A government crackdown on questionable job offers has dashed the dreams of dozens of potential immigrants mere days before being granted permanent resident status in Canada, CBC News has learned.
A stream of these job offers that caught the eye of immigration officials stemmed from a Vancouver law firm that advertised Nigel Thomson, head of the agency that oversees immigration consultants in Canada, as their immigration expert.
Thomson, a paralegal with the Vancouver law firm of Vick, McPhee & Liu, had instant credibility as chair of the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, the regulatory body now under review by the federal government. Thomson promoted the use of job offers to help prospective immigrants gain valuable credits for Canada's new fast-track system for needed skills.
Those offers — called Arranged Employment Opinions (AEOs) — would often be enough to confirm someone's eligibility to come to Canada.
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An immigration agent at Canada's embassy in Berlin, Michael Stetzuhn, became suspicious. He found that the offers coming through Vick, McPhee & Liu often had the same wording, even though they originated from several different companies. He also discovered they were sent to potential immigrants with a disclaimer that there might not be a job available when the immigrant arrived in Canada. When Stetzuhn contacted the firms involved, he learned the companies hadn't even interviewed the person they were going to hire, and found the offers less than earnest.
"A statement of intent, that you intend to employ someone when you don't, is a misrepresentation, and that's fraud," said Cecil Rotenberg, a 77-year-old who is considered the dean of immigration lawyers in Canada.
Rotenberg, whose client is a Dutch immigration consultant suing the Vancouver firm, wrote to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to ask him to do something. He is also calling on Thomson to resign from the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants and for the RCMP to investigate.
"People are expecting to come to Canada, they came up with a lot of euros," to pay for the job offers, said Rotenberg, "and they've been declined, and the only way they can come is through the normal process which could take six years.
"It's not good, not good for the reputation of Canada, not good for the reputation of lawyers," and the whole reputation of immigration consultants, said Rotenberg.
Lammert and Rita Hettema of Oudeshaske, Holland, were just waiting for their medicals — "99.8 per cent" of the way through the process — when they were told their application was denied.
"We were absolutely devastated, absolutely shattered," said Lammert. "It's not just missing or cancelling a regular procedure — it's the devastation of your dream."
That dream started two years ago when the Hettemas researched potential countries to move to and decided that Canada was the best place to provide opportunities for their two teenage children. They employed a Dutch immigration consultant who told them that if they paid 7,000 euros ($9,400 Cdn) he could secure Lammert a job offer or AEO that would help them become immigrants within a year. In the spring of 2009, Lammert, who worked with a flooring company, got a job offer from Mountain Living Flooring in Whistler, B.C.
The Hettemas had sold surplus items and put their house up for sale. Lammert had arranged to sell Dutch products in Canada to augment the income he would get working for the Whistler flooring company.
Then in March of this year, the notice came that their application was denied. They tried to contact the flooring company, but received no response.
Dianne Kincaid owns Mountain Living Flooring. She told CBC News she got involved with an immigration consultant out of a desire to sell her business.
She showed CBC News emails from a consultant connected to Vick, McPhee & Liu who told her he had found a buyer in the Netherlands. The consultant told her to offer the man a job and he would buy her business.
"I was a bit uncomfortable about it, but the plea was to keep his file open, and that was the bait," said Kincaid, who is originally from Australia. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sort of embarrassed.
"I've been duped."
When the Immigration Canada agent in Berlin began to hold everyone accountable, Thomson wrote letters to the potential immigrants recommending to them to say they know "that the employment offer is real and genuine." However, in defending the validity of the AEOs to immigration officials, Richard McPhee, principal of the firm Vick, McPhee & Liu, quoted an immigration official who claimed, "an AEO job offer is not binding on the employer. It is merely an expression of interest."
Regardless of the validity of the job offers, McPhee was upset that some immigrants tried to contact their prospective employers. McPhee sent an email to the Dutch immigration consultant whose clients they were and admonished him for letting his clients call about jobs: "You are not making it clear enough to your clients that AEO is an immigration tool and not a job finding service."
McPhee failed to respond to requests for an interview from CBC News. Kincaid's consultant and Thomson both told CBC News they are forbidden from discussing individual cases, and would not comment.
Kincaid insists she received no money for the job offer. Other employers involved with Vick, McPhee & Liu either didn't want to talk to CBC News, or couldn't remember whether they received money or not.
The Law Society of British Columbia and the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants are investigating the job offer issue.
Immigration agents in New Delhi and Paris have also detected questionable job offers, and the department has surveyed foreign posts to enhance their ability to deter and detect fraudulent AEOs.
Immigration Canada spokesman Douglas Kellam told CBC News, "Canada takes a zero-tolerance approach to immigration fraud. We're working with our enforcement partners to followup."
In general, Kellam added, the government is aware "that some consultants are arranging fraudulent job offers without the applicant's knowledge, in effect, defrauding both the system and the applicant."
Earlier in December, the House of Commons passed Bill C-35, which is meant to toughen up the rules on who can act as an immigration consultant. It also gives the minister the authority to change the regulator. Next month, the government is expected to announce whether the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants will continue to monitor the industry in Canada, or whether a new regulator is appointed.