said she doesn't think her family should have to shoulder that cost. 

She has been paying lawyers to help her with the claim, which she said has cost her about $70,000 over the last two years.

In the meantime, she bought property two doors down from her old house and put a prefabricated home there.

She says the money for living expenses from the insurance company ran out, and her family has been paying additional expenses out of pocket. 

Now they're paying for a second mortgage on top of almost $5,000 a month for the first mortgage.

The insurance industry is going to be here until the very last claim is closed in Fort McMurray.- Rob de Pruis, Insurance Bureau of Canada

She would like to see the Insurance Act changed so that companies have to pay additional living expenses for lengthy cases such as hers. 

"The Insurance Act seems to work for the insurance company, and when it comes to the consumer there are so many loopholes that the insurance companies can, in a sense, bully the hardworking Canadians."

At this point, she said, her payout should be higher than the cost of the rebuild, because of the additional money they've spent. 

The provincial and federal governments should make changes to insurance regulations that benefit consumers, she said

Harpe said the claim has taken a toll on her mental health.

"You still have to work. And you still have to live your day-to-day life. And in the meantime … you're always worried about what's happening with the rebuild."

Less than 1% of claims unresolved

The Fort McMurray wildfire was the most expensive insured disaster in Canadian history.

Rob de Pruis, director of consumer and industry relations for the western arm of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said more than 60,000 insurance claims were opened after the fire.

He said less than one per cent of those files remain open, and those are typically the complicated files, or ones where the company and homeowner couldn't come to an agreement.

An aerial photo of Harpe's home before it burned down. She says it shouldn't take three years to get an insurance settlement. (Submitted by Jaime Harpe)

De Pruis said in most cases when the claim is drawn out, it's because of misunderstandings or poor communication between the company and the homeowner.

There are options for the homeowner to pursue if an agreement can't be reached: the company's internal ombudsman or an independent company called the General Insurance Organization.

They can facilitate conversations between the two parties.

There is also a formal dispute resolution process, which is the route Harpe is taking. This is a facilitated discussion with representatives and specific timelines.

As a last resort, De Pruis said, the claim could go to court.

"The insurance industry is going to be here until the very last claim is closed in Fort McMurray," he said.

De Pruis said the IBC is available to help anyone who is struggling with an insurance claim.

About the Author

Jamie Malbeuf is a reporter with CBC News, based in Fort McMurray. She started her career with CBC in 2017, after graduating from MacEwan University with a major in journalism. She covers a range of topics including health, justice, and housing. Follow her on Twitter @JamieMalbeuf or email Jamie.Malbeuf@cbc.ca with a story idea.