For the better part of the past five years, Bill Boyd was responsible for ensuring the integrity of Saskatchewan's immigration system. He was, after all, the province's high-profile minister of the economy.

Now approaching retirement from politics, the backbench MLA is promoting an immigration scheme that would benefit a company in which he's directly involved.

Boyd announced yesterday that he is resigning from politics altogether as of September 1. Yesterday was also Boyd's deadline to respond to questions from CBC News about this scheme.

In March, Boyd was in Beijing as the keynote speaker at a seminar pitching an investment opportunity to Chinese people wanting to immigrate to Canada — a business venture to which Boyd is personally connected.

As minister, Boyd had taken many trips to China for the purpose of attracting investment to the province. But this time around, he was there to promote a private deal.

Bill Boyd seminar

Bill Boyd was the keynote speaker at a March seminar hosted in Beijing. The poster incorrectly said he was the minister of the economy. It also prominently features a government of Saskatchewan logo. (saskey.com)

Boyd has confirmed with CBC News he is the chairman of Saskatchewan-based Modern Hi-Efficiency Agriculture Corporation, a company offering venture partnership to Chinese nationals looking for permanent residency in Canada through entrepreneurship.  

On a website and on posters promoting the seminar, Boyd was also presented as Saskatchewan's minister of the economy (though he resigned that position in August 2016) and a government of Saskatchewan logo was prominently featured. In addition, the promoters posted online that the Ministry of the Economy was actually involved in creating the project.

The entire situation seems inappropriate, said Ken Rasmussen, a professor of public administration at the University of Regina.

"Clearly the fact that he was the former minister is what gives investors confidence in this entity," Rasmussen said. "This is almost the definition of an appearance of a conflict."

"It does seem a bit unseemly that he is in the process of making money on the basis of his contacts and knowledge of these programs."

That's not Rasmussen's only concern.

CBC has also learned that Boyd's associates in the venture, Yongang Yang and Ning Xu, are connected to companies that hold potash permits in the province. Yang is president of Taiji Resources and the only shareholder in Universe Investment Holding Limited. Xu is a director in both firms.

Bill Boyd

Between May 2012 and August 2016, Bill Boyd was minister of the economy, responsible for resource development, attraction investment and immigration. (CBC)

As minister responsible for resources, Boyd was in charge of the regulation of these businesses. Now he's in business with these men.

"This really is something that should be subject to more scrutiny — that a minister who was responsible for the resource economy is now a business partner with somebody who's a big investor in the resource economy," said Rasmussen.

Immigration through irrigation

Founded in November 2016, Modern Hi-Efficiency is offering to form a joint venture with Chinese nationals in a Saskatchewan-based irrigation business.

In his March trip to Beijing, Boyd told Chinese investors that for $300,000, they would own 80 per cent of an irrigation pivot, hardware that can water 65 hectares (160 acres) of land in a circular pattern.

Irrigation pivot

Modern Hi-Efficiency Agriculture Corporation is offering Chinese investors the opportunity purchase an irrigation pivot like this and form a joint venture partnership. (CBC)

Modern Hi-Efficiency would own the other 20 per cent and manage the new business.

Sandra Bathgate of the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association told CBC News "the average cost of a pivot runs you about $100,000." She says that's the installed price.

While Boyd says he is the chairman of Modern High Efficiency, the company has sent mixed messages as to what role he actually plays.

The promotional material for the seminar says Boyd is the chairman, and in an email, Boyd acknowledged to CBC that he's the company's chairman. However, in Modern Hi-Efficiency's public corporate records, only two directors are listed: Yang and Xu.

In an interview, Xu told CBC Boyd isn't the chairman but will be at some future point. An email from a public relations firm acting on behalf of Yang and Xu categorically said, "Boyd is not the legal chairman."

Rasmussen said this lack of clarity is odd.

"Is the former minister the chairman or not? That should be a pretty clear fact and it shouldn't be under dispute by the three people that are involved with the corporation," he said.

skpic Ken Rasmussen

University of Regina public administration professor Ken Rasmussen is surprised by the lack of clarity about who is the chairman of Modern Hi-Efficiency. (CBC)

The costs of entry

CBC asked Boyd and company officials why they were proposing to charge Chinese investors $300,000 for 80 per cent ownership of an irrigation business largely comprised of equipment worth about one third that price. They didn't answer.

In addition to the $300,000, a Chinese national investor would also have to shell out about $100,000 to Canadian and Chinese immigration lawyers.

Modern Hi-Efficiency's literature claims it is a member of the irrigation association, but in fact it's not. When asked about this, director Ning Xu explained that the company wants to be a member eventually.  

Xu said he's confident the irrigation scheme will work because Boyd ran a pilot project on one of his own canola fields and reported that the crop yield doubled. 

Modern Hi-Efficiency's irrigation pivot

The circular field is Modern Hi-Efficiency's pilot project near Eston, Sask. It's on land farmed by Bill Boyd, a short distance south from his home. (Google maps)

According to the Chinese promoter, Happy of Life, Modern Hi-Efficiency is looking for 30 entrepreneurs to do this deal, each investing in one irrigation pivot.

The company claims this investment will help the Chinese entrepreneur attain permanent residence in Canada through the entrepreneurial category of the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) — the very program Boyd used to oversee when he was the minister.

The joint venture partners wouldn't actually own the land where the equipment sits because it's against the law for foreigners to own farmland in the province. The question of who will own the land is unclear; the company says it hasn't figured that out quite yet.

What is clear is that Modern Hi-Efficiency is pitching this investment as a path to immigration through SINP.

Boyd offers explanation

In its advertising for the March 18, 2017, event, the promoter also touted Boyd as "Saskatchewan's minister of the economy," despite his resignation as minister in August 2016.

He resigned from that post just a few months after CBC reported his involvement in a land deal that benefited politically connected businessmen in the province. An RCMP investigation into the transactions continues.

In an email, Boyd admitted the promotional literature at the Beijing seminar called him the minister but he said it wasn't his intention to use his position to benefit himself. He explained this was merely a cultural practice.

"Any reference to myself as the minister of the economy is a protocol custom that I understand the people of China observe much as they do in the USA, referring to the title that you have held at one time. For example, Secretary Clinton," Boyd wrote.

"I made it clear that I was presenting as a farmer and private businessman and no longer the minister of the economy for the Province of Saskatchewan," Boyd said of the seminar.

The seminar was videotaped and the Chinese promotional company is offering it to prospective investors online. CBC asked Boyd for a copy in order to verify his description of his remarks. Boyd said he'd try but still hasn't provided the recording.

Boyd also wrote in the email that he has taken additional measures since being contacted by CBC.

"In order to ensure there is no misunderstanding, efforts are being made to contact the people who attended the seminar to clarify that I'm not now or at that time the minister of the economy and also that the government of Saskatchewan has not endorsed this investment opportunity."

Bill in China banner

The promoter of Bill Boyd's Beijing seminar promoted him as the minister of the economy, though he had resigned that position about 8 months earlier. (Happy of Life website)

More points than a restaurant

The Chinese promoter of the seminar, Happy of Life, posted a series of photos from the event, one of them captioned, "Mr. Bill is explaining issues related to immigration and investment immigration."

However, Boyd said that as a former minister responsible for immigration, he refrained from explaining the SINP side of the equation to the crowd of investors at the seminar. He left that to his associate Xu, a Saskatoon-based agricultural scientist, who presented alongside him.

"The information about that program was gathered from the program website," Boyd wrote.

In an interview with CBC, Xu said that for Chinese nationals, this program is more likely to be successful as a path to immigration than purchasing a restaurant.

Bill and Ning

Bill Boyd says during the Beijing seminar he focused on issues related to farming and irrigation while his associate Ning Xu addressed immigration related topics. (saskey.com)

Xu explained the provincial government evaluates immigration applications on a points system — the more points, the more likely the application will be granted. Because the company plans to use high-tech irrigation equipment, the venture would give investors more points than they would receive in a more traditional Chinese business like a restaurant, Xu said.

The SINP website says in order for a business to be accepted under the entrepreneurial category the would-be immigrant must demonstrate their "commitment to provide active and on-going participation in the day-to-day management and direction of the business."

However, an online flowchart outlining Modern Hi-Efficiency's immigration process indicates a third-party organization would operate the joint venture on behalf of the investor.

The only thing is, that they get immigration. They get to become a landed immigrant. So that's their goal for that. - Ning Xu, Director, Modern Hi-Efficiency Agriculture Corporation

CBC asked Boyd, Yang and Xu how their program would qualify under SINP given that someone else may be running the business on behalf of the investor. None of them responded.

When asked how the investor would make money through this program, Xu said profit is not the primary motive here. In fact he said that's not the motive with most entrepreneurial immigration schemes.

"Most of them don't make any money," Xu said. He said most Chinese people who get into the restaurant business don't realize a profit but they do achieve their ultimate aim.

"The only thing is, that they get immigration. They get to become a landed immigrant. So that's their goal for that," he said.

Xu said similarly with Modern Hi-Efficiency's program "most people, they just want through this program they can get approved, easily approved through the government of Saskatchewan as a landed immigrant," he said. "And at least they can keep their money, so not depreciate. At least they can get some money. The interest is a little bit higher than the bank rate.

Boyd an 'ace of spades'

Immigration lawyer and policy analyst Richard Kurland says Boyd's former role as minister gives him and this company the inside track.

Richard Kurland

Lawyer and immigration policy analyst Richard Kurland says Boyd's knowledge of the immigration system and the people who run it would be both a real and perceived advantage. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"There are two forms of real currency in China," Kurland explained. "One is cash. One is guangxi — connections."

"And this consortium has just pulled up the ace of spades when they bring into this seminar a current or former minister of immigration responsible for oversight of the entire immigration program."

Kurland said Boyd's knowledge of the system and the people who run it would be both a real and perceived advantage.

"You have access, perhaps indirect access, to things other people don't have, like unwritten rules, unwritten policies, unwritten guidelines in the field of immigration," said Kurland.

When first contacted by CBC News on July 27, a senior official in the premier's office seemed unaware of Boyd's March trip to China.

"I will call you once I speak with Bill. I know it wasn't a government trip — 100 per cent guarantee that," she wrote. A few minutes later she reported, "It was a personal trip for him. I didn't ask him more about it."

This consortium has just pulled up the ace of spades when they bring into this seminar a current or former minister of immigration responsible for oversight of the entire immigration program. - Richard Kurland, Immigration lawyer

In yesterday's news release announcing Boyd's retirement, Premier Brad Wall praised the long serving politician.

"It's no exaggeration to say if it wasn't for Bill Boyd, there wouldn't be a Saskatchewan Party," the news release attributed to Wall.

The statement further quoted Wall as saying "Bill clearly feels it's time for renewal in our party and for the Kindersley constituency, so now is the right time for this decision. I wish Bill and his family nothing but the best in the future."

No investors yet

Boyd said so far, the venture has not been met with success.

"In the end, the company was not able to attract any investor interest and no investments have been made on behalf of the company," he wrote.

However, a recent post on the Chinese social media site WeChat appears to show a photo of Chinese people in Saskatchewan on an exploratory trip with Modern Hi-Efficiency.

The June post says, "Mr. Li and Mr. Shi from Harbin visited Saskatchewan to explore farmland transformation immigration project."