Why Ontario needs to step up in the fight against money laundering

OPINION: Ottawa wants to crack down on the dirty money flowing into Canada’s economy — but there can be no national plan unless Ontario takes action
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 10, 2019
Toronto skyline
British Columbia finance minister Carole James warned last month that pending law could force dark money out of the Vancouver housing market and into Toronto’s. (Tijana Martin/CP)

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The revelations out of British Columbia are shocking, even to those of us several thousand kilometres away. A series of reports commissioned by the government has found evidence that money laundering is driving up the price of Vancouver-area housing to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

A report released Thursday in Victoria by an expert panel estimates that $6.3 billion in dirty money flowed through B.C.’s economy in 2015 and says that, as a result, the cost of housing in Canada’s priciest market rose 5 per cent. And two prior reports allege that B.C.’s casinos and luxury-car market are being used to launder huge amounts of money from organized crime. Car dealers have been taking huge cash deposits (sometimes just one dollar short of the limit that triggers federal bank-reporting requirements) for luxury vehicles, “straw buyers” have been used to disguise the true owners of pricey assets, and the provincial casino operator lacks any real oversight.

In one sense, Ontario would be justified in feeling a certain smugness: in the first of the two reports, the investigation, led by former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German, explicitly cites this province’s casino oversight as a model that B.C. should try to emulate. Lotusland may have nicer weather, but Ontario hasn’t turned its casinos into a massive pipeline for illegal money. So, yay for us. But the numbers for Ontario are concerning, too: $8.2 billion in dirty money sloshed around this province in 2015, according to the panel’s model. And, the report notes, that might be an underestimate.

If B.C. is presenting more severe symptoms, it’s at least taking the disease seriously. The NDP government is looking at root-and-branch measures to try to crack down on money laundering and to bring transparency to a financial system exploited by the wealthy from Canada and elsewhere. Cracking down on the proceeds of crime is good in and of itself, but it could also have a positive impact on housing policy: if dirty money is flowing into Canada’s major housing markets and driving up bids, cutting off such cashflows could help make homes marginally more affordable.

A report from the C.D. Howe Institute released this week says that Canada has lagged behind in taking action on international money laundering, stating that the feds and the provinces are failing to adequately police “beneficial ownership” — that is, the real flesh-and-blood humans who own corporations, major financial assets, and land. In this country, it’s possible to create a numbered company and disguise who owns major assets, something that has obvious implications for money laundering. In an earlier 2018 report for C.D. Howe, Denis Meurin quotes a 2016 report from Transparency International Canada, which observes: “In Canada, more rigorous identity checks are done for individuals getting library cards than for those setting up companies.”

According to these critics, the solution is to create a publicly accessible database of beneficial ownership — the kind of thing police, journalists, and activists could use to shine a light on the world of dark money. Owners would face serious criminal sanctions it they refused to declare their beneficial ownership or made a false declaration.

The B.C. government has introduced a bill, the Landowner Transparency Act, that would achieve just this. If passed, it would create a public database of the real humans who own land in that province and introduce substantial fines for non-compliance. (This may constitute a flaw in the bill. We’re talking about policing the super-wealthy here, so even $100,000 fines might not be enough: in this week’s report from C.D. Howe, Kevin Comeau argues that owners need to be threatened with the prospect of imprisonment.)

This move by the NDP government in the West represents the first Canadian attempt to establish a public registry of beneficial ownership. If the bill passes, though, it will almost certainly be challenged in court by landowners who aren’t wild about their names becoming publicly available, potentially delaying implementation for years. In the meantime, the feds are taking other steps. In its 2018 budget, the Trudeau government made it mandatory to declare beneficial ownership in federally registered corporations, and, in this year’s budget, Ottawa intends to make that data available to law enforcement — although not, for now, to the public.

But there are limits to federal power: Ottawa can regulate the nation’s banks, but land ownership is a matter for the provinces — hence B.C.’s proposed registry.

Ontario isn’t yet rushing to follow B.C.’s lead. When TVO.org asked him about the matter at Queen’s Park on Wednesday, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli would say only that provincial finance ministers are discussing how to tackle money laundering.

“It’s something we’re continuing to monitor,” Fedeli said. “We’ll continue these kinds of discussions with various finance ministers across the province.”

It’s no surprise that a conservative government may be less keen than an NDP-led government to regulate private property. But B.C.’s registry could push Queen’s Park to introduce one of its own, whether it wants to or not. B.C. finance minister Carole James warned last month that, if the province’s registry works as intended, it could force dark money out of the Vancouver housing market — and into Toronto’s.

“If you’re a money launderer, provincial lines don’t matter,” James told the Toronto Star. “Money launderers don’t look at borders; they look for opportunities.”

In the long term, any serious national effort to combat money laundering — which, one would hope, would appeal to both the soak-the-rich left and the tough-on-crime right — would require concerted action from the federal and provincial governments. Something like the proposed national securities regulator, which would be created by Ottawa in conjunction with the provinces, fusing the powers of both, may be required to give police and tax authorities the kind of leverage they need against dark money. But none of that will work unless Ontario — the largest provincial economy and home to the country’s biggest housing and financial markets — makes it a priority.

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