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Realtor Jenn Johnson and her son Kyle Bruner in the RE/MAX office in Sarnia, Ontario on October 16. The problem facing Ms. Johnson and her son, who has a rare and aggressive form of eczema that impacts his lungs and requires medicines that can cost up to $100,000 a year, is that she is happy with her current coverage and fears she would lose that if forced into the new OREA plan.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

A move to enroll every Ontario realtor into a mandatory life insurance and benefits program has reached a boiling point of blowback with angry confrontations and threats to dissolve organized real estate in the province.

On June 20, the governing assembly of the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) agreed to create the Ontario Realtors Wellness Program (ORWP), which will enroll all 96,000 members into an insurance and benefits scheme that would add about $660 dollars to their annual membership dues (which are currently $110).

The problem for many members is that, unlike previous insurance schemes run by OREA, the Canadian Real Estate Association or some individual boards, this insurance coverage is mandatory. That could cause some members to lose access to existing benefits, which are often superior to the new coverage.

“OREA thought I needed a safety net. And now it’s literally drowning my family,” said Jenn Johnson, a realtor with Re/Max Sarnia Realty brokerage. Ms. Johnson’s son, Kyle Bruner, has a rare and aggressive form of eczema that impacts his lungs and requires medicines that can cost up to $100,000 a year. She says she is happy with her current insurance coverage, provided by her brokerage for its employees, but fears she would lose that if forced into the new OREA plan. The OREA wellness program offers add-ons to increase the basic $750 a year prescription coverage, but Ms. Johnson said the maximum coverage is $25,000, and her premiums would rise to $8,000 a year to access it. “The math isn’t ‘mathing’ for us, for sure,” she said.

Ms. Johnson’s story and others like it have inspired a wave of activism rarely seen among Ontario realtors. What started as sniping posts on social media demanding an ability to opt-out of the program has turned into a movement with more than 8,700 members in a private Facebook group, more than 16,000 signatures on a petition against the plan, and more than $125,000 raised for a legal fund to challenge OREA.

In addition, 10 of OREA’s 34 member boards pushed for a special general meeting of the OREA assembly that will now be held Nov. 29 to give members a chance to review the summertime decision. The plan is scheduled to kick in on Jan. 1, 2024.

OREA spokespersons have pushed back against the portrayals of the opposition as broad, suggesting it’s a vocal minority and that OREA has held multiple town-hall sessions explaining the mandate to members since the vote.

“By having every member as part of the program, we’re much more attractive to insurance companies to give us much better deals at more affordable rates than you get in an optional program,” said OREA CEO Tim Hudak.

“There are realtors who will say that they’re independent contractors, and that people who don’t buy insurance, that’s the risk that they take,” said Mr. Hudak. “We’re gonna look out for the benefit of the profession as a whole. And it did have the support of 80 per cent of voting delegates.”

Opponents say OREA’s voting structure is part of the problem. They note that the single largest board in the province – the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board (TRREB) – has 49 per cent of the votes at OREA for its more than 70,000 members. Opponents of the new wellness program say they have so far failed to get satisfactory answers as to why TRREB and the rest of OREA is pushing the plan.

“It’s gaslighting: nobody will answer a question directly and nobody responds to an e-mail,” said Liz Polak, who is one of the agents behind the anti-ORWP GoFundMe campaign. “There’s a lot of people still uninformed. You go to an open house and five to 10 realtors there might not know it’s mandatory.”

Many agents support the plan. Michael Bertolli is a managing partner with International Realty Firm Inc. in Whitby, Ont. and joined the Stop ORWP Facebook group mainly to see what was being said.

“I’m surprised at the vitriol,” Mr. Bertolli said. “I feel it’s a basic program, but a fair program in a world where a lot of people don’t have access to this kind of thing.”

“A lot of the people in the group, they are on the conspiracy bandwagon: ‘OREA they are all taking back-handers,’ that it’s a big scam. A lot of them are looking to take down organized real estate; looking to end OREA.”

The anger is real, but so is the threat from OREA if members decide to simply not pay the extra dues or try to opt-out.

“[OREA] have been very clear that participation in this program is a condition of membership, and if a member or an entire board/association declines to participate, then they will be terminated,” said Bill Duce, CEO of the Waterloo Region Association of Realtors, one of the boards that pushed to review the decision.

An OREA membership is not required to sell real estate in the province. But membership is mandatory if you want access to the proprietary multiple-listing service software that gives realtors the ability to find properties, analyze trends and post their own listings.

Those opposed to the new plan argue that OREA has unfairly tied the essential business tools of its members directly to this insurance scheme.

“I have never seen such anger and division within the industry,” said Barry Lebow, who has been a realtor for 56 years. He says there are many agents now trying to figure out how to replace board leadership, whom he claims have become unaccountable. “There’s no Hail Mary here, this is going to go through and there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is to try to get back control of the boards.”

Ms. Johnson faces a stark choice if the mandate goes through: Quit real estate or incur more than $70,000 extra a year in prescription costs. While she supports realtors getting health benefits, the inability to opt-out of ORWP endangers not just her career, but also that of her son Kyle who is in university and had hoped to join her as a real estate agent when he graduates.

“This was what his end-goal … that’s out the window now,” she said.

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