Financial investment insiders are speaking out about what they say are weak regulations that allow the industry to ignore clients' interests, steer them into expensive products and collect billions from people's savings every year.

Go Public has heard from hundreds of people in the industry, most of them with the big banks, who say they're pushing products and selling investments that protect their jobs, or pay the highest commissions to themselves and their employers.  

Those we interviewed say this happens because Canada still lacks laws that require the vast majority of people giving financial advice to act in their clients' best interests.

"I definitely sold things that people didn't need — 95 per cent of the time," said a former BMO financial services manager who recently quit because she says she could no longer stomach putting the bank's interests ahead of those of her clients.  

  • Been wronged?  Contact Erica and the Go Public team

CBC News is concealing her identity, and those of the other insiders who spoke with Go Public, because they still work in finance and fear employment repercussions.

The former BMO employee says she still feels guilty about putting an 85-year-old customer who was in poor health into a mutual fund owned by the bank, after her manager urged her to do it for the sales revenue.

'If this was my own grandfather, I wouldn't do this to him.' - Former BMO financial services manager

Mutual funds are generally recommended as long-term investments, so financial consumers can ride out fluctuations in the market.

"When I came home, I just kept questioning myself," she said. "If this was my own grandfather, I wouldn't do this to him, so why am I doing this to this guy?"

BMO declined to comment for this story.

'The client always comes last'

A former Scotiabank employee who left the company in 2015 said he put the bank's interests first "all the time."

"It makes me sick, the way the client always comes last," he said.

Scotiabank insider

This former Scotiabank financial advisor says he felt 'sick' selling expensive products that weren’t in the client’s best interest. (Joe Da Ponte/CBC )

As an example, he says he was told to quote "pre-approved" mortgage rates to clients — rates that he knew weren't the best the bank could offer.  

"The bank's offering clients the highest possible rate they'll take, so [Scotiabank] can make a higher profit on their mortgage."

'I don't know why better protection wasn't brought in years ago.' - Former Scotiabank financial advisor

He says he was also pressured to sign customers up for Scotiabank credit cards when they already had debt on other cards — a practice he says contributes to the problem of Canadians struggling with mounting credit card debt.

"I don't know why better protection [for customers] wasn't brought in years ago," he said. "Canada is in the Dark Ages."

When asked for comment, Scotiabank didn't address the allegations, but said it's proud of its employees "and their determination to put our customers at the centre of everything they do."

Calls for stronger protection

Most investment "advisors" in Canada are actually salespeople — only advisers spelled with an "e" have a legal duty to act in a client's best interest — which is why the Canadian Foundation for Advancement of Investor Rights (FAIR Canada) is calling on the industry's regulators across the country to implement something called a statutory best interest standard.

That standard has yet to be fully defined, but it would legally require anyone giving financial advice to keep the client's interest first and foremost.

Ermanno Pascutto

Ermanno Pascutto of the Canadian Foundation for Advancement of Investor Rights says the organization has been calling for a best interest standard in the financial industry since 2010. (CBC)

"Right now, the financial industry is subject to a suitability standard, which is not a very high standard," said FAIR executive director Ermanno Pascutto.

"So, for instance, an investment product may be suitable for a client — in that it's medium risk — but it may have very high fees," he said. "So a financial advisor is probably not giving you the best advice, and doesn't have to."

He says it's a problem with the banks, insurance companies and the rest of the financial industry, which operates with "the same questionable compensation arrangements and incentives."

Big money at stake

One of the financial industry's big money-makers — and one that surprises many customers — is the fees generated by mutual funds, in which Canadians have invested more than a trillion dollars.

"If the fees paid every year for those mutual funds dropped from a 2.5 per cent fee to a 1.5 per cent fee, Canadians would save about $10 billion a year," Pascutto said. "Instead, that money goes into the pockets of the financial industry."

How management fees eat up your retirement savings0:26

BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank and TD are the biggest sellers of mutual funds so Go Public asked them whether they would support a legal obligation to put the client's interest first.

The Canadian Bankers Association responded on their behalf, pointing to "the range of strong investor protections and safeguards already in place."

Talk and more talk

For more than a decade, Canada's regulators have mulled the idea of a fundamental shift from the existing sales-based system to one that would always put the investor first.

Australia and the U.K. have already implemented a best interest standard, and the E.U. will have one in place by January.

In 2004, the Ontario Securities Commission published a consultation paper that included a proposal to explore whether the people giving financial advice should have a legal requirement to act in a client's best interest.

'This is a balanced and proportionate response to the wrongs visited upon investors' - Harold Geller, lawyer with MBC Professional Corporation

Since 2012, the Canadian Securities Administrators — the umbrella organization for provincial regulators — has conducted two national consultations with its members and an industry roundtable on best interest standards.

No provincial financial regulator has adopted the standard, although the Ontario Securities Commission has said it strongly supports the idea, as does the province's finance minister, Charles Sousa.

"I believe there is a likelihood that the OSC and other securities commissions will adopt this within the next two years, likely less," said lawyer Harold Geller, who represents people who have been financially harmed by advisors.

"This is a balanced and proportionate response to the wrongs visited upon investors."

But securities regulators in Quebec, Alberta and B.C. have said they oppose implementing a best interest standard for various reasons, including the existence of regulations they say already protect financial consumers.

"We have a somewhat dysfunctional regulatory system," said Pascutto. "We have 13 securities regulators who have to agree on an initiative, and the industry has a very, very powerful lobby group.

"You've got all the major financial institutions — well over 100,000 people employed in selling these products who are generally going to oppose changes that are detrimental to their income."

Doesn't go far enough?

Not all financial consumer advocates support a best interest standard.

Stan Buell, head of the Small Investor Protection Association, is concerned the standard is not yet well-defined, and could be open to interpretation and "a continuation of deception."

He's also concerned that it only allows a consumer a two-year period to file a complaint after noticing they've been wronged.  

Buell, who lost his life savings years ago after receiving poor advice from a financial broker, says the window is simply too short.

"Victims of life-altering [financial] loss cannot recover, find out what happened to them and determine a course of action within a two-year limitation period."

Insiders reveal how lax financial regulation means your interest comes last1:44

Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas at Go Public.

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.

With files from James Roberts