Chinese woman seeking Canadian immigration caught in shadowy, confusing world of government-supported megamall
Immigration expert says Sask. government failed to adequately scrutinize wholesale mall project
A Chinese woman trying to gain permanent residency in Canada through the purchase of a unit in a wholesale mall on the outskirts of Regina found herself caught in a tangled web of false promises and dubious practices.
Amber Zhang, a 45-year-old Chinese national, says in early 2017 she was persuaded to buy into the Global Trade and Exhibition Centre (GTEC), in part because it has been enthusiastically promoted by the Saskatchewan government.
She planned to open a wholesale store in GTEC selling security products which her immigration consultant, Vancouver-based Global Fortune told her would lead to permanent residency.
Zhang said her consultant told her she wouldn't even have to live in Saskatchewan or personally run the business. She said a representative of the GTEC developer, Brightenview International, promised the same thing.
However, an arrangement like that is against the rules. The entrepreneurial category of the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) requires applicants to actively run their own business and live in the province.
Zhang said her confidence was boosted by Global Fortune's online advertising, which described GTEC as a "'Zero Risk' Investment Immigration Project" that is "government-recommended."
Zhang said Global Fortune's owner, Wenda (Tony) Yang told her, "Because this project is supported by the government, it cannot be refused."
In an email to CBC, Saskatoon lawyer Clara Bitzer, who has worked on several GTEC-related immigration files including Zhang's, said the project was "wholeheartedly endorsed by the government of Saskatchewan which went out of its way to encourage these applications."
The government's support of this project comforted Zhang. On March 17, 2017, Zhang paid Global Fortune $80,000 for her immigration application and paid Brightenview a 50 percent deposit on a $250,000 unit in the wholesale mall.
'I don't want to see more people deceived'
Zhang's contract with Brightenview said if her application was rejected by Immigration Canada, she would receive a full refund of her deposit.
Her immigration application was denied earlier this year. Instead of receiving a refund, Zhang found herself in a web of business relationships that made it difficult to figure out what was happening with her file and her money.
"I found this project to be a big scam," Zhang wrote to CBC earlier this year.
Zhang said she has filed a complaint about Global Fortune to the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC). She is also considering filing a lawsuit against Brightenview with other customers seeking refunds.
- 'I never thought that I would get cheated': Chinese woman refused refund from Dundurn megamall developer
Zhang said she wanted to do an interview with CBC for two reasons: to pressure Brightenview to give her a refund and to offer a public warning.
"I want more people to know it so they will not invest in this project," Zhang told CBC in a phone interview from China, through a translator. "I don't want to see more people deceived."
A wholesale immigration mall
According to the government of Saskatchewan's website, SINP's business-focused immigration program is "designed to attract entrepreneurial talent to the province."
Brightenview says its GTEC project is aimed at doing just that.
The company says its 80,000 square foot building at the GTH has 120 units that will soon be wholesale stores showing off a wide range of Chinese made products from beauty supplies to home improvement products to auto parts. Virtually every store will be run by a Chinese national hoping their business will qualify them for Canadian permanent residency.
Brightenview says GTEC is modelled after wildly successful wholesale markets in China. One of them, Yi Wu near Shanghai, is billed as the largest market of small wholesale commodities in the world, featuring tens of thousands of suppliers. Buyers from a wide range of industries fly from all over the world to shop there.
As of early October, about 50 of GTEC's 120 units were up and running.
For example, GTEC hosts an auto parts store selling Suzuki products. The company's website notes it "has always been in good faith, innovation, professional, service to win the trust of customers. Several years of auto parts industry, we have too much harvest."
The website features exterior car parts with unfamiliar names like Garnish, Ghuard and Granis. It also features more-standard products like brake pads and oil filters.
Another of the businesses, a beauty supply company, says on its Facebook page, "We are a wholesaler which have haircut supplies, first aid kit and ginseng. Welcome to visit!!!"
The page features several pictures of first aid kits but no beauty supply products. A CBC reporter visited the store and also saw combs, brushes and capes.
Brightenview says this mall will attract wholesale buyers from across North America. The company's Lorne Nystrom, a former NDP MP, explained the concept in a YouTube video about a previous iteration of the project.
"So instead of flying to China to Shanghai, Beijing or elsewhere the centre will enable North American wholesalers, retailers, contractors to access the Chinese factory direct products," he said.
An unrealistic, flawed project
Richard Kurland, a British Columbia-based immigration lawyer and the editor of Lexbase, a monthly immigration publication, said the whole premise of this mall is flawed.
He said these sorts of immigration projects have been tried and abandoned in other provinces over the years.
If it was intended to be, 'If you build it they will come,' it's not and they won't.- Richard Kurland, Immigration Lawyer
"Hindsight shows that the model delivered real estate benefits to real estate developers but little or no tangible benefits for provincial immigration programs," Kurland said.
He said the problem is they failed to establish real, long-term businesses in the smaller provinces where they were built.
"Typically, the immigrant trampolines to a British Columbia or Ontario and takes their purse with them," he said.
Kurland said temporary, industry-specific markets like fashion or gardening shows do well in cities with dense populations like Vancouver, but he said a permanent wholesale market in a smaller city like Regina is untenable.
"If it was intended to be, 'If you build it they will come,' it's not and they won't," Kurland said.
'It's really hard for me'
When CBC journalists visited GTEC and canvassed vendors, they were consistently told business is very slow and there is not much traffic. Over the course of several visits, journalists didn't spot a single customer in GTEC.
CBC asked the owner of one of the shops how many customers she sees in an average day.
"So far it's not too much. For one day, no one," said Sonya, whose name has been changed for this story.
She said she's driven around rural Saskatchewan, desperately trying to sell her wares to Co-op stores.
Sonya said store managers have told her they are interested but can't buy from her because those decisions are made by head office. She has also tried to get meetings with buyers at Walmart and Superstore, to no avail.
She said the language barrier is part of the problem.
"I have poor English. I can't talk to the customers and the managers from the store," she said.
The SINP entrepreneur program does not require English language skills.
CBC asked Brightenview about the lack of shoppers.
"Currently, GTEC operating businesses are predominantly wholesale and distribution via industry channels which does not rely on retail traffic," Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou replied in an email, adding that they are working on a plan to attract customers to the facility.
Brochure touts premier's strong support of GTEC
On the eve of the 2016 provincial election, the scandal-plagued GTH sold land to Brightenview for the project and entered a "partnership" with the company.
At the time, the Saskatchewan Party government was embroiled in controversy over a series of land deals that saw politically well-connected businessmen make millions on land that wound up in government hands.
As part of its deal with Brightenview, the government signed a secret "co-operation agreement" with the company that the province has refused to make public. CBC is fighting for access to that document through the courts.
During the campaign, then-Premier Brad Wall touted this land sale as proof that all was well at the GTH.
In September 2016, not long after winning the election, Wall went on an investment attraction trip to China where he spoke at a meeting that promoted GTEC.
A GTEC brochure features photos of this trip. A caption reads, "Premier Brad Wall strongly supports and promotes the GTH-GTEC project in person."
Since that time, GTEC has been heavily promoted in China.
For example, a Feb. 22, 2017, article on a high profile China-based finance website says "GTEC is an immigration project managed by the Saskatchewan government… it provides a fast and efficient way to immigrate to Canada."
During the May 2017 GTEC ribbon cutting, then-GTH minister Jeremy Harrison was there saying "I think this is going to be a very positive project for the city of Regina, for the entire province." In that same month, the GTH wrote a letter of endorsement saying it "will continue to support this project in every stage of its development and operation."
Government support persuaded Zhang to buy in
Despite all that, deputy minister of Immigration and Career Training Alastair MacFadden told CBC that "at no time have we indicated that the SINP itself approved this project."
Since 2015, the government has had to chastise Brightenview or its agents five times for implying their project had a special relationship with the Saskatchewan government. The most recent incident, MacFadden said, was this past summer.
During the Monday November 4 interview, CBC told MacFadden that the Saskatchewan government's own WeChat account indicated support fo the GTEC project.
That night all references to GTEC on the government's WeChat site were removed.
And two days after that interview, on November 6, the Saskatchewan government made a major policy change which directly affects GTEC. It decided that going forward, it will no longer accept GTEC-related applications.
Brightenview told CBC it is reviewing the change now and had no immediate comment.
Zhang said that back in 2017 when she was researching GTEC, it seemed crystal clear that the province supported the project.
"The project has been promoted everywhere on the Chinese website indicating it is government-supported," Zhang said.
She said that was a key factor in her decision to buy in.
Zhang told she wouldn't have to run her business
Zhang was also persuaded by Global Fortune's sales pitch. The company told her Saskatchewan is the easiest place in Canada to gain permanent residency.
In a message to Zhang on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, Global Fortune representative Cathy Hu described Saskatchewan's immigration system.
"Basically there is no requirement, very low threshold," wrote Hu.
Zhang was told there are no English language requirements and she wouldn't have to hire Canadians or show a business profit in order to become a permanent resident. She just had to invest $500,000 in a business in the province.
Zhang said Hu also told her that for an extra fee, she wouldn't have to actually run the business or even live in the province.
"If the applicant doesn't want to run the business they can entrust the business company to operate it for $30,000 a year," said Hu, who added that her company had sold 30 clients into the GTEC project. "If you don't want to stay here you can live in Vancouver."
Zhang said Steven Fang, a representative of Brightenvantage, the marketing arm of Brightenview, echoed that promise.
"He told me at the beginning that I bought this shop for immigration, I didn't have to live in Saskatchewan, nor did have to run the business, and their company would run it for me," Zhang said.
When asked about Steven Fang's alleged comments, Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou said, "Any 'he said, she said' discussions are not relevant to the fact that any business investor from overseas to be successful in their investment objectives has to fulfill their business establishment plan committed with the province with no exception."
CBC asked Global Fortune for comment on Zhang's claims.
"I am sick due to someone's blackmail and threaten who take advantages of media," said an email from Global Fortune. "I couldn't address all your questions at this time due to illness. However, I can say the facts behind the questions you have asked was hidden and overemphasized from your interviewee."
Zhang said she initially found the offer of a "business services" company attractive "because landed immigrants don't know much about doing business in Canada, so a local company is needed to provide them certain services."
'Comprehensive business services'
CBC has learned there is a Brightenview-connected company that offers "comprehensive business services" to GTEC vendors.
Elirons Consulting was founded by Zhanyuan Bai, who also plays a leading role in GTEC and Brightenvantage. A contract obtained by CBC shows Elirons will handle a wide range of services like human resources, website development, market research, strategic planning, supplier due diligence and import/export solutions.
Immigration rules require applicants to actively manage their business. Kurland says this agreement suggests that GTEC vendors may be contracting out their responsibilities.
"I tried hard to think of what is left to satisfy the active management obligation and I couldn't come up with anything except being on the premises to make sure lightning doesn't strike," he said.
Elirons didn't reply to CBC's request for an interview.
CBC asked Brightenview about the Elirons contract but Zhou insisted the two companies are completely independent, despite the apparent connection.
Sales pitch 'quite different from the reality'
Zhang said she and her husband started to worry they had been deceived once she learned it was against the rules to have someone else run her business while she lived in another province.
Her concern with the project escalated when she arrived in Saskatchewan.
During the earlier sales pitch, Zhang had been shown glossy images of the GTH that made it look like, "a very busy and prosperous neighbourhood."
When she arrived at the GTH on her exploratory visit, "I found that place was very desolate."
"My first reaction was what the company promoted is quite different from the reality."
For years, GTEC has used an inaccurate rendering of the GTH, showing a jam-packed high tech facility.
The reality is, much of the GTH is bald, empty land.
Brightenview's Zhou defends his company's use of the inaccurate image as "a visionary illustration of future investment and development opportunities."
Zhang became more concerned when she came across a CBC story about the history of Brightenview and its founder Chuan (Mike) Niu.
The story described how Niu and his wife had been wanted by the Chinese government for fraud. It also explained how an immigration company affiliated with Brightenview, Canmax, had been sued 20 times by people who said the company ripped them off.
In its response to the story at the time, Brightenview said Niu was no longer associated with the company and it had discontinued its affiliation with Canmax.
Zhang said Brightenvantage's Steven Fang texted her to assure her that everything was fine.
"The writer doesn't know what he is writing," Fang said to Amber Zhang on WeChat. "No need to worry, this new report is untrue."
Zhang's application declined
Brightenvantage paid a large accounting firm to develop a business plan for Zhang's security products company.
That plan says GTEC is central to the success of Zhang's fledgling business.
It says GTEC will help her establish a "turnkey business operation" by providing "the core services every storefront needs to master in order to be successful in the North American economy" and that GTEC will help with branding, promotion, creating sales and revenue while helping to lower operating expenses.
It says Zhang will invest $560,000 and it projects that by year two, Zhang's business will earn a $27,000 profit.
I am not satisfied that your business will create significant economic, social or cultural benefit to Canada.- Official from Canadian embassy in China
Officials at SINP reviewed Zhang's plan and approved it.
Then her application was sent to Immigration Canada for its review.
On March 18, an official with the Canadian embassy in China declined the application.
"I am not satisfied that your business will create significant economic, social or cultural benefit to Canada," the letter said.
'This should never have been approved by the province'
After reviewing Zhang's business plan, immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said in his opinion, Ottawa made the right call.
He also said Saskatchewan failed in its duty to protect Canada's immigration system.
"This should never have been approved by the province," Kurland said.
He said there are two obvious problems with Zhang's business plan.
First, while federal law requires applicants to establish successful businesses, Zhang's plan projects just a $27,000 profit after two years on a $560,000 investment.
He said that plan "is by any commonsense standard, not a successful business in the interests of Canada."
"What province is going to tell you you can fail and succeed in getting a visa? It doesn't work that way in other provinces," Kurland said. "How is it possible to support the new immigrant family on $27,000?"
This kind of thing should be shut down yesterday.- Richard Kurland, Immigration lawyer
He said that tiny proposed profit should have been a red flag to provincial officials.
"This kind of thing should be shut down yesterday," Kurland said.
CBC asked the deputy minister responsible for immigration, Alastair MacFadden, why his ministry approved a business with such a low projected profit.
He said that's not his area.
"I manage the SINP program. If you're interested in how that program works I can talk with you about that. But in terms of the success of businesses that's different than program criteria," said MacFadden.
He said that since GTEC was launched, SINP has written letters of support for one hundred applicants. Sixty of those have been approved by Ottawa to start their business at GTEC. He said that so far the province has nominated one of those applicants for permanent residency.
MacFadden said he doesn't know the status of the forty that have not been approved by Ottawa. Brightenview acknowledges that some of them, like Zhang, have received denial letters from the federal government.
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No 'active management'
Kurland argued the other problem with the plan is that it fails to commit Zhang to the "active management" of the business.
Kurland said the absence of that phrase in her plan "entitles individuals to contract out to third parties the active management component of their business."
"That flies in the face of federal law which requires the individual applicant to be responsible for active management of the business."
He said, while these flaws with Zhang's plan are significant, he doesn't blame her.
"This is not a failure of the applicant because how the heck can a person literally thousands of miles outside of Canada know the subtleties of the business immigration program in Saskatchewan? They're relying on someone," Kurland said.
Brightenview's Joe Zhou said there's nothing wrong with foreign nationals receiving help with their businesses from third parties.
He said without that help they may have "trouble landing their business feet on the ground" noting that "in the past, many have ended up moving elsewhere."
Zhang denied a refund
Zhang's contract with Brightenview says she's entitled to a "full refund" if she "fails to obtain a temporary work permit after providing all the required documentations."
She requested that refund but was declined.
In a letter, the company's lawyer, Barton Soroka of the Merchant Law Group, said that Brightenview needed to know more about why Ottawa rejected her application.
He urged her to reapply, saying Brightenview would provide her with the name of a company that would help her do that. He also implied Zhang may not be entitled to a refund.
"We believe this is a much more fair option than simply denying your request for a refund," wrote Soroka.
A tangled web of relationships
Zhang said she was puzzled by this demand to reapply given that Brightenview was well aware she had been working with Global Fortune.
"I said 'If you think the immigration consultant is not professional, why did you let him to be my representative to apply for the work permit?'" Zhang said.
Documents indicate that, Brightenvantage, Brightenview's marketing arm, was intimately involved in coordinating Zhang's immigration process.
According to an invoice, it was Brightenvantage, not Global Fortune, that made payments to third parties on Zhang's behalf, including:
A $2,500 immigration fee to the Saskatchewan government.
$5,000 in legal fees.
A $6,000 fee to the accounting firm for her business plan.
A $3,800 fee to another accountant for her capital verification report.
Despite this, Brightenview insisted that Zhang should reapply to immigration Canada using its expert.
"They said that the lawyer of their company is more professional and has a higher success rate," Zhang said.
Zhang also found this surprising, given that the lawyer who submitted her immigration application was recommended and paid for by Brightenvantage.
When she was on her exploratory trip to Saskatchewan in March 2017, a Brightenvantage representative brought Zhang to the office of Clara Bitzer, a Saskatoon lawyer. Zhang said the representative told her that Bitzer handled all GTEC applications.
A report about that trip, submitted to the Saskatchewan government on Zhang's behalf, said "I need a lawyer to represent me when I submit my immigration application. Clara told me she will be my lawyer."
However, that relationship is not as clear as it seems.
When Zhang began seeking a refund, she reached out to Bitzer by email seeking clarification of their relationship.
Bitzer confirmed that she was Zhang's formal representative on her immigration file. Zhang asked if this meant she was Bitzer's client.
"No not client, as I did not give or offer you any legal advice, or assist you with your application. I was your representative for the limited purpose of being your SINP representative for your SINP application," Bitzer wrote to Zhang on Oct. 4.
Bitzer added "I did not have a client. I was not acting as your lawyer or as a lawyer for anyone else in the application process," though she did acknowledge that her bill was paid by Brightenvantage.
CBC asked Bitzer a series of questions about her relationship with Zhang and Brightenvantage.
She replied "you are mistaken in your assumptions and conclusions which are not based on actual facts." She didn't point out any specific errors.
Bitzer noted that the Saskatchewan government enthusiastically supports Brightenview's project.
Brightenview accuses Zhang of 'trickery'
In the midst of Zhang's fight for a refund, Brightenview's lawyer, Tony Merchant, wrote a letter to CBC saying it was being used as a pawn in a contract dispute.
"Investors trying to use the CBC to get out of contractual obligations, trying to use the CBC to pressure Brightenview as a private business and avoid what amounts to their responsibility and standard commercial negotiation procedures, is not something the CBC should permit," Merchant wrote.
Brightenview refused to answer a series of questions about the contract dispute because it said doing so would violate the confidentiality of the negotiations with its client.
Yet, days later, as Zhang continued to push for a refund, Merchant wrote another email to CBC naming Zhang and including emails she had written to Brightenview which he said "show that the CBC is being used and manipulated."
"You ought not to be a party to this kind of blatant trickery," Merchant wrote.
Merchant included two emails Zhang had sent to Brightenview, warning the company that if she didn't receive a refund she would tell her story publicly.
"This report will definitely affect your sales," she warned.
Zhang defended these emails saying it wasn't blackmail.
"I just wanted my rights back."
Zhang told CBC that over the past few weeks, a Brightenview representative approached her by phone and offered to refund her deposit in instalments over the next two years.
She said she was told Brightenview would only agree to do that if she made sure the CBC story wasn't published.
Zhang explained that wasn't a promise she was in a position to make.
CBC asked Brightenview about this alleged refund offer.
"I haven't heard of what you said," Zhou replied.