A single mother who lives near Shanghai says a Saskatchewan developer has refused to refund her investment in the Dundurn, Sask., megamall, even though the project appears stalled indefinitely.
In early 2015, Judy Zhu, who is a Chinese national, signed a contract for a small unit in the wholesale mall proposed for the tiny community of Dundurn, just south of Saskatoon.
I always think that people are kind in the world. I never thought that I would get cheated. - Judy Zhu, Chinese national seeking refund from Brightenview
The young woman told CBC that in February 2015 she paid Brightenview Development International a 50 per cent down payment: $240,000. She also paid an affiliated company $110,000 as a deposit on her $150,000 immigration fee. From her Dundurn shop, she was planning to sell inflatable backyard toys into the North American market.
Zhu understood from Brightenview this investment would be her ticket to permanent residence in Canada. She said she was told the project would be completed in 2016.
"That sales (woman) assured me that she can 100 per cent guarantee the success of my immigration," said Zhu through an interpreter during a telephone interview.
'This is a severe blow to me'
In early 2013 Brightenview announced that construction of the megamall would begin in the fall and would be completed within two years.
"The train has left the station," Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou told the media.
But after almost five years, the land remains empty.
In an interview last spring, Brightenview vice-president of government relations Lorne Nystrom told CBC the company has turned its immediate attention to the megamall it's currently building at the Global Transportation Hub: the Global Trade and Exhibition Centre (GTEC), "because that is where the market wants us to go and that's where most people are interested in going."
But earlier this year, in an email to CBC, Zhou said the company hasn't abandoned Dundurn.
"Brightenview has decided to take lawyer's advice to decline your request of terminating the contract and refunding the payment." - Email to Zhu from Brightenview
"We will be looking at other Saskatchewan projects including something on our land at Dundurn," wrote Zhou. "Dundurn is a separate project with its own timeline. No deadlines have been set for that project."
Brightenview has scrubbed all mention of the Dundurn project from its website and it recently removed roadside signs promoting the megamall.
Zhu said the company owes her a refund.
"Almost three years have passed: 2015, 2016, 2017. There has been no construction right? There is not even a nail," she said.
"I feel this is a severe blow to me."
Brightenview says contract allows for 'construction delays'
But Brightenview says it's Zhu who's in the wrong.
In an email earlier this month, the company told her it has a legal opinion that the contract allows for "construction delays."
"Therefore Brightenview has decided to take lawyer's advice to decline your request of terminating the contract and refunding the payment."
We have the right to prosecute for the outstanding payment for the shop. - Email to Zhu from Brightenview
Zhu's contract with Brightenview doesn't include a specific date as to when the project will be completed.
It says, "Brightenview anticipates that construction of the project will commence within twelve months of satisfying the requirements of financial institutions and governmental authorities, including approval of subdivisions." It says construction will be completed within two years of meeting those conditions.
In addition, Brightenview's contract says purchasers can only get a refund if their "truthful and honest" immigration application is rejected by Saskatchewan or Canada.
Zhu is violating the contract, says Brightenview
When it comes to payments from purchasers, the contract is very specific about the required timeline.
It says Brightenview customers must pay a 50 per cent deposit when they sign their contract and must pay the rest "within one year after the purchase agreement is signed by both parties."
In its email, Brightenview says Zhu is the one who is violating the contract, first, because she's even asking for a refund and, second, because by now she should have paid in full.
"We have the right to prosecute for the outstanding payment for the shop."
The company urged Zhu to reconsider her request for a refund.
"I recommend you to continue to complete your immigration process as it will not do you any favour if you drop out now," the email said.
CBC requested an interview with Brightenview's CEO about Zhu and her refund request, but he has failed to respond to our emails.
Months ago, CBC has asked Nystrom, who is also a former NDP MP, how many others have paid deposits for the Dundurn project.
"That's all private transactional stuff. If even I wanted to, I couldn't divulge any of that stuff," Nystrom said.
In April 2013, the Regina Leader-Post quoted Zhou as saying many of the megamall's 350 condo units had already been "spoken for."
A Brightenview document obtained by CBC shows the company was charging Chinese nationals between $450,000 and $1.1 million for the units.
The Brightenview-Saskatchewan government connection
Zhu said that in 2015 the Brightenview saleswoman said her immigration was guaranteed because Brightenview was in partnership with the Saskatchewan government.
She said she was told Brightenview is close to the government, just like businesses are in China.
Zhu said the company also told her "it was the Minister of Economy who would make it easier to get things resolved for me, immigration would be far easier."
CBC asked the premier's office and Brightenview about that claim. Neither of them replied.
The saleswoman provided Zhu letters of support for Brightenview from then-Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Don Morgan, senior officials in the Saskatchewan government and many officials from the Dundurn area.
In early 2013, the Regina Leader-Post reported Morgan attended Brightenview's launch of the megamall project.
"We want to make sure it has every opportunity to succeed and we'll do everything we can," Morgan was quoted as saying.
Zhu said Brightenview's relationship to the government persuaded her the project was safe and secure.
Zhu says she was too trusting
Zhu told CBC she didn't hire a lawyer to review the contract and she acknowledges she didn't read it carefully.
She said a friend recommended the Brightenview project and she trusted her friend's advice.
In China, business often is done on the basis of trust — a handshake, a nod of the head. - Richard Kurland, immigration expert
"I always think that people are kind in the world," she said. "I never thought that I would get cheated."
Nationally recognized immigration expert Richard Kurland said based on his experience, it's common for Chinese people to sign contracts without legal advice.
"Culturally, in China, business often is done on the basis of trust — a handshake, a nod of the head," said Kurland. "I have witnessed transactions between citizens of China that involve property in Canada, construction in Canada, of amounts exceeding $40 million on a handshake. No contract."
But he said in Canada, contracts are king and Zhu appears to be in a tough spot.
"There appears to be ample defences on the face of the document regarding why she should not be given back any money," said Kurland.
He said one of her few legal options would be to attempt to have the contract set aside.
"The next level is to have a lawyer in Canada determine whether the contract is so one-sided or onerous, as to trigger the doctrine of unconscionability," said Kurland.
Brightenview offers Zhu to move to GTH megamall
Zhu said Brightenview has offered her to transfer from the Dundurn project to the company's new megamall at the Global Transportation Hub.
That project, GTEC, is being built in partnership with the Saskatchewan government.
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"They said Dundurn hadn't started yet so you certainly have to wait. GTEC would be much easier to get my immigration done. And we will try our best to help you," Zhu said she was told. "They said most of their clients had switched to GTEC."
But Zhu said she's not interested in transferring because she has lost trust in the company. She said despite the fact she has paid $350,000, they keep asking for additional payments.
A May 2017 Ministry of Economy briefing note obtained by CBC indicates it's possible that customers who originally bought into Dundurn could be switched to the megamall at the GTH.
"Ten applicants (to the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program) indicate Dundurn is their intended location; however, the location can be changed," the note says.
Brightenview takes Zhu for GTH tour
In order to qualify for immigration through the entrepreneurial category of the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee program, Zhu was required to visit Saskatchewan, which she did in December 2015.
Though she had purchased a unit at the Dundurn megamall, she never was taken to Dundurn.
Instead, she was brought to the GTH for a tour.
There, she met GTH communications director Kelly Brossart and other Canadian and Chinese people.
Zhu said for the first time, she learned her business may, on a temporary basis, end up at the GTH.
"They told me before shops of the Dundurn were completed, I would work there."
I cannot understand why the government trust them. - Judy Zhu, Chinese national seeking refund from Brightenview
She said that made some sense to her because "I felt that place looks like a logistic park with many vehicles, and it looks like a trade transportation centre."
She said she was taken to a board room at the GTH "and watched a promotion video on Dundurn, shown with an overhead projector."
CBC asked Brossart why Zhu, who had purchased a unit at Dundurn, would be given a tour of the GTH and shown a Dundurn megamall video in a GTH boardroom.
"Dundurn is part of Saskatchewan," Brossart replied. "I can't believe you would suggest we not allow into our office or welcome potential investors for the province."
But after her experience with Brightenview, Zhu told CBC, "I cannot understand why the government trust them."
Saskatchewan bears some responsibility, says Kurland
Kurland said he has seen situations like this countless times and he says if the Saskatchewan government wants the benefit of foreign investment they have to also protect those investors.
"Saskatchewan can't have it both ways. They can't ask to receive foreign capital from would be permanent residents of Saskatchewan ... without thinking through all the risks to the applicant," Kurland said.
He said decades ago Quebec adopted rules that ensured would-be immigrants don't make investments in Canadian business until their immigration has received final approval.
It's a highly regulated system involving banks and government oversight. Kurland said that system encourages and promotes foreign investment, while protecting foreign investors.
"Why can't Saskatchewan protect citizens of China and other countries the way Quebec protects citizens of China and other countries?" Kurland said. "They're open for criticism here."
- Have any tips about this story? Contact reporter Geoff Leo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 306-533-0906.