Murray Edwards denies leaving Alberta to avoid taxes, but tax flight may be an option for some

Billionaire oilman Murray Edwards left Canada, just as his tax rate jumped. That's inspired a lot of conversations among Alberta's wealthy.

Billionaire left Canada just as his provincial and federal tax rate jumped

Murray Edwards only referenced once his recent move to London during the Canadian Natural Resources annual general meeting. When introducing director Tim Faithfull, who also lives in London, Edwards said 'being from outside the country, I think it brings, as I'm learning, a different perspective.' (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

For more than a month now, Calgarians, particularly wealthy ones, have been chattering about Murray Edwards and his move to London. The oil billionaire looms large in Calgary, as a man with a stake in many of the things the city cares about: oil, hockey and the mountains.

Edwards is known first and foremost as a highly successful businessman. Self-made, very smart, very rich. So if he left the country for tax reasons, as is suspected, are other Albertans following suit? If they aren't considering it, should they be?

You don't need many to do it to have a huge cost.- Alexandre Laurin, C.D. Howe Institute

Edwards himself refutes the notion his change of address from Calgary to London is to avoid a higher tax bill, telling the Globe and Mail that he left the country for personal reasons.

However, there is no question Edwards is leaving town just as tax bills are going up for Alberta's wealthy, following provincial and federal income tax rate increases for 2016.  
W. Brett Wilson says he doesn't think Edwards left Alberta to reduce his tax bill. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

Taxes higher in 2016 for wealthy Albertans

The highest marginal tax rate for federal and provincial taxes for Albertans in 2014 was 39 per cent. In 2016, it is 48 per cent. 

This is because both federal and provincial tax rates have risen. Alberta has seen a much sharper increase than other provinces. In 2014, it charged a flat income tax of 10 per cent for all income levels. In 2016, Albertans will pay a 15 per cent tax rate provincially on income above $300,000 and 33 per cent federally, for a combined top tax rate of 48 per cent.

Add it up and it's a big hit for Alberta's wealthy. 

"What he's struggling with and what every businessman is struggling with is the sheer incompetence that's been layered over us at the municipal and federal and provincial levels by inexperienced governments," said Brett Wilson, a Calgary investment banker and close friend of Edwards.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, and Murray Edwards, co-owner of the Calgary Flames, make their way to collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 18, 2012. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Wilson told CBC he doesn't believe taxes are the reason Edwards left Canada.

Edwards is the founder of one of Canada's largest independent energy companies, Canadian Natural Resources, and a co-owner of the Calgary Flames. He also owns ski resorts and golf courses in the Rockies.

The cost of lower taxes

"There's a certain calibre of person who can tax plan through mobility," said Lindsay Tedds, a taxation expert at the University of Victoria. "But it's costly to do, so you have to be earning a large amount of money to absorb those costs."

If you choose to give up residency in Canada, for any reason, it's sort of like dying. The Canada Revenue Agency will consider that you've disposed of all your assets just before leaving the country and then tax you on the capital gains. That would include shares in companies and properties, excluding your principal residence.

Competition for the rich

"There has always been and will continue to always be a competition for these kinds of people," said David Lesperance, a Canadian lawyer who specializes in tax mobility.

The advantage in moving to the United Kingdom is that you can be a non-domiciled resident, meaning the U.K. is not your permanent home. With that standing, you don't pay tax on your foreign income unless it's income you bring into the country to pay your living expenses.

If you draw on capital or savings to pay for your lifestyle, then you don't have to pay tax on your worldwide income at all.

Instead the U.K makes money off those residents by charging at 20 per cent V.A.T, or sales tax on purchases.

"London has a huge number of these res-non doms," said Lesperance. "And it bolsters the economy in the U.K. tremendously."

Murray Edwards of Calgary, left, shakes hands with Governor General David Johnston as he was invested as Member to the Order of Canada at a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 21, 2014. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A hit to provincial coffers

There's speculation that Alberta will see some degree of tax flight in the coming year, but it will be hard to figure out exactly what's at play.

"These tax rates are rising at the same time that we are facing some very significant economic changes going on in the province," said Tedds.

"The exchange rate has dropped significantly and has been bouncing around. Oil prices, people just aren't sure when they'll recover. There's just too much going on at the same time to say the tax rate is the cause or even a contributing factor."

In Canada, the top one per cent of earners pay 20 per cent of personal income taxes. They are also the people who are the mostly likely to change their behaviour to avoid paying higher taxes. Moving out of the country is obviously the most extreme example of that, but the damage to government coffers can be noticeable.

"You don't need many to do it to have a huge cost," said Alexandre Laurin, a tax expert at the C.D. Howe Institute.

"They're usually your highest worth individuals, reporting millions and millions of dollars of income, so you just lose ten of them and you've just lost a whole lot of tax revenues.