Rich investors granted Canadian residency despite suspicions of fake documents and dubious assets
Special immigration track meant to lure wealthy to Quebec sees most end up in B.C., Ontario
Some rich foreigners seeking Canadian residency under a special Quebec program for wealthy investors couldn't point to the province on a map, while others submitted fake documents or disguised their assets — yet many of them were still accepted for immigration, former civil servants say.
The officials, charged with administering the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (QIIP), say they were sometimes pressured into ignoring signs that applicants' fortunes were founded on corruption or other ill-gotten gains.
"It's a program that has lots of gaps, that permits people with dubious or even illicit business to launder money through the program and to buy themselves citizenship inexpensively," said one former immigration officer.
Numerous current and former civil servants in Quebec spoke to Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête on condition of anonymity, revealing what they see as major flaws in an immigration program that has granted permanent residency to tens of thousands of people since it began in 1986.
QIIP applicants must have at least $2 million in assets and agree to loan $1.2 million of that to the Quebec government interest-free for five years. The government invests the money and uses the interest to provide grants to small- and medium-sized businesses.
"We were under a lot of pressure to approve applicants in order to meet annual financial targets," said one ex-bureaucrat.
Staff were overwhelmed
The federal government used to have a similar immigration track for rich investors seeking to settle in Canada, but shut it down in 2014 due to concerns about its effectiveness.
The Quebec version still accepts 1,900 people a year, plus their family members, with two-thirds coming from mainland China. Last year alone, more than 5,000 people obtained their permanent residency through the program.
All of the applications from China would've passed through Quebec's immigration office in Hong Kong, until it closed last year. The office was overwhelmed by the workload, with staff working 60 to 70 hours a week to keep up, according to the former officials who spoke to Enquête.
The provincial government allotted seven hours to screen each application — including verifying that applicants had come by their fortunes honestly. But as one former immigration officer said: "It takes time to do proper due diligence, and we didn't have it."
Officials' suspicions could be raised by any number of things, including copycat submissions.
"The applicants were all heads of sales, then became assistant managers," the ex-bureaucrat said. "The first time you have an applicant like that, you tell yourself, 'Why not.' Then you get 10, 20, 30 more from the same immigration consultant. It raises serious doubts about their back story."
In the early 2000s, the Quebec government hired an outside firm to help vet applications. It was found that more than 65 per cent of them contained forged documentation.
And according to data obtained under Quebec's access-to-information law, from 2013 to 2017, a total of 1,783 immigrant investor applications were rejected by the province's officers in Hong Kong due to faked documents.
'Really shocked me'
But even as dodgy candidates were flagged, immigration officers say they felt pressure to overlook many applications with apparent shortcomings.
One former bureaucrat recalled rejecting a candidate on suspicions their assets were corruptly obtained. His boss instructed him to be more lenient next time because corruption existed in Quebec too.
We knew they weren't coming to Quebec and we also knew they weren't going to learn French.- Former immigration official
Around the same time, the Charbonneau Commission was investigating corruption and collusion in Quebec's construction industry. "It really shocked me to hear that," he said.
Another civil servant said they were told by a senior official at Quebec's Immigration Ministry not to dig too deep into each applicant's background. Some immigration staff bowed to those pressures and accepted more applicants, the people interviewed by Enquête said, while others refused.
Government claims credit for job creation
In a statement, Quebec's Immigration Ministry said its vetting process is effective at maintaining the integrity of the immigrant-investor program. It said applicants and their assets are examined multiple times: by financial institutions that help recruit them, by governmental financial analysts, and by immigration personnel.
The province also says the program has had important economic benefits, allowing for $695 million in grants to small- and medium-sized businesses since 2000 — which it says has translated into tens of thousands of jobs.
But those numbers may be overly rosy.
Grants from the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program are limited to a maximum of 10 per cent of a business's expansion or modernization project. Nevertheless, Investment Quebec, the provincial agency that administers the grants, counts all the jobs created or saved by the expansion projects it supports — meaning the employment gains seem to be inflated by a factor of 10.
Investment Quebec maintains it's a standard method of calculating and it doesn't deem every one of those jobs to stem from its grants.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of QIIP is that while it's meant to draw wealthy investors to la belle province, the vast majority who have taken up residency in Canada under the program settle in other provinces.
As part of the process, applicants have to sign two forms declaring their intention to reside in Quebec.
But once in Canada, the law allows anyone to move freely. Data reported earlier this year by Global News shows that 85 per cent of Quebec's immigrant investors — since the program began in 1986 — have ended up in British Columbia and Ontario. Only 10 per cent remained in Quebec.
The Quebec Immigrant Investor Program is a scam from start to finish. I think that everyone who's involved in the program knows that.- Ian Young, newspaper columnist
"We're way off our immigration targets under this program," said Suzanne Ethier, who served as Quebec's associate deputy minister of immigration from 2005 to 2006.
"We knew they weren't coming to Quebec and we also knew they weren't going to learn French," said one of the former bureaucrats who helped run the program.
Quebec Immigration Minister David Heurtel told reporters in March that he wasn't fazed by this tendency. "Even if an immigrant investor goes elsewhere in Canada, their money stays here," he said.
Other provinces aren't so keen to welcome Quebec's immigrants, though, and to bear the costs of providing health care and education. Freedom-of-information records obtained by Enquête show the B.C. government complained to Quebec several times in 2015 and 2016
Former federal immigration minister Chris Alexander, who served in Stephen Harper's last government, said he brought up the issue with his Quebec counterparts, and while they "recognized there were problems, they weren't ready to move forward with any changes."
Quebec has since taken steps to retain more of its immigrant investors, Heurtel said, including prioritizing applicants from francophone countries and sending out videos and brochures promoting living in Quebec.
But that hasn't been enough to alter how the program's critics see things.
"The Quebec Immigrant Investor Program is a scam from start to finish. I think that everyone who's involved in the program knows that," said Ian Young, the Vancouver correspondent for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper and a seasoned observer of immigration patterns from China to Canada.
"I think that includes policy-makers, the people who facilitate it and the immigrants themselves."
- An earlier version of this story cited a claim by Quebec's Immigration Ministry that FINTRAC, the federal financial intelligence agency, verifies the immigrant investor funds lent to the Quebec government. The ministry later noted that, in fact, FINTRAC only has a general mandate to spot money-laundering and illicit money flows, under which it could potentially detect problems with immigrant investors' funds.Sep 20, 2018 5:11 PM ET