Moving for work comes at a cost — but $126K is a little rich, Joanne Seiff says

It cost roughly $15,000 to move more than 2,000 kilometres and across an international border. It certainly didn’t cost $80,382.55, which is what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, expensed.

How political aides moving within Ontario could spend more than prof crossing borders is puzzling

Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, senior staff in the Prime Minister's Office, said they will repay more than $65,000 in moving expenses. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It's hard to move to a new place for your work. It's even harder to move in a hurry for your partner, who has just taken a new, challenging, income-boosting (you hope) job elsewhere. For a spouse and kids, everything is uprooted on behalf of someone else. You have to have faith that this is all for the best. It's time-consuming and expensive.

Every time I need to pack up, it's a struggle. It's hard to say goodbye to that yard, that living space or a good view, never mind the good friends and work connections.

I married someone who was recruited to work at a Canadian university, a job confirmed with only one month to find a house and move 2,025 kilometres from the U.S. to Winnipeg. Even though I packed one box steadily each day for months while waiting to hear whether we would move, the amount we had to accomplish in that one month was monumental, starting with buying a house in Winnipeg.

I must have a lot in common with those Liberal ministers' aides who had to uproot their lives and move to Ottawa, right?

Well, yes and no. The move across an international border is more challenging than moving from one city to another in Ontario. Each box we packed had to be numbered and labelled.

At the border, we were responsible for the exact contents of every box. Who packed it? What was in it? Anything could be searched. Of course, there are a lot of rules that determined which household belongings had to be abandoned rather than cross the border.

Since 9/11, cross-border banking regulations have tightened up. We had a hard time transferring money without incurring long waits and high fees. Although we had a good credit history and owned a house in the U.S., buying a house here required a large down payment. We paid much more in mortgage costs than a local. We had a hard time finding a bank that would grant us a mortgage at all.

Due to the time it took to get settled in a new country and the way our work permits came through, it took me about six months to start working and earning income again. Many of my freelance connections in the U.S. could no longer easily do business with me because of the international border.

Ever seen those positions that mention "U.S. residents only" or "Canadian citizenship or permanent residency required?" Yup, it meant I had to find work from scratch due to this move for my partner's career.

We were offered $8K

We were offered a moving allowance of $8,000 to get our belongings across the continent. This was the most the University of Manitoba offered in 2009 in relocation costs to faculty members on the basis of household size and the distanced moved. (It was about $2,000 more than we'd been offered in the previous move, and about average for higher education faculty.) It cost more than that to move our household, roughly $15,000, even though we packed our own boxes. We drove our own cars more than 2,000 kilometres to make the move.

It certainly didn't cost $80,382.55, which is what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, expensed.

Of two staffers mentioned in the news, Telford's expenses were actually lower. Gerald Butts, Trudeau's political advisor, originally claimed $126,669.56 in moving expenses. Each of these political aides cost more in moving expenses than the average Canadian makes in a year. Overall, it cost Trudeau's government more than a million dollars to move and set up shop in Ottawa.

At tax time, our accountant advised us not to claim moving expenses beyond our university allowance as tax deductions. Our taxes were already so complicated during the year we landed in Canada that he suggested it would be a sure way to get a Canada Revenue Agency audit. As Americans, we pay taxes to two different countries. An audit sounded like more than we could handle, so we didn't claim anything and saved no money there.

We slept on the floor

Despite our careful planning, we slept on the floor of our new house for 10 days until our belongings crossed the border and got through customs. We didn't get a hotel room or a "temporary rental lodgings" stipend, as did Gerald Butts — the relocation amount provided to us didn't go that far. We couldn't afford to spend another $1,500 or so on a hotel room. Due to our detailed records, we didn't pay extra fees at the border, but it was a big worry.

We didn't have our real estate fees, travel costs or "personalized cash and incidentals" covered, unlike the government staffers. Most people are not reimbursed for those costs when they make long-distance moves. We even paid a special licence fee to the City of Winnipeg so the moving truck could park on the street near our house to unload.

As our furniture came off the truck, we discovered it had all been unpacked and repacked in transit. Our piano was seriously damaged during the move when it fell off the truck. The moving insurance payout to fix the piano didn't completely cover the repair costs.

We did an informal account of our household's move and found we'd spent a lot of our savings to make it work. I'd also lost income in the transition. It's hard to calculate international moving costs in advance. Cost of living calculations between countries are difficult. Daily currency fluctuations also affect how much a move will cost. We'd both lost sleep wondering when our beds would arrive and how we'd make ends meet. (Our piano will never be the same!) 

To be fair, Trudeau's aides have offered to forego some of their relocation allowance. Telford announced she will pay back $23,373.71. Butts will return $41,618.62. That leaves a final payout of relocation expenses of more than $57,000 for Telford and more than $85,000 for Butts to move 450 kilometres.

Doing some math reveals Canadian taxpayers will still be paying these staffers between $126 and $189 per kilometre. Our family's reimbursement rate for relocation expenses: $3.95 per kilometre.

Gold-plated relocation deals

Let's be clear: We're not complaining about what we were offered in terms of relocation costs. We willingly paid out of pocket to make the move. We placed a high value on the opportunity my husband was offered to contribute to higher education, research and science policy development. We saw the extra moving costs as part of the contribution we made to serve the Canadian public. Based on our household budget, we made careful financial choices about how to structure our move.

These two Trudeau government staffers were also offered a remarkable opportunity to serve the Canadian public. Did they use care and discretion when it came to making choices about using taxpayers' money for their move between cities in Ontario? If they weren't offered these gold-plated relocation deals, would they have moved to Ottawa anyway?

When seen in the most favourable light, politicians are public servants. They're knowledgeable experts who work hard and make big decisions that affect Canada's future. However, academics recruited to teach in Canada are also experts. Professors shape Canadians' future through teaching, research and policy development.

Does Canadian society feel that moving one political aide across the province is truly worth more than 10 times the allotted international moving costs associated with hiring one professor as a Canada Research Chair? Why?

Joanne Seiff is a freelancer who writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.