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Following leaked Panama Papers, Ottawa to study ‘tax gap’

Diane Lebouthillier Minister of National Revenue responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.
Diane Lebouthillier Minister of National Revenue responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – A senator who has crusaded against tax evasion has released recent correspondence from the revenue minister revealing the government’s plan to determine how much money Canada loses to tax dodgers.

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier says in a Jan. 20 letter to Sen. Percy Downe that her department will try to estimate the value of Canada’s so-called “tax gap,” the difference between what is owed in taxes and what is actually collected.

The Charlottetown senator was responding to the leak of 11.5 million records from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, the authenticity of which the firm has confirmed. The firm denies any wrongdoing and says most of the individuals named in the leaked documents were not its direct clients, but accounts set up by intermediaries.

READ MORE: ‘Panama Papers’ leak reveals how rich and famous hide their money

Lebouthillier’s letter says Canada will work with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which uses the tax gap measure to help develop policies that target tax evaders.

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Downe said in a statement that the Canada Revenue Agency has resisted his attempts to get it to measure the tax gap since 2012. But he said the government needs the information so it can assess the level of overseas tax evasion and fight it.

“The time has come for the CRA and Canada to join countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Mexico and measure the tax gap,” said Downe.

Lebouthillier’s letter says that’s about to change.

“I have instructed my officials to commence work on a plan aimed at enhancing public understanding of non-compliance with Canada’s tax laws and to identify the financial resources that would be required to move forward on the plan,” the minister writes.

WATCH: ‘Panama Papers’ reveal ‘huge industry’ of tax evasion
‘Panama Papers’ reveal ‘huge industry’ of tax evasion
‘Panama Papers’ reveal ‘huge industry’ of tax evasion

“As a first step, the CRA will undertake a comprehensive study of tax gap estimation.”

Lebouthillier’s spokeswoman Chloe Luciani-Girouard had no comment on the letter Downe released, but said she was not disputing its contents.

Downe said he will also table a bill in the Senate next week that would require the government to measure the tax gap.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists worked with hundreds of journalists, including some from the CBC and the Toronto Star, to analyze the leaked documents.

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The records reportedly show major banks helped clients create companies in offshore havens like Panama.

The two Canadian media outlets reported that the Royal Bank of Canada and its subsidiaries set up about 370 of these types of corporations.

READ MORE: ‘Panama Papers’: Royal Bank denies wrongdoing after leak

The Royal Bank said Monday it operates within the law and has policies to prevent tax evasion after reports said it used the Panamanian law firm whose leaked documents are said to reveal the use of offshore tax havens.

“RBC works within the legal and regulatory framework of every country in which we operate,” the Royal Bank said in a statement. “Tax evasion is illegal and we have established controls, policies and procedures in place to detect it and prevent it occurring through RBC.”

The bank said there are legitimate reasons to set up a holding company, but if it believes a client intends to commit a criminal offence by evading taxes, it would report that and not serve the client.

The leaked documents reportedly show the offshore dealings of more than 100 politicians and public figures from multiple countries, including Iceland, Ukraine, Pakistan and Russia.

WATCH: Iceland PM walks out on interview after being questioned about Panama Papers allegations
Iceland PM walks out on interview after being questioned about Panama Papers allegations
Iceland PM walks out on interview after being questioned about Panama Papers allegations

The Canada Revenue Agency did not respond to questions from Global News on Monday about whether it is looking into any of the few Canadians named so far in news stories about the Panama Papers leaks. However, Luciani-Girouard said in an interview with the Canadian Press that the Canada Revenue Agency already had much of the Canadian-related information contained in the Panama Papers investigation.

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Since 2015, the department has been monitoring all money transfers exceeding $10,000, including from Panama, she said.

“They’re currently assessing the high-risk taxpayers and auditing them randomly,” Luciani-Girouard said.

“It’s a global issue and it’s ever-so complicated. That’s why CRA is quite satisfied they now have the means to attack this head-on with what was given in the last budget.”

Last month’s federal budget provided $440 million to the CRA over five years “to combat tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, including offshore,” she said.

READ MORE: Panama Papers: What you need to know about offshore accounts

Luciani-Girouard said if the department uncovers any evidence of illegal transfers, it will be referred to the Public Prosecution Services of Canada.

Pierre-Luc Dusseault, the NDP national revenue critic, urged the government to move quickly with its promises to fight tax evasion.

“If the government doesn’t take action, the wealthy and powerful will continue to benefit from our malleable tax laws,” he said in a statement.

With files from Leslie Young, Global News