CBC Investigates

Cash-for-jobs immigration consultant connected to Sask. government-backed Chinese megamall

An immigration consulting firm that experts say may have engaged in fraudulent behaviour is linked to a high-profile development project the Saskatchewan government is heavily promoting.

Expert says government playing ‘risky game’ by going ‘all in’ on development project

The owner of Vstar International, Nicole Sun, and Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan Minister of the Economy, were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Brightenview's new Chinese megamall at the Global Transportation Hub. (CBC)

An immigration consulting firm that experts say may have engaged in fraudulent behaviour is linked to a high-profile development project the Saskatchewan government is heavily promoting.

CBC News has learned Vancouver-based Vstar International has been recruiting Chinese immigrant investors to a new, provincial government-backed project at Regina's Global Transportation Hub, a publicly-owned inland port.

The Global Trade and Exhibition Centre (GTEC), is proposed as a wholesale mall set to house 300 condo-style units where Chinese businesses can set up shop and promote their wares in North America.

It's getting close to the government and I'm sure that they're very concerned and they should be concerned.- Ken Rasmussen , University of Regina

In an undercover investigation, CBC's iTeam discovered a Vstar representative offered $15,000 cash to a Prince Albert, Sask., business in exchange for a job offer to a Chinese national. CBC also recorded the owner of Vstar saying the company charges Chinese nationals $200,000 for a skilled worker immigration application. The going rate in Saskatchewan is $3,000 to $8,000. 

The fact Vstar is promoting a project so closely linked to the Saskatchewan government is problematic, added University of Regina professor Ken Rasmussen.

"The connections are troubling for the government. … I mean, it's getting close to the government and I'm sure that they're very concerned and they should be concerned."

Vstar, government promoting same project

Vstar makes no secret of its deep connection to the GTEC project, promoting it on its homepage.

The company also seems quick to pitch the GTEC to potential clients. In a phone conversation, Vstar's owner, Nicole Sun, highly recommended the GTEC to undercover CBC journalist Sharon Wu.
This is an artist's rendering of the Global Trade and Exhibition Centre that Brightenview Development International and the Saskatchewan government say will be built at the GTH. (Brightenvantage)

Wu was posing as a Canadian wanting to help her wealthy Chinese relatives immigrate here.

Sun suggested Wu's relatives attempt to immigrate to Saskatchewan through the province's entrepreneur program, which provides a path to immigration for foreigners who agree to establish a business in the province.

Sun pitched GTEC as "a program sponsored by the government of Saskatchewan" and went on to explain Wu's relatives could set up an international trade business at the facility. She said it would cost $250,000-$360,000 for a 400- to 600-square-foot unit, and a $75,000 immigration fee.

We've worked closely with [ Brightenview ]. We're confident this project will move forward.- Jeremy Harrison, Minister of the Economy

In the conversation, Sun told Wu 30 of its clients have applied to be part of the GTEC. Sun said some of them have already been approved.

Sun said another key benefit of the GTEC is "it does not have any requirement for English."

In an interview with CBC, Sun said she and some of her staff were at the May 4 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the GTEC, hosted by the project's developer, Brightenview Development International.

Saskatchewan's Minister of the Economy was there, too, scissors in hand.

"We've worked closely with [Brightenview]," Jeremy Harrison told media. "We're confident this project will move forward."

Early last year, the Global Transportation Hub sold millions of dollars of land to Brightenview and signed a formal co-operation agreement with the company. In it, the province committed "all relevant resources within government" to the success of Brightenview's project.

"The Saskatchewan government and GTH attach great importance to GTEC and its promotion … We will be, as always, supporting the project in all of its stages, including developing and operating," says the government of Saskatchewan's official page on Wechat, a popular international social media platform.

Even Premier Brad Wall has been in on the act, speaking in front of hundreds of Chinese entrepreneurs at an event where the GTEC was being sold.
Last fall, Premier Brad Wall was in Beijing, speaking to hundreds of Chinese entrepreneurs at an event where GTEC was being heavily promoted. (Brightenvantage)

Despite the province's close relationship to the GTEC project, lawyer and immigration policy analyst Richard Kurland said the provincial government should be concerned about what CBC has uncovered regarding Vstar's business practices, and it should investigate.

"It is the provincial responsibility to make the visa decision and that means it's the provincial responsibility to drill down and make sure all partners to the process are doing the right thing," he said.

"You can't let this go unchallenged."

CBC presented the facts uncovered in its investigation of Vstar to the Premier's Office.

The Premier's Office hasn't responded, saying in an email that officials need more time to examine the matter.

Deja vu for Brightenview

This is not the first time Brightenview has been connected to an immigration firm linked to questionable job offers.

In a recent iTeam investigation, CBC reported that Canmax, a company founded by the same people as Brightenview, has also faced scrutiny and questions over some of its job offers. Many of them were put on hold and reviewed by Saskatchewan government staff. 

​CBC also reported that one of Canmax's founders, Mike Niu, has been wanted by the Chinese government for loan fraud. A woman identified as the current "boss" of Canmax, Yilin Zhan, was also wanted in China for loan fraud.

And CBC discovered that Canmax has faced about 20 lawsuits from Chinese people claiming the company promised immigration services but failed to deliver and didn't refund fees. 

Though Brightenview acknowledged it had been connected to Canmax in the past, it said that relationship has been severed and the two companies are no longer linked. Plus, it pointed out, Mike Niu is no longer a Brightenview director.

Are Vstar and Brightenview connected?

CBC also found an apparent connection between Brightenview and Vstar, which indicated the companies may be related.

When the domain address vstarinternational.com was registered in October 2016, the contact phone number was listed as 604-817-5558.

The 604 number is also listed as a contact number on a 2015 job posting with the contact email steven.fang@brightenvantage.com. Brightenvantage is a wholly owned subsidiary of Brightenview.
In its research, CBC discovered this online post, which connects a Brightenvantage email address to a Vstar phone number.

Steven Fang, who is listed as Brightenview's vice-president of marketing on LinkedIn.com, is also listed as the one who originally registered the Brightenview website in 2012.

In an email, Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou said Brightenview and Brightenvantage are not related to Vstar in any way.

However, he went on to acknowledge Vstar is authorized to sell GTEC and he conceded there has been some contact between the two companies.

"The email in the name of Brightenvantage was simply a contact person on a job posting our staff once asked Vstar help posted back in 2015," he wrote. CBC pointed out to Zhou his response was unclear and asked him for clarification. He hasn't replied. 

When asked for comment about Vstar's practices, Zhou said "I am not in the position to comment about other businesses' operation."
This graphic shows how the parties in this story are interrelated.

Government playing 'risky game'

Rasmussen said it's surprising, given Brightenview's history, that the government appears to be "all in" on the GTEC project.

Brightenview proposed two similar megamall projects in recent years. In 2013, it promised to build a facility in the town of Dundurn, Sask., just south of Saskatoon. That project is stalled. In 2014, it broke ground on a similar project in Chatham-Kent, Ont. That project is dead.

"It seems that the government of Saskatchewan is going out on a limb on what appears to be an unproven business model, one that hasn't really taken off from this company," said Rasmussen. "It's a risky game."
U of R public administration professor Ken Rasmussen says the government is playing a 'risky game' with its close connection to the GTEC project. (CBC)

Rasmussen suspects the government's enthusiasm for the project is related to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Global Transportation Hub land deal scandal. The government has been severely criticized after revelations that two politically well-connected businessmen made millions on a series of land transactions that saw the Global Transportation Hub buy property for far more than appraised value. The provincial auditor issued a scathing report on the matter and the RCMP is investigating.

Rasmussen said it appears that in order to turn the public relations corner on the Global Transportation Hub, the government "will engage in a lot of activity to make it successful or appear to be successful."

But he warned that can come with a cost.

"Whenever the calculation is primarily political and not market-driven, tax dollars are always at risk."

Have a tip about this story? Contact the CBC iTeam's Geoff Leo at geoff.leo@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.