British Columbia

'Hands tied': B.C. cities lament lack of tools to combat money laundering

The provincial government had a message to communities on Monday morning at the beginning of the annual convention of B.C. municipalities: its efforts to combat money laundering were having an effect, but cities and towns still need to be on guard. 

Province announces about $720 million has been recouped from real estate audits in the past four years

Finance Minister Carole James speaks to delegates at the 2019 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention on Sept. 23, 2019, about the government's efforts to deter money laundering. (UBCM)

The provincial government had a message to communities on Monday morning at the beginning of the annual convention of B.C. municipalities: its efforts to combat money laundering were having an effect, but cities and towns still need to be on guard. 

But local leaders had their own message for the province: it needs to step up enforcement even more than has already be done. 

"There's definitely the hands tied aspect," said Richmond Coun. Kelly Greene.

"There's jurisdictions that we can make rules within, and outside of that, we can't paint outside the lines. It's actually not allowed. We try to do as much as we can to lock things up, but we do require other levels of government to step up."

Greene was one of many councillors to question Attorney General David Eby, Finance Minister Carole James and other provincial officials at a panel Monday morning, where the province outlined the steps it had taken to reduce money laundering in B.C., outside of the recently launched public inquiry.

'Doesn't mean it's simply disappeared'

"We have a very serious problem that goes beyond casinos," said Eby, who explained that while suspicious activity in casinos has been drastically reduced, the province knows money laundering is still going on.

"The fact that cash is not coming into casinos anymore doesn't simply mean it's disappeared," he said, highlighting luxury cars as a particular area the province is monitoring.  

Eby also highlighted how the province had ensured regulators were present in casinos at times people were most likely to gamble — instead of Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 — and pushed post-secondary institutions to stop accepting cash for tuition payments.   

Provincial officials also shared new data from the Canada Revenue Agency, showing the audit of 7,906 files into B.C. real estate activities since April 2015, an average of five per day. 

That acitivty recouped $481.5 million in federal revenue and approximately $240 million in provincial revenue, said Francis Camilleri, the Ministry of Finance's executive director for income taxation. 

Will the feds step up?

But much of the focus from mayors and councillors at the session was whether the federal government would provide more officers or change legislation to make it easier for the RCMP to crack down on suspected money launderers. 

"Our hands are really tied without having the support form the legislative side," said Kim Watt-Senner, a Fraser Lake councillor and retired RCMP officer. 

"If we're able to have better legislation, so police [can] day-to-day obtain those proceeds of chime, that's where you're going to have the largest impact."

Maureen Maloney, who chaired the panel that produced the province's main report on money laundering, agreed.

"We do not have the tools," she said, calling the push to loosen the grounds for a reasonable search and seizure of assets "an uphill battle, but it's an important one."

The province said the federal government was exploring changes — but the head of the RCMP's Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit backed out of his scheduled appearance on the panel, with less than 24 hours notice, due to the ongoing federal election. 

For his part, Eby warned that the province had plenty more work to do, regardless of what the federal government did. 

"We need to walk before we can run, and I feel that's where our attention should be," he said

"And then we can talk about how to go after some more challenging areas." 

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