The China Connection

How the Saskatchewan government partnered with a company linked to a businessman who was wanted by China for fraud

Prologue

Saskatchewan’s Brightenview Development International Inc. has always had an oversized view of itself. For years its website proclaimed it is “one of the fastest growing companies in Canada.”

That’s despite the fact Brightenview hasn’t yet built any of its promised projects.

In 2013, it said it would construct a wholesale megamall in the 600-person town of Dundurn, Sask., south of Saskatoon. The concept: Chinese entrepreneurs would buy one of 350 units in the 300,000-square-foot mall, immigrate to Canada and sell their wares across North America.

The Dundurn International Exhibition Centre was supposed to open in 2015. It hasn’t.

In 2014, Brightenview announced a similar project in Chatham-Kent, Ont. The Global Development Centre was to open in 2016. The project now appears dead.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Brightenview's vice-president of government relations, Lorne Nystrom (2nd from right), and CEO Joe Zhou (far right) broke ground on a new project with politicians from Chatham-Kent, Ont. (The Chatham Voice)

On Sept. 26, 2014, Brightenview's vice-president of government relations, Lorne Nystrom (2nd from right), and CEO Joe Zhou (far right) broke ground on a new project with politicians from Chatham-Kent, Ont. (The Chatham Voice)

Earlier this month, Brightenview broke ground on yet another version of this megamall concept — the Global Trade and Exhibition Centre: A $45-million wholesale mall in Regina at the Global Transportation Hub.

A sign announcing the GTEC has been installed at the Global Transportation Hub in Regina.

A sign announcing the GTEC has been installed at the Global Transportation Hub in Regina.

The Saskatchewan government’s enthusiasm for, and promotion of, the project at the scandal-plagued GTH led CBC’s iTeam to take a closer look at Brightenview and its founders.

That investigation has found an immigration company run by a man who was wanted by the Chinese government for fraud. That company, which is closely affiliated with Brightenview, has shattered dreams and torn apart families.

This affiliation is raising a host of questions about the provincial government and its due diligence.

Have a tip about this story? Contact the CBC iTeam's Geoff Leo at geoff.leo@cbc.ca.

Brad Wall spoke to Chinese entrepreneurs in Beijing last fall. (Brightenvantage)

The Connection

Last fall, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was in Beijing, speaking to a crowd of hundreds of Chinese entrepreneurs, inviting them “to explore one of our most significant investment opportunities: the Global Transportation Hub.”

The Sept. 24, 2016, event was organized by the government-owned GTH (an inland port west of Regina) and Chinese officials.

Officials from Brightenview were also in attendance. The company’s new project at the GTH was the investment opportunity receiving much of the spotlight. The first phase of Brightenview’s Global Trade and Exhibition Centre (GTEC) is slated to house up to 300 vendors owned by Chinese business people.

A rendering by Brightenview of the GTEC project. (Brightenview)

A rendering by Brightenview of the GTEC project. (Brightenview)

Wall told the crowd “for Chinese industries seeking access to North American markets, the GTH offers the right location, the right team and the right programs to foster business growth.”

Brightenview's rendering of the Global Transportation Hub. (Brightenview)

Brightenview's rendering of the Global Transportation Hub. (Brightenview)

In her presentation, the GTH’s vice-president of business development, Rhonda Ekstrom, said Brightenview’s GTEC project is an “excellent business model” that “combines the strength of the GTH with a powerful business platform that reduces the risk of doing business in North America.”

This event was yet another sign of a close relationship that has developed between Brightenview and the provincial government since the company signed a land sale agreement with the GTH on Feb. 3, 2016.

That was the same day CBC’s iTeam broke the story of the GTH land deal scandal: How two politically well-connected business people made $11 million on a series of transactions that saw 204 acres of land wind up in taxpayers' hands at two to three times more than the appraised value.

CBC's Geoff Leo explains the essentials of the GTH land deal controversy.

Also on that February day, the GTH and Brightenview signed a “co-operation agreement.” A letter from then-GTH minister Bill Boyd to GTH CEO Bryan Richards spelled out the nature of the new relationship.

“GTH is the lead agency empowered by government to work with Brightenview on the proposed projects,” Boyd wrote. “Please engage the relevant resources within government and any external agencies to assist as necessary.”

That agreement formalized a relationship between the Saskatchewan government and a company founded, and still connected to, a man who has been wanted by the Chinese government for loan fraud: Mike (Chuan) Niu.

CBC’s iTeam has obtained Interpol documents showing Niu and his partner Jessie (Yilin) Zhan were wanted by the Chinese government, accused of loan fraud. The arrest notices were issued as part of a Chinese government anti-corruption campaign.

In this country, Niu and Zhan have run the Toronto-based Canmax group of companies, which has been closely connected to Brightenview. Canmax promised to help Chinese people immigrate to Saskatchewan.

However, in many cases, the company has failed to deliver and that has resulted in about 20 lawsuits filed by people who say Canmax ripped them off.

Brightenview and government closely co-operating

Immigration and deep co-operation from the Saskatchewan government are core to Brightenview’s GTEC plan.

To work, it will need the government to approve the immigration applications of hundreds of Chinese business people in relatively short order through the entrepreneurial category of the province’s immigrant nominee program.

Signs of that close co-operation abound.

Ever since the GTH land deal story broke, the government has regularly pointed to the Brightenview agreement as proof that all is well at the inland port, despite the provincial auditor’s critical report about the land deal and an ongoing RCMP investigation into the scandal.

Earlier this month, when Saskatchewan Minister of the Economy Jeremy Harrison was asked critical questions about the land deal in the legislature, he pivoted to Brightenview.

“We’re looking forward to that construction beginning, Mr. Speaker, and we look forward to a new business out at the GTH,” said Harrison.

Brightenview says, when complete, the GTEC will mean 200 jobs for the province and $200 million in corporate investment.

Harrison also showed his support by attending and speaking at the May 4, 2017, ribbon-cutting ceremony for Brightenview’s GTEC project.

PCL Construction broke ground on Phase 1 of the project May 1, 2017. Brightenview says it will be complete by February 2018.

Brightenview's $45-million project breaks ground at the Global Transportation Hub, CBC's Adam Hunter reports.

“We’ve worked closely with the company,” Harrison told the media. “We’re confident that the project will move forward.”

But the relationship between Brightenview and the Saskatchewan government has left some people who were hurt by Canmax shaking their heads.

Richard Xie is stunned the Saskatchewan government would cozy up to Brightenview given its history with Canmax.

“This type of business supported by the government? Who can believe that?”

The Toronto businessman said Canmax was supposed to help his sister immigrate to Canada. Instead, it cost his family thousands of dollars and caused years of grief.

Do you know what type of company you supporting right now?

Richard Xie

Xie has learned Canmax and Brightenview share a lot in common:

- Brightenview was founded by: Niu and Joe (Yongbo) Zhou. Both men are also founding directors of Canmax companies.
- Canmax has been involved in promoting Brightenview’s projects in China.
- Canmax has been a key Brightenview partner, with the agency offering settlement services to new immigrants the company brings in.
- Advertisements for Brightenview employees have been posted on the Canmaxgroup.com website.

In fact, when the Dundurn megamall, Brightenview’s first Saskatchewan project, was initially pitched by Zhou to the Rural Municipality of Dundurn, he was there as a representative of Canmax. The July 10, 2012, RM council minutes read “that council gives support in principle to Canmax Investment Group Inc. on the proposal of an International Exhibition Centre.”

When asked about the Canmax-Brightenview connection, Brightenview’s vice-president of government relations, Lorne Nystrom, said “there’s no relationship now with Canmax at all.”

Nystrom, who’s a former MP with the federal NDP and a former leadership candidate for the party, couldn’t say precisely when that relationship was severed or why.

Until a few weeks ago, Brightenview’s website said Canmax was the company that would provide settlement services. The website has also referred to Canmax as one of its corporate partners.

However, since CBC started interviewing Canmax officials, all mention of the company was scrubbed from Brightenview’s website.

“The website is in the process of being changed,” said Nystrom. “I think some stuff has been taken down because it was old and no longer relevant to be on there.”

Nystrom also acknowledged that Canmax’s China office was involved in selling Brightenview’s Dundurn project to Chinese investors.

However, Nystrom insisted all of that is in the past.

“We don’t need Canmax,” said Nystrom. “We have a lot of in-house ability in our company and we can reach out to other people on an as-needed basis.”

In an email Zhou also told CBC, “There is no active business relationship between Canmax and Brightenview.”

However, Xie wonders if the government did its homework on Brightenview’s history before partnering with the company.

He said if he could talk to Wall, “I would ask: ‘Do you know what type of company you supporting right now?’”

The Complaints

In 2011, Xie hired Canmax. He paid the company $25,000 to help his sister immigrate to Canada through the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program.

Canmax explained to Xie that, at the time, Saskatchewan was the easiest place in the country to immigrate to.

At first, Xie was impressed. Within a couple of months, Canmax secured the required letter offering his sister a job.

Xie asked for a copy but the company refused. It was confidential, he was told. He thought that was odd, but he wasn’t worried.

The contract sucks. All of the contracts suck. We admit that.

James Bush, Canmax's paralegal

By the fall of 2014 — three years after hiring Canmax — Xie’s sister was still in China and they both were getting worried.

So, they asked for a refund. The contract stipulated a refund was possible if the company was unable to help a client immigrate to Canada. However, the contract didn’t have a timeline related to when a refund could be granted, which left the whole process ambiguous.

Canmax’s paralegal, James Bush, acknowledged the contract is “horrible.”

“The contract sucks. All of the contracts suck. We admit that,” said Bush.

Canmax said Xie would have to sign another contract, this time with an end date. If his sister wasn’t in Canada by May 2015, Xie would get the money back.

By August 2015, he still hadn’t heard a thing. He contacted Canmax and he said he was told the company had run out of money. There would be no refund.

“I realized something really wrong with Canmax,” Xie said.

A 'fake' company

Xie contacted the Saskatchewan government and asked for all of the documents on his file.

He was stunned to learn his sister’s case had been rejected by the government in 2013 — a fact Canmax failed to share with him.

He hired a private detective to look into the case and review the file.

The detective had a more detailed look at the job offer Xie's sister supposedly received through Canmax. He discovered the address doesn’t exist and the business name is fabricated.

“It’s a fake company,” Xie said. “That’s why my sister get refused, because this job letter is a fake job letter. They not be able to verify this job letter.”

Richard Xie shows CBC's Geoff Leo what he discovered about his sister's job letter.

It turns out problems with Canmax job offers were not uncommon.

In a 2014 email, Meg Brookes, a program integrity officer with Saskatchewan's Ministry of the Economy, asked the office of the Consulate General of Canada to put a Canmax file on hold “to determine if the job offer is still valid.”

In a follow-up email, Brookes wrote, “I have a whole bunch more for you to check please and place on hold. All are the same representative and I believe the job offers to be invalid.”

When CBC asked James Bush about the possibility that Canmax submitted fake job offers on behalf of clients, he explained if the letters were fake they would have been provided to Canmax by a third party.

“So a rogue company creates phony job letters to get a referral fee from the head office of Canmax,” he posited. “You’re [CBC] not saying who the letters were from or where they came from. You used a term that’s too general. You used the term ‘Canmax.’ Who specifically gave a job offer that was false to one of these people?”

Xie has filed a complaint with police and is planning to file a lawsuit against Canmax.

He’s frustrated he had to discover this problem himself, when the government appears to have known.

“They should have noticed that something goes wrong with this Canmax,” Xie said. “If there are so many cases by Canmax that are rejected they should have noticed something.

“Why don’t they take some action? At least inform my sister, the applicant. But they didn’t do anything.”

Examples of lawsuits against Canmax companies. (CBC News)

Canmax has faced many complaints

About 20 other people have already filed suits against Canmax companies. They follow the same basic pattern as Xie’s case.

- Plantiffs paid large deposits to a Canmax company on the company’s promise it would help their relatives immigrate to Canada through the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program.
- After long delays, the plaintiffs requested a refund, as spelled out in their contract.
- The Canmax firm failed to refund all of their money.

In its statements of defence, Canmax has routinely denied it has done anything wrong. It also insists that it’s the plaintiffs who have “unilaterally abrogated” their contractual obligations and therefore “any losses suffered by the Plaintiff are the fault solely of the Plaintiff.”

Some plaintiffs have won judgements, some have arrived at settlements, while others have been plodding through the courts for years.

Jonathan Fon, a Toronto-based paralegal, won a $10,000 lawsuit against Canmax earlier this year after fighting with the company in court for 2 ½ years.

He said the delays seem to be part of the plan.

“To me it’s really strategically playing; it’s not really they want to solve the problem,” Fon said. “The settlement process was actually postponed, postponed, postponed, then the plaintiff may be tired and disgusted and they’ll want to give up.

“They [Canmax] say the beautiful words but they never done any act. So that’s their strategy.”

Sophia Li said she knows all about that. She has been fighting to get her money back from Canmax for years.

The Toronto nurse gave Canmax $60,000 to help her nephew and younger sister come to Saskatchewan from China through the province’s immigrant nominee program in 2012.

Just like Xie, she has faced long delays and has been promised refunds that have never arrived.

She said she would visit the Canmax office every week asking for answers. Eventually, a Canmax employee pushed back.

Li said the employee “very rude talk to me and say, ‘You are not welcome to come to our office anymore.’ And he said, ‘Why you come here? What’s your reason?’ I said, ‘My money’s in your company. We have an agreement.’ He said, ‘That’s your problem, not our problem.’”

In a last ditch effort, she decided to stake out the front office to wait for the boss: Mike Niu.

The company called police and Li was kicked off the property.

How about if his mother and his father knows what he is doing? They are proud of him?

Sophia Li

Since then, she has been fighting for her money in court.

She said the worst thing is some of her family, who are still in China, think she took the money for herself.

“My oldest sister involved in this case says I take her son's money,” said Li. “And my mother heard this news and lost the sense to eat, to survive.”

In September 2015, her mother passed away after failing to eat for a few weeks.

Sophia Li speaks to CBC's Geoff Leo about her mother's death.

Li said she will keep fighting because this isn't just about the money.

“It's my honour.”

She said her experience with Canmax has ruined her life and she would like to ask Niu how he can live with himself.

“So you never care how many people the life changed because of you and how many relatives the relationship is broken because of you?” said Li.

“How about if his mother and his father knows what he is doing? They are proud of him?”

A screenshot from a Chinese news outlet showing Jessie Zhan and Mike Niu on the Interpol website (bottom right).

The Couple

Niu is elusive. It's difficult to find someone who has seen him or knows much about him.

Even James Bush, who regularly represents Niu in court, said he has never met the man.

“Mike has never attended at court on any hearing,” said Bush. “I have never spoken to him. And I’ve never directly had any communication with him in writing.”

Perhaps his elusiveness could be explained by a news story that broke in the Chinese press in 2015.

In April of that year, the Chinese government announced the results of an anti-corruption initiative called “Fox Hunt 2014.” According to online news articles, the ministry of public security in mainland China was trying to track down what it called corrupt officials accused of economic crimes, who had fled the country.

The government published the names, photos and details of hundreds of people through Interpol. Several media outlets published the entire list.

The list features more than 400 people for whom China has issued a “Red Notice.” According to Interpol’s website, “Red Notices are issued for individuals sought for prosecution or to serve a sentence. When the individual is sought for prosecution it means they are suspected of committing a crime but have not yet been prosecuted and so should be considered innocent until proven guilty.”

Niu and his partner, Zhan, were on that list, wanted by China for loan fraud.

According to corporate records, Zhan is the founder of Brightenvantage, the marketing arm of Brightenview.

Roger Tsai, Canmax’s director of legal affairs, says Zhan is also the current “boss” of Canmax.

In addition, Tsai also confirmed Niu and Zhan are a couple and have children together.

The names and dates of birth on the Interpol documents match the information about Niu and Zhan CBC has obtained elsewhere. Neither of them have responded to CBC’s requests for an interview.

Sometime in 2016, the names of Niu and Zhan and many of the other alleged corrupt officials were removed from Interpol’s public website. Interpol won't answer any questions about that. Neither will the Chinese consulate in Ottawa or Chinese police.

A few months after that Interpol story broke, Niu’s name was removed as director from all Canmax public records. In court, Canmax’s director of legal affairs testified he didn’t know why.

Niu’s dealings in Canada

In 2005, Niu established his first immigration business, Winners Immigration Consulting Inc.

Since that time, he has started and operated a series of similar companies, many of which offered to assist people from China to immigrate to Canada.

A timeline of Mike Niu's companies.

A timeline of Mike Niu's companies.

Niu, who is not registered as an immigration consultant, co-founded Winners with Jun Cheng, who is a member of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC).

Cheng said he had his own immigration consulting practice. He said with Winners, he was a silent director, though from time to time he would sign immigration documents for Winners cases because he's authorized to as a registered immigration consultant.

Cheng said he offered to help Niu and not charge for the service.

“I thought that we were friends and from the beginning Winners didn’t make money. So, I said, 'OK, you do the business. If you need my help, I’ll help you to do some cases.’”

But he said he started to notice Winners sometimes wasn’t following the ICCRC rules.

“Maybe some cases I didn’t sign; they submitted, using my name,” Cheng said. “I was not happy with all those kinds of things, I told him.”

Mike Niu's Interpol posting, as published by a Chinese media outlet.

Toronto Star targets Winners

In June 2007, Winners caught the attention of investigative reporters at the Toronto Star.

According to the story, an employee of Niu spoke with a Toronto Star reporter posing as a potential client.

The story says “after hearing his visitor’s visa is due to expire in a month, [the employee] immediately suggests a refugee claim, even though the reporter hasn’t mentioned persecution or hardship in China. Success is nearly guaranteed, she says; only two refugee claims filed by her office have ever failed and ‘not because of us.’”

Eventually Cheng got drawn into the story after Niu failed to respond to the Star’s follow-up questions.

The story quotes Cheng as saying, “I need to investigate further. If that’s true that they told you to file a refugee claim when there isn’t a reason, that’s wrong.”

Cheng told CBC this sort of thing made him increasingly uncomfortable.

Winners slammed by complaints and lawsuits

According to Cheng, he eventually told Niu he wanted to disassociate from the company.

Cheng said he never got paid for any of the work he did for Winners.

But the work has had a lasting effect on his career. He said three complaints have been filed with ICCRC related to his work at Winners. He has also been named as a defendant in a lawsuit along with Winners, Niu and Canmax.

In July 2016, Cheng was publicly reprimanded by the ICCRC for his work in one of those cases. The regulator found Cheng had signed blank documents for the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program.

“The Member never met the complainant or provided any consulting services to the complainant,” the investigation found. It said Cheng had “in effect delegated or licensed his ICCRC membership to a third party.” It found he did not do this for dishonest reasons and wasn’t paid for the service.

When he left the company in 2011, Cheng urged Niu to shut it down.

Niu did get rid of Winners — by turning it into Canmax. A court judgement spells out how that happened.

In 2009, Yu Qiao hired Winners to help her sister immigrate to Canada. A court judgement, Yu Qiao vs. Winners, says Niu was Qiao’s main contact at Winners.

According to the judgement Qiao “said that Mike [Niu] made many confident promises” about how Saskatchewan’s program was a good and fast way to get into Canada.

One day, instead of meeting Niu at the Winners office, Qiao was directed to the offices of Canmax.

“Mike advised Qiao that Winners was expanding and that Winners and Canmax were the same company,” the judgement says.

Despite the new name, the same problems occurred.

The judge concluded, “it is not clear that either of the corporate defendants [Winners or Canmax] did anything to assist [Qiao’s] sister” and awarded $20,000 to Qiao.

Canmax's decline

It’s the Canmax companies that have faced the greatest number of lawsuits. CBC has identified about 20 actions against the company.

Canmax’s director of legal affairs, Roger Tsai, told CBC that at its peak (in 2011 and 2012) Canmax was processing 100-150 applications a year for the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program. At that time, it had 70-80 employees.

A Canmax promotional video.

Since Saskatchewan’s immigration program rules tightened in 2013, Canmax’s Saskatchewan business has all but dried up.

However, according to a 2015 email obtained through court records, in that year the company still had 400 active files and many of those clients were requesting refunds.

The company is now down to 10 employees, including the director of legal affairs.

Tsai said even though it’s a small company, his job is necessary because of all of the lawsuits.

Though Niu’s partner, Jessie Zhan, continues to run Canmax, Tsai said he hasn’t seen or heard from Niu since he was removed as director in 2015.

Even James Bush said he wouldn’t know where to start looking.

Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou (Brightenvantage).

The Corporation

In August 2012, Niu founded Brightenview with his Canmax colleague Joe Zhou, who became its CEO and public face.

Zhou was also the founding director of two of the Canmax group of companies: Canmax Fortune Management Inc. and Canmax Financial Insurance Ltd.

While Niu and his companies have been sued, Zhou and his two Canmax companies have not. In a written statement, Zhou said those companies were “closed soon after I became CEO with Brightenview,” though he acknowledges, “I have yet to deal with the closure of the companies from the registry.”

In early 2013, Zhou made Brightenview’s first big announcement about what has come to be called the Dundurn megamall.

Brightenview said the project would be completed by 2015 and it expected that hundreds of Chinese entrepreneurs would flood into Saskatchewan.

A promotional video for the Dundurn megamall featuring Brightenview's vice-president of government relations, Lorne Nystrom.

Then-Saskatchewan labour minister Don Morgan attended the event and, according to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper, was enthusiastic.

“We want to make sure it has every opportunity to succeed and we’ll do everything we can,” Morgan said.

Another StarPhoenix article, published on April 1, 2013, quoted Zhou as saying many of the megamall’s 350 suites had already been “spoken for.”

A Brightenview document obtained by CBC shows the company was charging between $450,000 and $1.1 million dollars for the units.

Immediately after signing a purchase contract, the Chinese entrepreneur is required to pay a 50 per cent deposit, according to a flow chart of the purchase process, also obtained by CBC.

CBC asked Nystrom how many people had paid deposits to Brightenview so far.

“That’s all private transactional stuff. If even I wanted to, I couldn’t divulge any of that stuff,” he said.

CBC asked Nystrom what the company says to customers who paid deposits back in 2013 on the now-stalled Dundurn project.

He said that project isn’t dead, but the megamall at the GTH is the top priority now.

Who’s running Brightenview?

Since 2013, the Global Transportation Hub and Brightenview had been discussing the possibility of working together. The two organizations signed a confidentiality agreement that year.

Throughout those discussions, and up to the signing of the agreements on Feb. 3, 2016, Niu was one of two directors of the company, according to Saskatchewan’s corporate registry.

In a written statement, Zhou told CBC Niu was legally removed on May 15, 2015. But that is contradicted by the document he signed and filed with the registry, which says Niu ceased to be a director of the corporation on Feb. 3, 2016.

On that day Niu was replaced by a man named Hua Ma. He became a director and owner of 90 per cent of the company’s shares.

CBC asked Nystrom about Ma’s background. He would only say he’s a businessman living in Toronto.

“It’s the company’s business,” Nystrom said.

Nystrom had the same response when asked why Niu was removed as director immediately after signing such a significant deal.

In its corporate records, Brightenview provided Ma’s Toronto address. A search of property records shows that address is owned by Zhan, Niu’s partner.

CBC News asked GTH officials if they had been made aware of Ma’s new interest and role in the company.

A spokesperson responded by email, saying, “The GTH works directly with Joe Zhou, Brightenview’s chief executive officer … Brightenview has been operating in good standing as a registered Saskatchewan corporation since 2012.” The spokesperson added that this is a private business matter.

Nystrom said there are two companies working in concert on the GTEC project at the GTH.

Brightenview is the parent company and Brightenvantage is a subsidiary, working on marketing the project in Canada and China. It has offices in Saskatchewan, Vancouver and China.

Brightenvantage was founded by Zhan in March 2012. In 2014, Nystrom became a director of the company.

But just last month, Zhan’s name was removed from the corporate record. Nystrom said it was a “restructuring.”

I’m not even sure who’s running it in Vancouver.

Lorne Nystrom, Brightenview's VP of government relations

CBC asked Nystrom who is running Brightenvantage’s Vancouver office, which is doing most of the company’s Canadian business. Though he’s a director of the company, he couldn’t say.

“In Vancouver — oh, God — I’m not even sure. I’m not even sure who’s running it in Vancouver,” Nystrom replied.

CBC spoke to a receptionist at the Vancouver Brightenvantage office and she confirmed Niu is the boss. Two former Brightenvantage employees confirmed the same thing.

CBC asked Nystrom what role Niu plays in the company. Initially, he said Niu had no current role. Then, he conceded perhaps he might.

“Whether he’s doing some stuff in the office off and on, I do not know,” said Nystrom.

When CBC pointed out that Brightenvantage’s Vancouver receptionist had confirmed Niu works in the office and is the boss, Nystrom said, “I would dispute that.”

“She just started very recently. And I don’t think she has been there long enough to know what the structure is.”

After Nystrom’s denial, CBC called the Brightenvantage office in Vancouver again and asked the receptionist if she could leave a message for Niu, asking him to call CBC. She said she would pass that message on to Niu’s assistants.

CBC also pointed out to Nystrom that in August 2016, months after Niu was removed as director of Brightenview, he registered a website called TheGTEC.com using Brightenview’s email and phone number as his contact information.

Nystrom said that’s not his area. He suggested Zhou would know more about that and he offered CBC a sit-down interview with Brightenview’s CEO.

Later, Zhou declined an interview with CBC. Instead, he sent a email that didn’t address many of the questions raised in the interview with Nystrom.

However, he did say everything Brightenview does is above board.

“I simply wish to remind you of the values, such as integrity, that we all hold dearly when it comes to personal, business and client information and privacy.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the GTEC project in Regina in May 2017. (CBC News)

The Confidentiality

For the past year and a half, CBC has been attempting to learn more about the relationship between the government of Saskatchewan and Brightenview. It filed a series of freedom of information requests to the GTH for documents related to Brightenview and this agreement.

While hundreds of pages have been provided, the GTH withheld dozens of documents, including the land sale agreement, the co-operation agreement and the confidentiality agreement.

CBC filed complaints with Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner about these withheld documents.

While he concluded that many of them could justifiably remain private, the commissioner recommended the GTH release 50 documents, including the land sale agreement and a confidentiality agreement.

- First review report.
- Second review report.
- Third review report.

The GTH has refused to follow that recommendation.

Without access to the land sale contract and the co-operation agreement with Brightenview, it remains unclear precisely what the government committed to and how deeply connected taxpayers are to this company and its plans.

Government didn’t dig deep enough, says Xie

CBC has presented the provincial government with many of the key facts it has uncovered in this story and asked if, during its due diligence process, officials also came across these facts.

In an email, the Premier’s Office wrote, “we won’t speak to specific assertions and innuendo about any specific company but we welcome the investment Brightenview has made in our province and look forward to their continued investment.”

The Premier’s Office said the GTH always conducts extensive research, meets with the client, checks government records, scans publicly available sources, and verifies the company’s reputation.

“For companies in China, the GTH works with the Saskatchewan trade office in Shanghai to complete the due diligence with local sources, applying the same process,” the email says.

So many people lost the money.

Richard Xie

But Xie worries the government didn’t dig deep enough.

“How much do you know about Mike Niu? Do you know what he did before? How much money we lost from his different kinds of companies?” Xie asked.

“So many people lost the money.”

Story editing and Shorthand design by Natascia Lypny.