Inside the illegal immigration scheme targeting Atlantic Canada
Recruiter says it charges $170K to secure fake jobs and permanent residency for immigrants
On some foreign immigration websites, the Atlantic provinces are touted as having the "lowest bar" for permanent residency in Canada — all you need is $170,000 and a willingness to work a few months for no pay.
It's a job-offer scheme that's become known as the "golden ticket" for potential immigrants, particularly from Asia, who are willing to fork over large sums of money in order to quickly secure a new life in Canada.
The problem with the pitch? It's illegal.
Interviews with immigration experts, lawyers and licensed consultants — along with extensive correspondence and conversations between CBC and a recruiting agency that boasted it breaks the rules — shows how widespread this type of scheme appears to be in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
"There are a lot of people who have gotten away with it and have gone undetected and are permanent residents, or employers who have participated in this kind of fraud," said Erica Stanley, a licensed immigration consultant in Charlottetown.
"It's gone undetected because if it's all in cash under the table, there are no records."
The target of the illegal schemes is the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program, which was launched by the federal government in 2017 to help fill gaps in local labour markets and is monitored provincially. The program includes a major perk — those who immigrate under it are granted permanent residency within six months.
In theory, businesses apply to it to find workers for positions they cannot otherwise fill. The difference from other programs that grant permanent residency is that potential immigrants deal directly with employers, with little government oversight of the recruitment and negotiation process.
The problem is that so-called "ghost" agencies are taking advantage of weaknesses in the program. They convince immigrants to turn over sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, paying off select companies to hire the person for no pay or to simply forge their payroll.
For several weeks, CBC News posed as a Chinese couple in correspondence and phone calls with WonHonTa Immigration Service, a Toronto-based recruiting agency that claims to match potential immigrants with businesses in the Atlantic region.
WonHonTa had posted an article on WeChat, a social media and messaging platform popular in China, explaining how the "vast majority" of people use the Atlantic immigration pilot.
"Employers want profit, applicants want identity (PR residency), and both sides have their
demand in common," said the article. "Well, you pay money, I hire you. Salary is also paid by applicants, and recorded on books monthly."
How it works
Jiacheng Song, a manager with the China-based affiliate of WonHonTa Consulting Inc., told an undercover CBC journalist he works directly with businesses to ensure all transactions are done through personal bank accounts to avoid taxes.
"To be frank, we have employers who work with us," Song wrote. "We pay them money, they are willing to sponsor our clients for immigration."
CBC's undercover reporter also spoke with the "boss" of WonHonTa's head office in Toronto, Liu Xin. She said if a client chooses not to work at their designated job, the employer will simply create the necessary paperwork.
"If you don't work for the employer, we can ask him to issue a pay stub, but it's not real pay," she said. "Your paycheque is just for show. Only to make the paper trail look good."
In that situation, the immigration applicant would be required to pay the employer taxes that would have been paid if the applicant was actually on the job.
After weeks of correspondence, WonHonTa offered CBC a position at a Halifax-area daycare and provided a sample contract that would require a payment $170,000.
When CBC News pushed for a name, the company said it was "Daydreams."
Daydreams Childcare Center in Bedford, N.S., denies any involvement with WonHonTa Consulting Inc.
"I don't know anything about them and I have never had business with them," said Colleen Dempsey, co-owner of Daydreams.
Dempsey said she hired a staff person with an open work permit, then decided to apply through the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program to make them full-time. She said she has never considered hiring another employee.
"We're a small business and I built it from the ground up, and I certainly don't appreciate my name being thrown around in those regards. I am protective of my business in that sense because it is one of my babies," said Dempsey.
She said Daydreams and other companies on the designated employers list for the immigration program are vulnerable to scams because the business names are public.
"I'm assuming that my name may have been pulled from there by somebody, but I'm not sure." Dempsey said.
WonHonTa has also posted several "success cases" and job postings from New Brunswick, including a position for a sewing machine operator in Saint John.
When CBC revealed it had posed as the Chinese couple to WonHonTa and its Chinese affiliate, Song said it had all been lies used as part of a "marketing strategy."
"That's in order to get the client to sign the deal," Song said in an interview with CBC. "If we don't do this we will never get any business."
Flooded with calls
Stanley, the Charlottetown consultant, gets flooded with so many calls from people looking for fake jobs — "all day, every day" — that she has resorted to hiring a contracting service to field her calls.
"They're convinced that I'm just holding out and that I really do have a bag of jobs to sell, like trick-or-treat," she said.
She said she has been hearing about illegal side deals for the last two years. The fraudulent activity hurts her business, as well as the reputation of her profession.
She has even been offered, she said, as much as $10,000 for a single meeting to discuss matching clients with a fake job.
"Even if I didn't care about ethics or about the law, it wouldn't be sustainable because you still have to go about your life. You have to be able to sleep at night," she said.
The whole concept of Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program is to allow designated employers in need of workers to hire immigrants directly. The business is not charged a government fee, unlike other immigration programs. The program also differs from existing immigration channels because some language and education requirements are lower for applicants.
"If you know you get that job offer, then that's a golden ticket to immigrate to Canada, which can be quite tempting for people. So they're going to seek that out and they're going to pay what they have to pay sometimes," said Andrew VanSlyke of GV5 Consulting, a company that specializes in the pilot program.
Recruiting agencies outside Canada often help co-ordinate deals and take a large cut of the profit, according to VanSlyke.
"In Nova Scotia, one of the ways that the law is being broken is a lot of these companies are contacting employers and offering recruitment services, oftentimes for free. And of course the employer is instantly interested," he said.
"And what happens is those companies end up charging the employee a lot of money and costs associated with finding the job."
In contrast, VanSlyke and Stanley are licensed consultants who say they help immigrants with paperwork, resumés and interviews for a few hundred dollars. They are authorized representatives, approved by the federal government to accept payment for these services.
Stanley said it's frustrating to see the immigration program targeted for its loopholes. People often "do their time" in Atlantic Canada, she said, then move to a bigger city or province.
"I try not to feel offended as an Islander, as a Maritimer, that we're viewed as the doormat of Canada," Stanley said. "Just by their choice of words you know that this is being treated like a purgatory of sorts."
The CBC investigation also reveals that Saskatchewan is another common target for immigration fraud, but the price tag for a job is higher, at $180,000.
All three Maritime provinces issued written statements outlining the importance of the program's integrity.
"We have safeguards in place to detect and prevent fraud as part of our day-to-day program operations," wrote Tracy Barron, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Office of Immigration.
The statement said Nova Scotia will not "publicly disclose fraud prevention activities."
New Brunswick's Department of Labour also indicated it is aware of fraud and has taken action in some cases.
"The department has refused applications for reasons such as (but not limited to) misrepresentation or where the genuineness of the job offer or application was not sufficiently demonstrated," spokesperson Sarah Bustard said in a statement.
In Prince Edward Island, the government said the immigration program has not only been popular, it has been positive for the local economy. Even so, the P.E.I. government has created a new position to oversee "compliance and program integrity."
Vincent Lalonde, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto, said the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program is definitely viewed as hot property in Asia. It was the topic of many conversations during his recent trip to Vietnam, he said.
"Every immigration company I visited asked me about the AIPP and whether I could help them help their clients get into Canada using the AIPP," Lalonde said.
He pointed out that people hoping to immigrate to Canada rarely have access to Canadian job sites and other employment resources in their native language, which forces them to seek the help of consulting agencies.
Lalonde said the federal government could help by making authorized resources easier to navigate.
"They're creating these programs based on Canada's needs and from a Canadian policy perspective," he said.
"But I think that there's generally a failure to examine how these programs would then be marketed or perceived or used in the immigration market in China or in other countries around the world."
With files from Geoff Leo