Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed Thursday that the government would pursue with "the full extent of the law" Canadians who are using secret Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying taxes.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in question period on Thursday that Ottawa would aggressively pursue Canadians who try to conceal taxable income in Swiss bank accounts. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The leaders of the NDP and Bloc Québécois lambasted Harper during question period, demanding government action in the wake of a joint investigation by the CBC and the Globe and Mail released Thursday that found more than 1,700 Canadians may be using Swiss bank accounts to conceal taxable income.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe called on the Conservative government to make an official request for the names of Canadians who might be in an illegal position with bank accounts in Switzerland.

Duceppe told the House millions of dollars are "slipping through the Canadian government’s fingers."

The prime minister replied that the government's position is clear: Canadians who try to avoid paying taxes through the use of foreign bank accounts would "have to deal with all the force of the Canadian law. 

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the government is turning a blind eye to billions of dollars escaping the country's coffers.

"Where is their law-and-order agenda when it comes to the big banks and Canadians who avoid paying taxes through foreign bank accounts?" Layton asked in the House.

But Harper rebuffed Layton's claims, promising "this government will have no tolerance for citizens who use Swiss bank accounts in order to avoid paying taxes."

Harper noted that in 2009 alone, the Canada Revenue Agency recovered more than $1 billion in unpaid federal tax from hidden assets. Five months into this fiscal year, that figure has already been surpassed, the CRA says.

The agency has also identified another $138 million in unpaid tax through the CRA's voluntary disclosure program.

Accounts revealed

The demands came the same day as the release of a whistle-blowing report based on information collected by Herve Falciani, a former HSBC employee working in Geneva. Falciani compiled the names and account number of more than 80,000 foreigners who were using Swiss-based HSBC accounts to possibly conceal money.

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Against the bank's wishes, information on the accounts — which had a minimum deposit of $500,000 US — have since been handed over to governments in France, Italy and elsewhere.

The Canada Revenue Agency confirms the agency has received "a list of names of individuals who may be exploiting offshore accounts."

A spokeswoman said the CRA is assessing the names "on a case-by-case basis, and will take aggressive action to recover money owed to Canadians."

Earlier this year, Swiss banking conglomerate UBS AG agreed to hand over the names of 4,450 American citizens with offshore accounts who are suspected of having used Swiss banking loopholes to hide assets.

About 500 names have already been handed over in the United States and almost 100 Canadians have come forward to Canadian tax authorities to settle their debts in advance of UBS acting to reveal names.