Canadians are missing billions of dollars in unclaimed property, but a lack of legislation makes it hard for most people to find their assets, according to a CBC News investigation. 

Only British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec have unclaimed property legislation and databases where individuals can search for a variety of assets, and experts say efforts to bring a similar program to Ontario, Canada's most populous province, have faced resistance from the financial sector.

"I call it Canada's under-the-radar economic action plan in waiting, and it wouldn't cost as much as building infrastructure," says Brenda Potter Phelan, president and CEO of LegacyTracker, a web-based tool that helps people organize their financial and estate information.

Potter Phelan estimates there could be as much $5 billion in unclaimed assets in the country for Canadians. "Just return the money to where it belongs," she adds. 

The CBC News investigation focused on how the provinces and territories deal with intangible property such as credit union accounts, deposits, trust funds and unpaid wages.

Accounts with Canada's big banks fall under federal jurisdiction, and the Bank of Canada has a searchable database online.

Brenda Potter Phelan

Brenda Potter Phelan, president and CEO of LegacyTracker, a web-based tool that helps people organize their financial and estate information, discusses unclaimed assets with Diana Swain, senior investigative correspondent for CBC News. (CBC)

The purpose of the three provinces' legislation is to ensure that property holders transfer unclaimed property to the province or another authority so it can be returned to the rightful owners.

For property to be considered unclaimed, it must go unclaimed for more than the statutory dormancy period, which varies based on the property type and jurisdiction.

Some reasons this property goes missing:

  • Forgetfulness

  • Change of address

  • Change of name

  • Missing or damaged records

  • Poor estate planning

  • Human error

  • Avoiding difficult conversations with loved ones

Not all these lost assets become life-changing windfalls, but sometimes even a small amount can help a family.

Rhea Westover of Montreal had no idea she was missing something when CBC News contacted her last spring for a story about Quebec's program.

Westover's mother purchased shares in a toy company for her when she was a baby, but believed the money had disappeared after the company went bankrupt. In reality, the money was waiting to be claimed in Quebec's register of unclaimed property.

"I mean, $550 isn't a huge sum of money, but it's not nothing," says Westover, who gave birth to her a son, Owen, in April. "Especially when you need to buy a million clothes and diapers and everything else. So it definitely came in handy, and it was great to find out."

In Nanton, Alta., Jean Berger didn't have to search the provincial database to find out about her unclaimed property. The government went looking for her.

Jean Berger

Jean Berger has invested her share of a $10,000 bond left by her father. The Alberta government searched for Berger's family to alert them to the unclaimed asset. (Jean Berger)

Berger's father, a Second World War veteran, died in February 2013, leaving an uncashed Alberta bond worth $10,000.

In an effort to find family members, the province contacted Veterans Affairs Canada. The federal department then contacted Berger's sister and told her to follow up with the province. After providing the necessary documentation to prove their claim, Berger and her sister received the money in the fall of 2013.

"The estate went totally to my sister and myself so we split it ... It's invested. My dad was an investor. He used his money wisely and invested, so I've done the same," says Berger.

"I think it would be ideal if each province had similar legislation to what Alberta does."

British Columbia's Unclaimed Property Act went into force in 2000, with legislation in Alberta and Quebec following in 2008 and 2011. While each of these provinces provides a centralized database for property searches, they differ in how the assets are treated. 

For example, credit union accounts are covered in B.C. and Quebec, but not in Alberta. In Quebec, you can track down assets placed in a safety deposit box, but not in B.C. or Alberta. 

Of the three provinces, British Columbia is the only one that has a voluntary element to its program. Entities such as the province, the courts, and credit unions must transfer property to the British Columbia Unclaimed Property Society, the not-for-profit administrator of the program.

Holders of other property such as life insurance policies, trust funds and brokerage accounts transfer them to the society on a voluntary basis.

Darren Jack

Darren Jack says Ontario lags far behind other North American jurisdictions on unclaimed property legislation. His company Impact 360 specializes in asset recovery.

In Alberta and Quebec, any asset that is part of the unclaimed property program must be transferred to the administrator.

The rest of the country is a story of no progress, slow progress and, in some cases, regression.

Prince Edward Island had unclaimed property laws for many years, but repealed them in 2013 because they were "cost-prohibitive."

A spokesperson for the Yukon government told CBC News, "There are no plans to proceed with unclaimed property legislation."

In Nova Scotia, there are searchable databases for unclaimed intestate estate funds, left by people who died without a will and whose heirs cannot be found, and for unclaimed credit union balances. But the province has no unclaimed property legislation.

But experts say the most disappointing jurisdiction is Ontario, Canada's largest province and the beating heart of the financial sector.

Ontario is an 'outlier'

"Ontario, in particular, is the single largest outlier of lack of unclaimed property legislation in North America by far," says unclaimed property expert Darren Jack. His company Impact 360 specializes in asset recovery.

Jack estimates that there is $1 billion to $2 billion of unclaimed property in the province, but without legislation there is no requirement for businesses to relinquish these assets. 

Ontario passed the Unclaimed Intangible Property Act in 1989, but it was never proclaimed into force. In 2011, the act was repealed. The province promised new legislation in the 2012 budget and held consultations later that year and the following spring, but nothing has happened since then.

According to a spokesperson in the Ontario attorney general's office, "a provincial election was held in June 2014 and the new government has been focused on a number of other priorities."

Jack, who attended the consultations in 2013, has his own theory: "I think it's the lobby groups for many of the financial services firms in Ontario that don't want to turn over the funds." 

Potter Phelan also has concerns about the financial sector's role, "If I was to be cynical about it, I would think that it's financial services lobby groups, in particular, that are holding back and lobbying the government that they don't want that legislation to go through."

Insurers opposed Ontario legislation

In its submission to the 2012 consultation, the Insurance Bureau of Canada opposed the program.

"Overall, we believe that the government's intention to collect, hold and use unclaimed property on behalf of all Ontarians constitutes an unfair redistribution of funds at the expense of the consumers of insurance products that give rise to unclaimed property," wrote Ralph Palumbo, vice-president for Ontario. 

Submissions from Amex Bank of Canada, the Canadian Bankers Association and the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association supported the the objective of reuniting unclaimed property with owners.

Nevertheless, representatives from the financial sector did speak out against retroactive application of the legislation and called for the exemption of certain assets.

Experts say provincial governments have a lot to gain by forcing property holders turn over unclaimed assets. 

"At some point it might become revenue, and we all know how cash-strapped provinces and territories are across Canada," says Potter Phelan.

Jack estimates that significantly less than 20 per cent of what is turned over to governments by asset holders is actually claimed. The rest, he says, could be used for projects like building schools and roads.


Assets covered by legislation in 3 provinces

Each province with unclaimed property legislation covers a different mix of assets. This chart shows how British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec treat five common assets.

Type of asset BRITISH COLUMBIA ALBERTA QUEBEC
Credit union accounts  Yes No Yes
Securities Yes (voluntarily transferred) No Yes
Life insurance payments Yes (voluntarily transferred) Yes Yes
Wages Yes Yes Yes
Pensions Yes (voluntarily transferred) Yes (private plans) Yes