In a typical year, hundreds of thousands of retired Canadians choose to spend weeks or months of the winter season living abroad, often from November or December to March or April, in warmer climates to escape the colder weather at home that can limit mobility and social interactions. While there is not reliable tracking of this transnational mobility to give a precise number of travellers or specific destinations, Statistics Canada (2019) estimates that at least 300,000–375,000 older Canadians stay seasonally in the United States (US) or Mexico each year, while others have suggested that 500,000–1,000,000 annually travel to the US alone (Desrosiers-Lauzon 2009). This sizeable annual seasonal movement of older people is known as “international retirement migration,” and it is a rapidly growing residential strategy that is participated in internationally (Rodriguez et al. 2004). Canadian international retirement migrants are known popularly as “snowbirds,” which references the cyclical nature of their annual journeys abroad. International retirement migration is not a transnational practice open to all, however, as older people with strong personal and financial resources are usually best situated to have the money, time, and health status needed to be able to live abroad seasonally (Longino et al. 2002). For older Canadians and others who do opt for retirement migration, the costs of maintaining housing at home and abroad while also covering food, health care, transportation, and other expenses are typically offset by the social, cultural, health, and recreational gains brought on by this practice (Pickering et al. 2019). Similarly, for destinations that host retirement migrants, the logistical burdens of a sudden seasonal population influx are greatly offset by economic gains to the service, health care, and housing sectors (Sastry 1992; Bennett 1996; Desrosiers-Lauzon 2009).
For Canadian international retirement migrants, the 2020 calendar year was anything but typical. Following initial circulation of the COVID-19 virus early in the year, on March 11 the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic (WHO 2020). By March 16, Canada’s federal government urged Canadians who were abroad to return home as soon as possible (Canadian Snowbird Association 2020). Certainly, Canadian international retirement migrants who were wintering in any number of popular destinations were intended recipients of such messaging. On March 16, further escalation occurred when Canada and the US announced the closure of their shared land border for non-essential travel to go into effect as of March 21 (Department of Homeland Security 2020; Statistics Canada 2020). Anyone abroad for non-essential travel at that point in time who required re-entry by land, including Canadian international retirement migrants undertaking lifestyle-driven travel, needed to return to Canada quite quickly. As of March 25, all travellers arriving into Canada through any type of border were expected to quarantine indoors for two weeks, including international retirement migrants returning home (Government of Canada 2020). These land border closures and quarantine measures remained in effect for the remainder of the 2020 calendar year and thereafter. In the early months of 2020, the onset of these travel and border measures disrupted the annual winter 2019/20 migration cycle for those still abroad, with many making rushed plans to leave international residences and return home immediately (e.g., Penner 2020). The continuation of these same measures through to late 2020 impacted the 2020/21 annual winter migration of older Canadians, with intended travellers making tough decisions regarding if and how they could go abroad and needing to understand whether or not their movements constituted essential travel (e.g., Bresge 2020; Smith 2020).
The transnational practice of international retirement migration is inherently geographic. For example, the strong place-based social ties that international retirement migrants typically create in destinations (Pickering et al. 2019) serve to illustrate Skinner et al.’s (2014) contention that older people look to build strong connections to place as a way of enhancing well-being. Further to this, Pickering et al. (2021) have shown that Canadian international retirement migrants undertake preparatory activities at home (e.g., purchasing international health insurance coverage) that assist them with managing their lives and health while abroad, thereby connecting these distant places through intentional actions. Meanwhile, in a recent review piece that reflected on the changing geographies of international retirement migration, King et al. (2021) pointed out that most research on this practice is heavily focused on migrants’ lives in the destination and does not fully consider the transnational links between home and destination countries and the spatio-temporality of this mobility. In the current analysis we deeply consider such links and spatio-temporalities as we focus specifically on 2020, when border access, ease of movement, and regulatory environments changed quickly and dramatically for Canadian international retirement migrants due to the pandemic management measures outlined above.
Here we present a framing analysis of Canadian print media coverage of international retirement migrants in 2020, which marked the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global pandemics and their management can create disruptions in the lives of many, and especially those for whom travel across international borders is necessary (Grépin et al. 2021). It is thus not surprising that the transnational practice of international retirement migration, both by Canadians and others, was unsettled in response (Egidi et al. 2020; Zoğal et al. 2020; Crooks and Snyder 2021). We specifically present the findings of a framing analysis that explores how Canadian international retirement migrants and their responses to the unfolding pandemic were framed in print media coverage in 2020. Framing analysis is an analytic approach that involves determining how particular issues or groups are characterized in media coverage, particularly in relation to their importance. Identifying and exploring these frames requires explicit consideration of the exceptional spatio-temporalities of Canadian international retirement migrants’ lives in 2020 and the transnational nature of this practice that is enabled by movement across borders. Such consideration serves to move the current analysis past much existing international retirement migration research that considers home or destination, but rarely both or the movements between each (Pickering et al. 2019; King et al. 2021). This analysis can also serve as a benchmark for comparison of how public discussions of Canadian international retirement migrants are framed in pandemic versus non-pandemic years to assist with identifying those elements that are truly exceptional in both contexts, while also allowing for media comparisons from elsewhere, including popular destinations for older Canadians.
There is a rich tradition of using media coverage as a source of data within the discipline of geography, which the current analysis builds on (e.g., Skinner et al. 2014; Morgan et al. 2017; Chen 2020; Henry 2021; Sturm and Albrecht 2021). Such analyses are important because media coverage can legitimize opinions, inform public dialogue about ongoing issues, and support policy initiatives. Because of these impacts, it needs to be examined (Rachul and Caulfield 2015; Kamenova et al. 2016). Here we specifically explore how Canadian newspaper sources published in 2020 (January 1 to December 31) framed Canadian international retirement migrants’ responses to navigating the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, including important decisions and actions undertaken by this group. Framing analysis is used to understand how particular aspects of an issue, event, or phenomenon become important, and the ideas that frame or inform such importance (Entman 1993; Pan and Kosicki 1993; Hertog and McLeod 2001). In reference to media coverage, the frames used in reporting (that also inform decisions on which pieces should and should not be published) determine what people will notice or know about an issue, how they will understand and remember the issue, and how they can choose to act on or evaluate the issue (Entman 1993). For example, media framings of political candidates may inform what voters think about their platform and abilities.
In March 2021, we searched the Canadian Newsstream database for print media related to Canadian international retirement migrants, known popularly as “snowbirds,” and the COVID-19 pandemic. After running several initial searches and following a meeting with a reference librarian, we narrowed our search terms to: (1) snowbirds AND Canadian AND (Florida OR Arizona OR “United States” OR US OR USA OR U.S.A. OR California OR America OR Texas OR Carolina OR Mexico OR Costa OR Caribbean) NOT (R.C.A. OR RCA OR royal OR airforce OR “armed forces” OR pilots OR Zamboni OR air force OR pilot OR hummingbird OR moss). Our search terms included popular international destinations for Canadian retirees while being sure to exclude the Canadian military flight team known as the Snowbirds. The search resulted in 400 articles being identified. We next reviewed the titles of articles to remove duplicates. After the duplicates were removed, we reviewed the titles and summaries (when available) against our inclusion criteria, which were that articles: (1) were published in English; (2) were published in a Canadian print media source; and (3) explicitly discussed Canadian international retirement migrants, although articles did not need to solely focus on this group. A total of 187 articles, which included opinion editorials and letters to the editor in addition to news articles, were ultimately identified for inclusion through this process.
Full texts of included articles were accessed and organized into a shared spreadsheet. Following creation of the spreadsheet, team members each independently reviewed the full text of 50 articles, with different ones being assigned to each reviewer, to develop an initial understanding of the dominant frames. A team meeting was held to discuss the scope and soundness of the emergent frames. Consensus was reached regarding three dominant frames and the interpretation of each, with use of investigator triangulation through independent review followed by collaborative discussion to balance reviewers’ subjective interpretations of the articles and potential frames (Flick 2004). After consensus was reached, the lead author went through the full dataset to assign articles to their dominant theme and extract illustrative quotes, with the second author troubleshooting any issues that emerged. The illustrative quotes were shared with the team to further confirm interpretation. We include some of these illustrative quotes throughout this article to allow the source articles to “speak” to the identified frames.
The 187 articles included in this framing analysis came from 74 small and large newspapers carried across Canada that were based in ten Canadian provinces and territories. For example, some of the newspapers carrying articles included in the dataset were the Toronto Star (Ontario), Penticton Western News (British Columbia), Chronicle-Herald (Halifax), Montreal Gazette (Quebec), and Calgary Herald (Calgary). Of the 187 included articles, 180 were news pieces, 2 were opinion editorials, and 5 were published letters to the editor. Having included articles from across the 2020 year in this review, sources captured everything from the earliest considerations of the implications of COVID-19 for retirement migrants who were already abroad in early 2020, to human interest stories about older Canadians who had opted to travel abroad in late 2020 despite requests for people to avoid doing so, and everything in between. Articles that considered specific retirement migrant destinations were primarily focused on places within the US that Canadians typically visit by car, although some made mention of Mexico and other countries. Because of this, there was considerable attention given to the Canada-US land border closure for non-essential travel that was implemented on March 21, 2020 and remained in place until the end of the year and thereafter.
Our analysis identified three dominant frames that characterized the ways that Canadian international retirement migrants were discussed by Canadian news sources in 2020. First, some articles framed this sizeable group as consumers who participated in economic activities, had consumer needs, and financially contributed to local communities both at home and abroad in altered ways in 2020. Second, many articles framed Canadian international retirement migrants as those who were facing new uncertainties related to disruptions to their usual routines, some of which brought practical challenges that had to be addressed. Finally, a number of other articles framed Canadian international retirement migrants as being in search of stability, which included issues around passage back home as the pandemic unfolded and needing to find safe places to stay. In the remainder of this section, we present findings specific to each theme, having identified the dominant frame used to discuss or characterize Canadian international retirement migrants in each of the 187 included media articles.
2.1 Canadian international retirement migrants were altering consumer practices
Together, snowbirds and short-termers typically spend more than $6 billion [US$] in the state [Florida] each year. When they come, they spend, and they really help the local economy here. And they’re entrenched in this community—they’ve been here for years and years, have settled here to some degree, and this is their home away from home. (McCarten 2020)
Articles underscored that these usual seasonal consumer activities were not undertaken abroad by those who returned to Canada early at the outset of the pandemic, nor by those retirement migrants who opted not to go abroad for the 2020/21 winter season.
“We are sold out of live trees,” Hiebert said. “We still have artificial trees, but live trees sold out on the weekend. The last one walked out on Sunday. It was crazy. We bought a lot more this year anticipating more of a demand—all of the snowbirds that normally go south are at home and people are just worried about getting one (tree).” (Speirs 2020)
Finally, some articles that framed Canadian international retirement migrants primarily as consumers were focused on the implications of the pandemic for Canada’s travel insurance industry, both in terms of new opportunities and whether or not this group of consumers would be purchasing packages any time soon.
2.2 Canadian international retirement migrants were facing new uncertainties
there is a small glitch in the system. That is, you can’t tell the snowbirds to come home and if their home is in a trailer park, tell them they can’t go to their home. That’s the dilemma. These are people that don’t have other permanent residences in Ontario. And so they come home, and their home is the park. (McGran 2020)
This quote shows that some of the uncertainties faced by Canadian international retirement migrants had impacts on others, including elected officials who were sometimes positioned to advocate for the needs of this group.
The second kind of uncertainty that articles framed Canadian international retirement migrants as facing pertained to the unknowns surrounding if and when they could return to seasonal residences or stays abroad. For example, a Canadian travel insurance broker interviewed in an article said that “he’s hearing from local snowbirds as they debate the pros and cons of heading for their winter homes during the pandemic” (Sobanski 2020). Many articles pointed out that Canadian international retirement migrants who owned seasonal properties in the US or elsewhere were particularly anxious about the uncertainties regarding when safe travel would be possible given the need to maintain their residences. Articles also chronicled the frustrations brewing among some who believed that crossing the land border to maintain a property in the US should be considered an allowable reason to travel despite the border closure to non-essential travel. In many ways, articles pointed out that some of these older Canadians felt entitled to circumvent border restrictions and the uncertainties they caused. There were also those who were anxious to know when travel would resume so that they could reconnect with their social networks in destinations, but were admittedly uncertain about when such reunions would happen. A Canadian international retirement migrant was saddened by “not being able to get to favourite destinations like Sedona, Ariz., to meet up with fellow mobile families” (Spurr 2020), with such sentiments reinforcing the social nature of this transnational mobility.
2.3 Canadian international retirement migrants were seeking stability
Perhaps not surprising given that Canadian international retirement migrants were engaging in new consumer practices and facing uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, some newspaper articles framed this group as being in search of stability. In fact, 67 articles primarily framed these older Canadians as seeking stability. This frame touched on topics such as some Canadian international retirement migrants choosing to stay abroad despite land border closure measures or choosing to travel abroad for the 2020/21 winter despite requests to avoid non-essential travel. In both instances, such choices were made out of a desire to live a familiar life in places they deemed safe. For some Canadian international retirement migrants, there was a sense that if they were to endure lockdowns and closures they may as well choose “to bunker down in Florida where they can at least enjoy a warmer climate” (Woo 2020).
I cannot imagine the selfish attitude of a snowbird talking about going to their “winter home.” Our government has closed the Canadian border until Sept. 21, for obvious reasons, and will hopefully keep it closed until the United States gets COVID-19 under control. (Butchart 2020)
As such, several articles that framed Canadian international retirement migrants as seeking stability positioned this group as made up of privileged or entitled people who sometimes made risky decisions to achieve the comfort and stability they sought at the expense of others or the greater good. Demonstrations of such privilege included discussions of retirement migrants choosing to disobey quarantine orders upon return to Canada to purchase groceries and other supplies (e.g., Lowrie 2020), self-advocacy by these travellers to be exempted from quarantine and travel restrictions upon returning to Canada (e.g., Selley 2020), and the potential for becoming vaccinated while abroad sooner than they would have if they stayed in Canada (e.g., McGregor and Somos 2020). Most of the articles that framed Canadian international retirements as feeling entitled to seek stability despite the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic focused on considering the impacts of their decisions for Canada and other Canadians, rather than the impacts for their seasonal destinations abroad.
Through our review of 187 Canadian newspaper articles published in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that discussions of Canadian international retirement migrants consistently used one of three frames. In the first instance, some articles framed these older Canadians as participating in consumer practices that were altered as a result of the changed realities brought on primarily by measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 into Canada. Second, many articles framed Canadian international retirement migrants as people who were facing new uncertainties as a result of disruptions to their usual seasonal transnational migratory routines. Finally, a number of articles framed these older Canadians as people who were in search of stability despite the pandemic-related changes going on around them. Some journalists consulted directly with Canadian international retirement migrants when writing these articles. As shown in the quotes in the previous section, it was also quite common for the opinions of those whose businesses or professional roles were positively or negatively impacted by changes to these older Canadians’ seasonal movements to be sought. The comments from restauranteurs, insurance brokers, mayors, and Christmas tree farmers in home and destination communities serve to highlight the networked impacts stemming from changes to the predictability of these older Canadians’ annual movements. In the remainder of this section, we discuss the findings and draw out their significance for understanding the spatio-temporal dimensions of international retirement migration by Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, as characterized by newspaper coverage from 2020.
The three dominant frames identified in this analysis sometimes conceptualized Canadian international retirement migrants, including their roles and activities, in quite contradictory ways throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to initial border restrictions and calls for Canadians abroad to return home in early 2020, some articles conceived of these older Canadians as a vulnerable group in need of understanding given the quickly changing spatio-temporalities as they rushed home (e.g., Theodore 2020), while other articles from this same period considered some to be risk-takers for not strictly following quarantine measures upon return or opting to stay abroad despite the land border closure (e.g., Butchart 2020). Interestingly, such contradictions were not only evident in how Canadian international retirement migrants and their lives were conceptualized at specific periods of time, but also within specific frames identified in the analysis. For example, the most common frame identified was that of these retirement migrants facing new uncertainties, and while some articles conceptualized these uncertainties as causing despair and frustration for intended travellers (e.g., Sobanski 2020), others positioned uncertainties as the impetus for these older Canadians’ resilience and adaptation (e.g., Dunn 2020). A recent study by Pickering et al. (2021), which explored how Canadian international retirement migrants prepared to manage their health while abroad, observed that while international retirement migrants are often thought of as a relatively homogeneous group, there are actually important differences among them. The contradictions captured in Canadian newspaper coverage of this group in 2020 underscore this point. Very important differences emerged in the socio-spatial strategies adopted to address the COVID-19 pandemic as it related to these older Canadians’ seasonal travel, such as the differences between those who took the risk of going abroad for winter 2020/21 versus those who did not and instead adapted their winter routines by staying in Canada.
The results of our framing analysis show an interesting dualism, in that the impacts of the changed spatio-temporal realities Canadian international retirement migrants faced in 2020 posed both challenges and opportunities. Many articles highlighted how changes to Canadian international retirement migrants’ annual transnational movement patterns introduced challenges for destination communities and their businesses. However, the same challenges that negatively affected businesses in destinations as a result of altered consumer practices brought new opportunities for businesses in Canadian communities. This dualism of destination-economic challenge and home-economic opportunity serves to illustrate some of the integrated ways in which home and destination communities support different aspects of retirement migration. At home, these older Canadian travellers typically undertake preparatory types of economic activities such as purchasing travel health insurance, having RVs serviced, and buying goods that they plan to take abroad (Canadian Snowbird Association 2019; Pickering et al. 2021; Snowbird Advisor 2021). Economies in popular destinations support accommodation, recreational, health, social, and other needs brought on while living abroad and undertaking activities associated with the retirement migration lifestyle (Sastry 1992; Bennett 1996; Desrosiers-Lauzon 2009; Hoffman et al. 2017). While this separation of economic activities between home and destination communities may work well under normal travel and border access circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic served to show the vulnerability of those communities that rely on seasonal visits from older Canadians to changed travel inflows. The lived experience of these vulnerabilities was heavily captured in the media articles reviewed through interviews with business owners and political figures.
Andrews et al. (2021) argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought several major geographies to the fore, one of which is that it has introduced new spaces of hope, fear, uncertainty, and community, and that our understanding of these spaces is influenced by others, including the media. Although our analysis has not considered the wider influence of the newspaper coverage examined herein, it is very likely that the frames we have identified shaped how others view this group based on what was revealed. In relation to this, it is important to identify what the frames did not consider. While the COVID-19 pandemic at its core is a global public health crisis (Andrews et al. 2021), there was little consideration given to Canadian international retirement migrants’ health in the articles we reviewed as opposed to their roles as economic and social actors. For example, there was only limited acknowledgement that the age of most of these seasonal travellers put them at risk of greater severity of COVID-19 if contracted (Liu et al. 2020; Zhou et al. 2020). Furthermore, Canadian international retirement migrants were rarely explicitly considered to be potential transmission vectors. Instead, they were often discussed as escaping, fleeing, or avoiding COVID-19 exposure risks instead of potentially contracting and spreading the virus. Although outside the temporal focus of this analysis, considerable public scrutiny of this group did emerge in early 2021 when it became clear how many had opted to go abroad for the 2020/21 winter despite the travel and border measures in place. Two specific points of concern that focused more explicitly on health were equity issues surrounding these older Canadians becoming vaccinated while abroad and pushback from some retirement migrants who believed they should be exempted from hotel quarantine measures put in place on February 22, 2021 (e.g., Harris 2021; Wilton 2020). A newspaper headline from February 2021 indicated that there was “no sympathy for snowbirds” (Gilmore 2021) who had opted to go abroad in winter 2020/21, which was a very different sentiment from the newspaper frames from 2020 identified in our analysis.
The findings of our framing analysis raise a number of implications for future research about Canadian international retirement migrants. First, all three frames clearly show that the practice of international retirement migration has important implications for older people’s home communities and their lives at home. As King et al. (2021) have observed, much of the current research is focused on international retirement migrants’ lives in destinations. The media articles we reviewed show the important role that Canadian international retirement migrants’ home communities, social networks, and lives played in coping with the changed socio-temporal realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue is certainly worthy of dedicated research exploration. Second, it would be very useful to document Canadian international retirement migrants’ first-hand experiences of travelling transnationally, or not, during the COVID-19 pandemic through in-depth interviews. This would allow for consideration of whether and how their own narratives resonate with the frames used in the 2020 Canadian newspaper coverage of this group. Such research would also facilitate exploration of whether or not they were aware of how those who engage in this transnational mobility were portrayed by the media during the pandemic, and if this had any significance for their decisions and lives. Finally, participation in international retirement migration is greatly facilitated by the ease of unrestricted movements across national borders (Pickering et al. 2019). This analysis has shown how changes to border access and cross-border movements in the context of a crisis disrupt not only international retirement migrants’ transnational movements, but also the economies that depend on them. With this in mind, it would be very useful to identify other types of disruptions that can impact border access and cross-border movement, such as natural disasters and political unrest, and consider their potential implications for these older travellers’ health and well-being, the maintenance of their social networks, and the economies that rely on them as consumers through research.
We set out to explore how Canadian international retirement migrants’ lives, activities, and actions were framed in Canadian newspaper coverage published in 2020, which was the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conducting a framing analysis of 187 articles, we identified three dominant frames that were used to discuss this fairly sizeable group of older Canadians. First, some articles framed them as engaging in altered consumer practices as a way to address the rapidly shifting spatio-temporalities brought on by pandemic-related travel and border measures put in place. These altered consumer practices had significant implications for retirement migrants’ home and destination communities alike. Second, many articles framed Canadian international retirement migrants as facing new uncertainties, particularly those related to if and when they could engage in their routine seasonal travel. These uncertainties were particularly pronounced at two points in time: (1) in early 2020 when the Canada–US land border closed to non-essential travel and all Canadians abroad were encouraged to return home, and (2) in late 2020 when older Canadians needed to ultimately decide whether or not to go abroad for winter 2020/21. Finally, some articles framed these older seasonal travellers as being in search of stability, both in terms of residential location and connecting with established social networks. This search for stability in residential location was heavily driven by a desire for safety and familiarity, and for some that came from altering their routines and staying in Canada for the winter, while for others that came from the usual routine of going abroad. Interestingly, these frames were quite explicitly focused on Canadian international retirement migrants’ social and economic roles rather than on their individual needs to protect their health during a pandemic or the risks they may have posed in relation to spreading COVID-19 or contracting it while abroad.
The seasonal international retirement migration undertaken annually by older Canadians has a defined temporality, to the point that businesses and economic sectors both at home and abroad have emerged in response to this seemingly predictable, reliable transnational movement. The taken-for-granted temporality of this mobility is likely one of the reasons why much existing research, including that undertaken by geographers, has not fully explored the spatio-temporality of international retirement migration (King et al. 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted not only the predictable seasonal temporality of this practice by older Canadians, it also disrupted the spatiality of this practice by heavily limiting the ease of travel and border access for most of 2020. What remains to be seen are the lessons Canadian international retirement migrants take from the exceptional spatio-temporalities experienced in 2020 for their continued involvement in this transnational mobility, including the vulnerabilities and uncertainties they went through and the opportunities and safety they found. We call for future researchers to explore this and other issues that can offer transferrable insights into crisis management more broadly for Canadian international retirement migrants.
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