British Columbia is moving forward with a public inquiry on money laundering in the province, but several explosive reports show the problem of dirty money is widespread across the country.
After months of mounting calls for an inquiry, B.C. Premier John Horgan finally yielded, saying an inquiry was necessary to examine the extent to which billions of dollars gained from criminal activities have infiltrated the province’s housing, casinos and luxury car markets.
“I believe that British Columbians want to know how this was allowed to happen,” Horgan told reporters Wednesday. “This is a national problem with an extraordinary focus here in B.C.”
Horgan said the problem of dirty cash has had a dramatic impact on the province, including a rise in opioid deaths and higher housing costs.
WATCH: B.C. government calls public inquiry into money laundering
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen will head the inquiry and will be given the power to compel any witnesses and order documents to be disclosed, B.C. Attorney General David Eby told reporters.
“There is nobody in British Columbia that is not compellable,” Eby said. “The inquiry will look at the broad scope of the problems and tell us who knew what when.”
Reports from Peter German, a former RCMP deputy commissioner, and law professor Maureen Maloney, the chair of B.C.’s expert panel on money laundering, showed that almost $47 billion worth of dirty money was washed through the Canadian economy last year. Other estimates noted in the report show that number could be as high as $150 billion.
In B.C., the reports found more than $7 billion in dirty money was washed through the province’s economy last year — driving up the cost of buying a home by at least five per cent.
The decision to move forward with a public inquiry follows a Global News investigation last November that showed how crime networks are laundering billions through high-end Vancouver real estate and fuelling the opioid crisis. A series of reports from Global News last week revealed new allegations that show how organized crime groups have laundered money in B.C. casinos as far back as the 1990s.
WATCH: Former B.C. casino supervisor blows whistle on when Macau-style money laundering may have exploded
Maloney’s investigation found that Ontario, Alberta and the Prairies had an even bigger problem.
“Money laundering is a national issue requiring a combined federal and provincial response that involves all of the provinces across the whole country,” the Maloney report said.
Here’s how other provinces are responding to the reports on money laundering.
WATCH: Canada failing to catch money launderers
The Maloney report estimated Alberta had the greatest amount of dirty money sloshing around in its economy to the tune of roughly $10 billion in 2015.
The report used what is called the “gravity model” to estimate how much money is being laundered across the country and how much moves between Canada and other countries. The model is currently used by the Netherlands, and this is the first time it’s been applied in Canada.
Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s minister of justice, criticized the findings and said the conclusions are based on questionable data.
“The authors of this report note that they have a lack of reliable data,” Schweitzer said in a statement. “The figure presented for Alberta appears to be the product of economic modelling that may not be completely reliable. We use intelligence from front-line law enforcement agencies, not data we can’t verify.”
WATCH: What is a public inquiry?
A spokesperson for Schweitzer said the province is looking at bringing more transparency around what is called “beneficial ownership” — actually identifying the human beings behind corporations, financial assets and real estate.
Currently, in Canada, numbered companies can be used to hide who actually owns assets like real estate, which experts have said is a major hurdle to prosecuting money launderers.
“Alberta has begun looking into potential changes, but the province is not yet in a position to bring any amendments forward,” spokesperson Lisa Glover said in an email. “The province continues to monitor how other provinces and jurisdictions are acting on the federal government’s request.”
In April, the B.C. government announced legislation to establish a public registry of beneficial owners of property in the province.
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The law will require corporations, trusts and partnerships that currently own or buy land to disclose their beneficial owners in the registry, resulting in fines of up to $100,000 for failing to comply. This is the first registry of its kind in Canada.
However, Kevin Comeau with the C.D. Howe Institute has said that fines don’t go far enough, and owners — namely the super-wealthy — need to be threatened with actual jail time.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba had a combined $6.3 billion in dirty money floating around in their provincial economies in 2015, according to the Maloney report.
The authors said the findings show the money-laundering problem is even worse in the Prairies than B.C. and may be surprising to some.
“If money laundering in Alberta and the Prairies have been overestimated by the model, that implies that money laundering in B.C., Ontario and Quebec have likely been underestimated,” the Maloney report said.
A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan government said the province is participating in measures to combat money laundering through the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group.
“This agreement in principle means that legislative amendments to the Business Corporations Act (BCA) will be pursued to ensure that corporations hold accurate and up-to-date information on beneficial owners,” Noel Busse, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said in an email. “The report itself states there are limitations on the methodology so it isn’t clear what proportion of the Prairie figure in the report applies to Saskatchewan.”
A spokesperson for the Manitoba government directed questions to the RCMP.
WATCH: Timeline of money laundering in B.C. casinos
The staggering amount of money being laundered through Toronto’s real-estate market has been highlighted in the past, including a report from Transparency Canada that found up to $28 billion may have been washed through housing in the Greater Toronto Area since 2008.
The Maloney report found that in 2015 alone, Ontario saw roughly $8 billion of illicit money being washed through the province.
WATCH: NDP calls on feds to launch formal inquiry into money laundering
Ontario’s realtors have called on the province to enact a beneficial ownership registry to ensure Ontario doesn’t see money laundered from “some overseas drug lord.”
“This will lift the veil of anonymity that money launderers hide behind and assist the RCMP and law enforcement in keeping dirty money from snapping up Ontario real estate,” said Ontario Real Estate Association CEO Tim Hudak in a statement. “(We) do not want one dollar of dirty money pushing homes out of reach for hard-working Ontarians.”
Both the U.K. and the U.S. have brought in similar registries forcing those who own property through numbered companies to reveal their real names.
A spokesperson for Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said the idea of a registry was discussed at the last meeting of provincial finance ministers, but they did not commit to any concrete action.
“It’s something that we’ll continue to monitor,” Robert Gibson wrote in an email to Global News.
German, the former RCMP deputy commissioner, took the B.C. government to task for its complacency in his report, calling it an “embarrassment.”
“It is both an embarrassment and a threat to a society that adheres to the rule of law for organized crime to take advantage of all that is good in our society and subvert it for pecuniary advantage,” the German report states.
His report found 90,000 homes in B.C. were owned anonymously through corporations, and roughly one-third were bought with cash.
WATCH: Trudeau says money-laundering reports out of B.C. ‘extremely alarming’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the B.C. reports on money laundering were “extremely alarming” and show that everyday Canadians are being hurt.
“This is a real and pressing problem for Canadians, and it’s a problem around the world that Canada is going to continue to lead in the fight against,” Trudeau said last week.
WATCH: Bill Blair says federal budget takes sufficient steps to tackle the issue of money laundering
Trudeau said the federal government has strengthened audits on real-estate transactions, and federal Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair is working with provinces to do more.
“Strengthening the audit process around real estate will be a significant measure that will counter that, but there’s obviously lots more to do,” Trudeau said.
The federal government proposed a new anti-money-laundering task force in its last budget, which included investments of about $200 million over five years and additional ongoing funding.
The so-called ACE (Anti-Money-Laundering Action and Co-ordination) Team would bring together experts from Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information and expertise on complex and international investigations.
—With files from Richard Zussman and Sam Cooper