Nfld. & Labrador

'Avalanche' of personal debt has doubled N.L. insolvency rates since 2014, insider says

Personal debt has ballooned in the past decade, and thousands of people can't pay it off.

Not just the oil bust leading to bankruptcies

Financial troubles can start with simple purchases that add up to a lot of unsecured debt. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Personal insolvencies have doubled in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2014, pointing to a troubled economy for residents hit hard by a bank-busting trifecta.

An oil bust, plummeting real estate values and tanking employment numbers, all emerging in the last half-decade, have led many throughout the province straight through Sean Stack's office door.

"There's a lot of people struggling," Stack, a St. John's-based insolvency trustee, said. He's seen the intimate financial details of people in a vast array of sticky spots — more now than he's ever seen before, he said.

Insolvency is an agreement between a debtor and creditor that's made when someone can't pay off their debts. Some of them take the form of bankruptcies; others, consumer proposals, where someone facing financial ruin might make an offer to their creditors to settle their debts and avoid filing a formal bankruptcy.

Stack says there's no single reason driving up the number of people asking for help. 

It's becoming harder for people to bear it.

"I know the conversation of the last several years was the downturn in oil," he said. But now that conversation has swelled and splintered, egged on by a domino effect. 

"People's houses aren't valued what they once were. So if they need to sell or if they were hoping to refinance that might not be the option they once thought it was," he said. "So it's harder for tradespeople to find employment."

And factoring into the banking woes, he said, are real mental health issues stemming from the stress of keeping everything afloat.

"There's lots of tears," Stack said. "You hear more than just about the financial difficulties.… There's other issues that they need to explain and they're finally having an ear and somebody to speak to."

Sean Stack, an insolvency trustee, says he's seeing a spike in people coming to him for financial help. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Stack said financial trouble often starts with a simple purchase — like paying for winter tires on a credit card. 

"The real issue is when the surprise happens after you've built up an amount of unsecured debt," he said. "If you end up having to go on stress leave or if you have somebody needs emergency dental work, or if there's a marital breakdown, or a health issue, or a state of emergency where you miss a week's work.

"Any of these things can be the thing that puts you over the brink."

Stack estimates about 6,000 people have filed for insolvency in this province in the past two years.

$200 safety net

Although Newfoundland and Labrador appears to have above-average rates compared with the rest of the country, financial stress isn't unique to this province.

An Ipsos survey last year reported almost half of Canadians are $200 away from insolvency. In Atlantic Canada, Stack said, it's about 55 per cent.

Forty-five per cent of those surveyed countrywide in 2019 also said they'll need to dig themselves further into debt to pay their living and family expenses.

"Low interest rates and easy access to credit have driven people to borrow more and more," he said.

"And it's becoming harder for people to bear it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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