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Cashing In: Inside PEI's Controversial Immigrant Partner Program

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PEI IMMIGRANT NOMINEE PROGRAM
An investigation by journalism students at the University of King’s College has found that a decade after it started, P.E.I.'s now-defunct immigrant partner program has an uncertain legacy. For some foreign nationals, it became a way to purchase entry into Canada, by making “investments” they would never recoup, in companies they might not even know. (Photos: Shutterstock/ University of King's College) | King's/Shutterstock

This investigative series was reported by students in the journalism program at University of King's College and published in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada. A full list of bylines is here.

CHARLOTTETOWN — The Beijing Restaurant on Charlottetown’s busiest thoroughfare, University Avenue, is a bright, open building filled with red and black calligraphy. Inside, Rita Zhao, her husband, and their two children, serve up dumplings, egg pancakes and shredded pork, like at any family restaurant you might find in Beijing.

Zhao runs the place by herself during the day. She rushes back and forth from the kitchen to the neat dining room out front — acting as both cook and waiter. Her English is halting; her smile broad. In the evening, her two children return from university and her husband from language class, and they help Zhao during the dinner hour.

Zhao’s family came to Prince Edward Island in 2010. They made an investment in a P.E.I. business before leaving China and looked forward to a life in Canada free of the bribes and other corruption that were a part of doing business in their home country.

More from Cashing In: Behind Ottawa's Tense Showdown With The Island.. Case Study: Two Business, Two Immigrants.. Student Blogs: Why It Matters.. And How We Did It.. More From King's: Programs That Worked.. By The Numbers.. SEARCH P.E.I.'s Corporate Records Online

Their ticket to Canada was the provincial nominee program, which allows provinces to nominate foreign nationals for entry to Canada, where they can fill local labour market needs.

Zhao’s story is a good example of the kind of immigration the program promised: newcomers who could invest financially and get involved in a local business, settle in the community and contribute to the Island’s future.

But there’s a problem with this picture.

The Beijing Restaurant isn’t the business her family invested in through the immigrant partner program. She’s had no contact with that business at all. Instead of working with an established business upon arrival, her family was left to fend for itself in a small, unfamiliar place, more than 10,000 kilometres from home. Starting the Beijing Restaurant was a way to bring in money and gain a sense of purpose in their new home, she said.

The P.E.I. government has always maintained that despite allegations of conflict of interest and political favouritism and the possibility of a renewed RCMP investigation into the program, its provincial nominee program was fundamentally sound, brought much needed capital to the Island, and helped increase P.E.I.’s population by establishing new immigrant communities.

But an investigation by journalism students at the University of King’s College has found that a decade after it started, the now-defunct program has an uncertain legacy. For some foreign nationals, it became a way to purchase entry into Canada, by making “investments” they would never recoup, in companies they might not even know.

For businesses, it was an easy source of capital. But these partnerships between businesses and immigrants — meant to be the heart of the program — often existed only on paper.

Among the findings of the eight-week probe:

  • The P.E.I. government interpreted Ottawa’s immigration rules in such a way that immigrants could be considered actively involved in businesses they knew little or nothing about.
  • The program brought thousands of immigrants to Canada, mostly from China and the Middle East. But with no tangible connection to P.E.I., many immigrants either never came or moved on quickly, rather than settle on the Island as Ottawa intended.
  • Organizations that would otherwise have been ineligible were able to access immigrant money by creating new corporations structured to meet the program’s rules.
  • If the program had operated as advertised, it would have pumped more than $660 million into strategic sectors of the P.E.I. economy, twice the annual value of the Island’s agricultural sector. The real amounts were far less, with more than half of the money provided by immigrants going to middlemen.
  • Ottawa spent several years trying to get P.E.I. to change its program to conform to federal regulations, but P.E.I. pressed ahead, leading to a fierce war of words and Ottawa’s decision to force the shutdown of the program in 2008.

“The reason people outside of P.E.I. were so upset about P.E.I. is that it was essentially the weak section of the dike and what they were doing was seen as compromising all (provincial nominee) programs and in fact, from the federal perspective, the integrity of the national immigration program,” said Robert Vineberg, who retired in 2008 as director general for Western Canada for Citizenship and Immigration after more than 40 years working in government.

“Unfortunately, incentives became perverted in P.E.I.”

And it all started with the “partnerships.”

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Instead of working with an established business upon arrival, Rita Zhao's family was left to fend for itself in a small, unfamiliar place, more than 10,000 kilometres from home. Starting the Beijing Restaurant was a way to bring in money and gain a sense of purpose in their new home, she said. (Photo: University Of King's College)

SILENT PARTNERS

The immigrant partner program was meant to work as such: an immigrant would come to P.E.I., invest in an Island business, and then take a role in running it. Federal rules introduced in 2002 required that this be an active role to ensure immigrants would have a real stake in the province that nominated them, increasing the likelihood they would remain there.

But relying on a federal justice department memorandum, P.E.I took the view that sitting on the board of directors was enough to constitute “active” involvement in a company.

And so immigrants started populating the boards of small corporations all across P.E.I.. The immigrants were also issued preferred shares in the corporations in which they invested, although financing arrangements usually precluded them from redeeming them or being paid dividends.

How The Money Generally Flowed (Story continues under slideshow)

How The Money Generally Flowed
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This slideshow shows how the money generally flowed through P.E.I.'s provincial nominee program.

King’s students downloaded and analyzed P.E.I. corporate data and found immigrants’ names appear on the boards of hundreds of Island corporations, creating the impression of significant immigrant involvement in the province’s business community.

But the students found those names rarely appear in any public information about the businesses. Interviews with businesses and immigrants suggest both parties knew the “active role” would often be little, if any, role at all and that the core of the deal was money in exchange for entry to Canada.

“(The immigrants) knew they weren’t getting any money back, and so basically, it was a process; they knew they were going to be on the board of directors,” said Beverly McQuillan, who helped launch the program and later went on to form P.E.I. Equity Alliance, one of the “intermediary” firms that set up deals between immigrants and businesses.

“Their goal was to immigrate to Canada and provide a better life for themselves and their families.”

* * *

If you travel 40 minutes northwest from the provincial capital of Charlottetown, you arrive in Cavendish, the place that kindled Lucy Maud Montgomery’s deep bond with the Island’s landscape and people, which she would later fictionalize in Anne of Green Gables. People flock here from all over the world to visit “Anne” sites, and patronize the dozens of area businesses that live off summer tourism.

One of those businesses is Orchard View Cottages, a line of neat white bungalows overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just east of town.

Owner Ronald Toombs had been in the cottage business for years before he heard about the immigrant partner program in 2008. Provincial records show that a new corporation, Orchard View Cottages Inc., was registered on June 2 of that year, two months before business applications under P.E.I.’s nominee program closed for good. If you check the board of directors you’ll find Hai Hua Chen, Wei Sun, Shu Wei Hu and Hao Huang. Toombs said he has never met them.

“I have their names and everything,” he said, “but I think they already came to Canada and went somewhere else or something,” As for their investments, “I just understood that it was money for them to get into the country or something.”

Toombs received four “units” under the program, with one unit being equal to one immigrant’s investment money. He used the money to pay down the mortgage on his cottages. “I needed it at the time, I guess, pretty bad.”

Federal records show Toombs’ cottage business has also received money from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, as has Sean Yeomans, who runs two companies in Charlottetown that design and manufacture video games.

If you check the corporate directory for Yeomans’ Telos Media and Telos Entertainment, you’ll find eight Chinese and Korean names on the board of directors, each with a “home” address care of an immigration firm.

“We ended up with $120,000 to $160,000 or something like that for both companies, overall,” Yeomans said of the investments he received from the immigrants. The money helped with the expansion of the business. “We basically built up production capacity and now we have 45 people.”

But like Toombs, he has never met his immigrant investors, nor do they have active roles in his companies. “All it was was the immigrant would file here (and) they would have to put money into a company, which they did, and they would take, I think it was, preferred shares in the company,” Yeomans said. “Even today, I still own 100 per cent of my own company. I want to be able to dictate the terms of my own company rather than have someone else control it.”

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Orchard View Cottages is a line of neat white bungalows overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just east of Cavendish. Owner Ronald Toombs learned about the immigrant partner program in 2008. (Photo: University of King's College)

This theme of “silent partnership” was one that was repeated over and over again by businesses interviewed by King’s students. In fact, some businesses were told about the program by accountants or agents.

Ira Moase runs Davison Funeral Home in Kensington. Moase heard about the program from his accountant, who took care of the application for him.

“He said that it would probably be a good deal and it would help get immigrants here and stay here and it could be a few tax-free dollars,” Moase recalls. “And I just asked him what he thought I should do and he said, ‘Well there’s nothing wrong with it, so you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing.’”

But there was no contact with the immigrant partner, nor did the immigrant partner approach the business. “Personally, I think they just wanted to get here and find a job,” Moase said. He used the money for carpets.

The federal-P.E.I. agreement that allowed for the program clearly stated that nominees were supposed to meet specific labour market needs that couldn’t be met by Canadian workers, and the program’s website officially advised immigrants to be diligent when choosing the company they would invest in.

Glen Dexter is president of Canadian International Capital Inc., a Halifax-based company that was one of seven intermediaries approved by the P.E.I. government to make connections between businesses and immigrant investors. He said while attracting newcomers to P.E.I. was important, there wasn’t really much attempt to match the immigrants’ history or business experience to the companies they invested in.

“To say ‘I’m going to find a businessman in Beijing or Shanghai and I’m going to put him in a business in P.E.I., that they’re going to become a business partner and off they go — neither the businessman in P.E.I. wants the partner, real partner, nor does the person in Beijing or Shanghai particularly want to become a business partner in that,” he said.

“I think the objective of the government … was more to make sure the capital came in, which it did.”

McQuillan, who had helped launch the program, agrees that immigrant involvement wasn’t a priority.

“A few times some of my clients wanted to actually become involved in the businesses, but that was very difficult because they didn’t speak any English.”

Even though the boards of small, family corporations exist largely on paper, often for tax reasons, Dexter argues that being on the board of directors of a company does have risks, because board members are responsible for a company’s affairs. As a result, he said he keeps tabs on the companies on behalf of his immigrant clients.

The lack of involvement of immigrants in businesses was a point of discussion at a private meeting between representatives of the Korean Association of P.E.I. and Premier Robert Ghiz in 2009. A summary of the meeting prepared by the association notes that, “As far as we know, not even one single Korean PNP-Immigrant Partner investor (out of about 200 PNP immigrant partner nominees since 2002) had ever worked or is working at all as ‘a director or a senior manager’ in any investee company/business. You might want to find out why.”

The president of the Korean association verified the authenticity of the summary, but refused further comment when contacted by a King’s student

This is not to say that immigrant investors were never involved in the businesses. A handful of businesses interviewed by King’s students did mention that there was some contact, or even that they would have been willing to involve the immigrants (see the story of Gentleman Jim's Restaurant).

Most of the businesses contacted for this investigation refused to comment, hung up the phone, did not return calls or could not be reached. No evidence has emerged to suggest that these businesses did anything illegal; everything they did was approved by government officials and involved mountains of paperwork handled by accountants and lawyers.

CUSTOM-MADE CORPORATIONS

Some of the corporations involved in the program were longstanding, but some were created just to obtain money. One example was that of Centretours and Centreworks Inc. These two companies were created in the spring of 2008 by the non-profit Confederation Centre of the Arts in order to access immigrant money, because non-profits were ineligible for the provincial nominee program.

The Confederation Centre was established with funding from Ottawa and all the provinces as a national memorial to the fathers of confederation. It is most famous for the Anne of Green Gables musical that has run continuously on its main stage since 1965, and the building itself is a national historic site.

“I had been aware of (the provincial nominee program) for a number of years, just knowing other people, other businesses, that had taken advantage of it,” said Jodi Zver, chief financial officer of the Confederation Centre. “And I had also, previous to this job, worked for a (chartered accountancy) firm that had done some business plans for companies involved in it.”

Centretours and Centreworks Inc. don’t have any staff of their own, she said. “From an operational standpoint, it’s been operated by the management of the Confederation Centre.” Centreworks is focused on creating new artistic works, while Centretours funds touring productions.

“We did the Anne of Green Gables tour in Toronto in 2009; so that was financed by Centretours.”

Each company received money from four immigrants, “and each unit is roughly about $30,000 to $35,000,” she said, meaning between them, the two firms received $240,000 to $270,000 in net proceeds. Not all of that money has been spent; some of it “is still in the bank” awaiting future projects.

There has been very little contact with the immigrants, nor were there any plans to include the immigrants in the businesses.

pei confederation centre arts
P.E.I.'s non-profit Confederation Centre of the Arts created two companies so it could access money under the immigrant partner program. The money helped finance the Anne of Green Gables tour in Toronto in 2009. (Photo: University of King's College)

The CEO of the Confederation Centre at the time, David MacKenzie, provided overall direction on new works and tours, Zver said. He was also a director of both companies and remains listed as such in provincial records. He was recently appointed Deputy Minister for tourism and culture in Premier Ghiz’s government.

The Confederation Centre wasn’t the only non-profit entity to benefit from the program during the headlong rush to sign up businesses in 2008. Another was the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada, in the western Island town of Summerside.

“We were not allowed to get involved with it (the immigration program) because of the fact that we were non-profit,” said Ken Gillis, president of the college’s board of directors. “We formed a new company, Celtic Promotions Inc., that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the college … we received funds and we used that to do some marketing for the college and that’s what the company was formed for. It was a great help for us.”

Gillis said most businesses would agree the program was a great one. “There would be a few businesses around P.E.I. that would no longer be in existence if it wasn’t for the (nominee) program, and I think it did a heck of a lot of good for the economy here in P.E.I.”

When asked why he chose to go through this program instead of through ACOA or a bank loan, Gillis replied, “Well, if you could get free capital, would you do that rather than borrow money? I’m a former banker, so, you know, I know that it (a loan) has to be paid back. This one doesn’t.”

However, he has had little contact with the immigrants on the board of Celtic Promotions Inc. and they had no role in the business.

pei celtic college 2
"We received funds and we used that to do some marketing for the college and that’s what the company was formed for. It was a great help for us." — Ken Gillis, president of the board of directors, College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada.

The story of immigrants providing money, but having no real role in the companies they invested in, is remarkably consistent across interviews with both companies, and those immigrants who could be found. But it seemed to surprise the Island’s top immigration official.

Jamie Aiken is the director of Immigration Services, also known as Island Investment Development Inc. (IIDI), a crown corporation that is responsible for administering the nominee program. He said the government would be “disappointed” to hear that immigrant involvement in businesses was only on paper. “It’s not what we anticipated at all,” he said. “We would have anticipated more involvement.”

He said even the smallest companies need to have board meetings to make “fundamental decisions” such as taking out a loan, or paying dividends. As well, “they have the ability as the director to call meetings, to request financial statements, to partake in business decisions.” He said he can’t say, though, if that always happened.

As for the creation of new companies by non-profits, he said as long as the new company had a mandate to generate revenues to provide a return on investment, that would have been allowed.

But he said his division understood there had been a careful matching of businesses to immigrants. He said the government understood immigrants “would identify a business that they felt comfortable making their investment in.” For much of its life, the program did include a three-day trip to P.E.I. in which immigrants met with possible investee businesses, but in the great rush of applications at the end, interviews with immigrants were moved overseas to speed up processing.

ARRIVAL POINT

Many of those who came to P.E.I. after the huge 2008 rush have moved on, but even those who wanted to stay often found themselves struggling, speaking a foreign language and unable to find work related to their fields.

Rita Zhao worked as a teacher in Beijing and her husband was a businessman who worked in the steel, pharmaceutical and biochemical industries. He grew tired of a business environment in which gaining approvals from officials meant “giving gifts” or “red envelopes with money.”

Having travelled widely, he thought immigrating to Europe or North America could be the answer, and Internet ads attracted the family to P.E.I..“The requirements were low,” Rita Zhao said. “The immigration costs were low; it was easy.”

P.E.I. also offered a good jumping-off point to the rest of Canada, and at first, “we were only planning on using P.E.I. as an arrival point. We had no plans to stay for a long time,” she said.

But the couple liked the Island and decided to stay, unlike most of the other Chinese immigrants she knew, many of whom became isolated, depressed and unhappy, she said. They had nothing to do and the barriers of language and culture kept them divided from the locals. Zhao said many of her friends moved away and that her husband’s language class almost emptied.

Zhao was determined to make it work, hence the birth of the Beijing Restaurant.

As for her “investment” in an Island company, she never expects to see it again. “That investment money buys you the (permanent resident) card and that’s about all there is to it. That money isn’t coming back.”

It was, in fact, the price of coming to Canada.

pei immigrant bridge
Many of those who came to P.E.I. after the huge 2008 rush have moved on. (Photo: University of King's College)

An article in the March 2008 edition of the Post in Shenzhen, an economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong, extolled both the speed and the high acceptance rate of P.E.I.’s program and described P.E.I. as the high-speed tunnel into Canada. “It has been shown that this province’s government officials are trying hard to make the nomination program as fast as possible.”

Ellie Yue is a single mother from Shanghai. She began her long journey to Prince Edward Island in 2006 when she signed a contract with a Chinese intermediary. That led to an interview on the Island in 2008 before she finally arrived in 2010.

“The situation with the business was very muddled,” she said. “When I came to the Island I signed a lot of documents. You’re going to be a director, but you won’t actually be involved in the business. You had to sign it all, and at the time I didn’t understand, so I just signed it.”

She has had no contact with the business into which she put her money. In fact, she did not even know what it was. Like many immigrants, her choice upon arrival was to make it on her own, or leave.

Yue said the process of arriving and getting documentation went smoothly, as did enrolling her son in a local school. But finding work was another story. Nineteen months after arrival, she is trying to learn English at Charlottetown’s Holland College. But Yue said the language requirements for professional jobs in Canada are too high.

“So the services that we are often doing now are housekeeping or cleaning,” she said. “A lot of people really like it here, really like this place, but in the end there is no choice; they have to go to Vancouver or Toronto because they can find work there.”

Tang Wei and his family are among those who left. They live in Toronto after coming to P.E.I through the partner program in March of 2008. They heard about the P.E.I. program through advertising and stories in the local media in their home province of Guangdong, China.

“We didn’t care where we lived, actually,” said Wei, who did temporary work and took language classes in P.E.I. before uprooting for Ontario. “We had some business to do in Toronto,” he said. We had something to do here.”

Still, P.E.I. had its strengths, he said. “You know, maybe when we’re old we might move back. It’s hard to say. And there may be some people who can find work easily or start a business easily there, and that will be the best place for them.”

pei immigrant streetscape
Chinese-Canadian resident Frank Zhou estimates there are 1,500 Chinese on the Island — a far cry from the almost 7,000 P.E.I. nominees and their family members who were issued permanent resident visas at the Canadian missions in Beijing and Hong Kong from 2002 to 2011. (Photo: University of King's College

That many immigrants have decided P.E.I. is not the place for them is clear from a wealth of anecdotal and statistical evidence.

The constant arrival, then departure, of immigrants is seen by car dealers who end up shipping nearly new vehicles to immigrants’ new homes in Toronto and Vancouver. Rental property managers also see the trend.

“Those who are leaving my company and are either buying a house or moving to Toronto or Vancouver or back to China, definitely does outweigh the numbers that are coming in,” said Joe Gillis of Norray Properties, which manages apartments.

“The one thing that a number of Chinese tenants long for is a large Asian community, and although there is a growing Asian community here, a number of people likely have friends or family in those two major populaces in Canada that have far larger communities than what we’ve got here. So I’d say the draw is still Toronto or Vancouver.”

RESIDUAL COMMUNITY

Even though many immigrants have moved on, some remain in P.E.I. The most recent census found the Island had a 3.2 per cent population increase from 2006 to 2011, greater than any other Atlantic province, and most of it attributed to immigration. The increase was substantially smaller than had been projected, but there is no reason to believe P.E.I. won’t have a noticeable immigrant community for some time to come.

Gillis said some of his former tenants have actually come back after getting a taste of big city life. But whether the community persists in the long run is an open question.

Frank Zhou came to P.E.I. from China eight years ago and, along with his wife, has developed a successful consulting business promoting ties between Canada and China. He said the biggest barriers facing new immigrants is learning the language and adapting to Island culture.

Zhou figures there are about 1,500 Chinese people in the Island, and that the community is in constant flux. “So it shrinks down, but you always have people coming. So, it’s constantly steady numbers.”

The numbers are sufficient to support a couple of Chinese grocery stores that bring in, from Toronto, the fresh vegetables so essential to Chinese cooking.

But 1,500 is a far cry from the almost 7,000 P.E.I. nominees and their family members who were issued permanent resident visas at the Canadian missions in Beijing and Hong Kong from 2002 to 2011.

The most recent official estimate of the immigrant population came from an evaluation of provincial nominee programs by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, completed last fall and released online in January.

The study found that 37 per cent of P.E.I. nominees who landed between 2000 and 2008 were still there in 2008. However, that figure is already badly out of date because it does not account for the huge bulge of nominees who applied in 2008 when P.E.I. approved immigrants as fast as it could before the federal government shut down the program.

In fact, the majority of P.E.I.’s nominees arrived after the period covered by the federal study.

Dexter, president of Canadian International Capital Inc., points to that number as evidence the P.E.I. program has been successful.

“You can focus on the glass half-empty, but the 37 per cent I think is a huge accomplishment and it’s made a huge difference on P.E.I.”

There is no easy way to know how many immigrants simply never showed up. However, a 2009 P.E.I. auditor general’s report found that of 1,065 who had been nominated by February 2009, only 368 had registered with the Island Investment Development Inc. as having arrived on P.E.I..

The CIC evaluation also supports the stories of immigrants who say that establishing themselves on P.E.I. has been a struggle. It found that only about 45 per cent of P.E.I. nominees surveyed reported employment income within a year of landing in Canada, compared to almost all nominees in the Alberta program. The study found P.E.I. nominees also had the lowest earnings among provincial nominees, just a little more than $20,000 on average, compared to $80,000 in Alberta.

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There is no easy way to know how many immigrants simply never showed up.

Yue said the P.E.I. government is trying to come up with ways for immigrants like her to stay, “But it’s not easy to do because this Island doesn’t have a very developed economy. It’s all farms and cattle. We’re all from the city. We don’t understand any of this. We can’t plant things. And the key is still language.”

She estimates that not even 10 per cent of the immigrants who came to P.E.I. through the nominee program are still on the Island.

And that’s a problem for a province that has recognized for some years that without immigrants who settle and stay, the economy will suffer. There simply aren’t enough young people to replace ageing workers.

Aiken said the government has spent $1 million a year for the past three years to reduce waiting times for language instruction, and an average of $650,000 a year for programs to help immigrants settle. “It’s not that we are not paying attention,” he said.

When immigrants do leave, if they haven’t stayed on P.E.I. for a year, they lose the “good faith” deposits they must pay when they are accepted into the program.

The scale of the exodus is clear from figures released under a freedom of information request. From the inception of the program to the end of 2011, about 1,500 immigrants lost their deposits, which at $25,000 per person, would mean a $40-million government windfall.

It’s not just the P.E.I. government that has been enriched by this program. Immigration agents located in China and other source countries as well as companies designated by the P.E.I. government to act as intermediaries between businesses and immigrants also made a lot of money, easily more than $150 million for the 3,300 nominees over the life of the program.

The intermediary firms also persuaded the P.E.I. government to allow financing arrangements that cut the amount of money an immigrant had to pay from $200,000 to anywhere between $105,000 and $110,000. Different intermediary firms had different approaches, but by the time the various agent and intermediary commissions were paid, as well as lawyer and accountant fees — and later on, fees charged by the agency that ran the program — businesses were often left with significantly less than $50,000 for each “$200,000” investment.

The government eventually insisted the amount, after agent and intermediary fees were deducted, should be at least $55,000.

Mark Wheatley got involved in the program around 2005 and invested the money from four immigrant partners into establishing a commercial bakery in Cornwall, P.E.I.. He was surprised by how little money he actually received.

“That’s the big misnomer, is how much the businesses actually got,” he said, noting it was in the range of $15,000 to $25,000 that he received, per investor. “So in the news it was broadcast they’re investing $200,000 or $220,000, and all of that went to the middle people.”

In the end, Moase, the funeral director, said he was also surprised by how little money was left. “By the time that everybody took out their share and so on, it was supposedly going to be around a hundred (thousand) and I think I might’ve got 30 (thousand).”

CONTROVERSY

King’s investigators called nearly 100 businesses across the Island and were able to talk to about 20. Most of the others either could not be reached — some had disconnected phone numbers — or outright refused to talk about the program.

The reluctance may be related to the controversy that has dogged the program since it exploded out of obscurity to become an Island-wide political scandal in 2008.

In 2009, the Island’s auditor general Colin Younker investigated the program, recommending tighter conflict of interest rules, after immigrant investments went to firms run by people with close ties to Robert Ghiz’s Liberal government, including MLAs and the deputy minister who oversaw the program. Younker also found rules outlining which businesses were eligible changed without proper approvals and that some businesses that staff thought shouldn’t be approved were nonetheless allowed to obtain funds.

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In 2009, Auditor General Colin Younker recommended tighter conflict of interest rules after the program exploded out of obscurity to become an Island-wide political scandal in 2008. (Photo: University of King's College)

P.E.I. has implemented all of Younker’s recommendations, Aiken said, and will soon make public its own evaluation of the immigrant partner program.

Some businesses now regret having participated.

Moase of Davison Funeral Home said all the controversy has “kind of made me wish I had never done it.”

Indeed, controversy continued with allegations during last fall’s provincial election that officials may have taken bribes from immigrants during the great rush of 2008.

“Right now when you say PNP, if you reveal you collected some money, people think you are a thief,” said Roman Makarski of BCD Automation in Charlottetown.

Makarski applied for the program before the great rush of 2008, and used the money from his four immigrant investors to create software. He is philosophical now about the program, wondering if perhaps the immigrants got too good a deal.

“My opinion is the immigrant is very wealthy and they have a tonne of money … $100,000 or $200,000 for a wealthy immigrant coming to Canada is very cheap, a cheap way to get medicare, to get education for his family, because he can bring his family.”

Stephen McKnight, a Summerside lawyer who handled the voluminous legal documentation for some of the businesses in the program — many lawyers did this — argues the program was successful both for the money it brought in and the people. He says the tourism accommodation industry is a good example of how the money helped, because it allowed Island businesses to spruce up existing properties and expand.

“Before this program began there was no immigration into P.E.I.. Zero,” he added. “The people who came and stayed were more people than would have ever come and stayed (otherwise).”

“Did people move on? Of course they did. But people move on to Alberta who are Islanders. Once you’ve got your visa, it’s a free country; you are entitled to live wherever you wish,” McKnight said.

This view that the program was a success despite its shortcomings is not uncommon on P.E.I..

But Lee Cohen, one of Canada’s foremost immigration lawyers, has a different, more critical view.

He said the clear intent of Ottawa was to bring immigrants to a province to take an active role in the economy and to fill labour market needs. He thinks there was widespread failure in P.E.I.: failure of the bureaucracy to do its homework, failure on the part of immigration consultants and lawyers, and failure on the part of immigrants.

“I think everybody is playing a role in the arrangement that has ultimately served to discredit the immigration program and to work contrary to the spirit and design of those programs,” he said.

“What people had created was essentially a back-door way of accomplishing immigration or resident status by giving a lump sum of money to someone, somewhere, and telling other people in officialdom that they were meeting the criteria."

Cohen said other provinces are now reluctant to get involved in this kind of program.

pei immigrant cash
“What people had created was essentially a back-door way of accomplishing immigration or resident status by giving a lump sum of money to someone, somewhere, and telling other people in officialdom that they were meeting the criteria." — Lee Cohen, immigration lawyer. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Since 2008, P.E.I. has introduced a new nominee program that complies with new federal regulations. Aiken of Immigration Services said in 2011 that there were about 25 nominations to the new business programs, which require a minimum $150,000 investment to either start up a business or buy a one-third stake in an existing business, or a minimum $1 million to buy a less-than-one-third stake.

About 130 to 140 came last year under labour streams that match up specific skills with specific labour needs.

Federal data show the number of visa applications for P.E.I. nominees is now down to fewer than 300 a year, far from the heady heights of 2008 when nearly 8,000 applied in one year and P.E.I. nominees represented 88 per cent of provincial nominee applications through Canada’s Hong Kong mission.

As the flow of immigrants slows, the new Chinese community in Charlottetown remains in flux. How long these immigrants will stay in the long run, no one really knows. Efforts to hang on to some of those who came in the flood after 2008 are important because P.E.I. will likely never again see a similar influx of immigrants.

Meanwhile, a chamber of commerce program called the P.E.I. Connector Program is trying to match up immigrants who’d like to get into business with firms on the Island with specialized expertise, such as in seafood exports. Program coordinator Don MacCormac said the program has worked with about 50 people, including 35 or so “who are sincere about it.” Most are Chinese, some Iranian.

“What they tell us (is) that they are ready to leave,” MacCormac said. “Some said ‘I’m giving it six months; I’m giving it a year. If I don’t get a business up and running I’ll get out of here’ … They are used to being active, very successful businesspeople and the idea of sitting here doing nothing is very boring, and they’re saying ‘I’m not going to do that forever.’”

Back at the Beijing Restaurant, Rita Zhao has found her way to keep busy. She said she’s just glad she has something to do, serving up locals and the crowds of tourists that come to P.E.I. in the summer. “I've got some work to do, so I think I’m going doing well,” she said. “Life isn’t empty.”

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“I've got some work to do, so I think I’m going doing well,” Rita Zhao said of her Beijing Restaurant venture. (Photo: University of King's College)

* * *


Cashing In was reported and produced by students:

Laura Armstrong
Laura Bain
Niko Bell
Catherine Burgess
Jane Caulfield
Elsa Chang
Andrew Davies
Iris Estrada
Kelly Graham
Geoff Lowe
Vanessa MacKinnon
Matt MacNeil
Bill McEwen
Andrew Miller
Jordan Parker
Jessica Piche
GinaBeth Roberts
Harley Rustad
Adam Scotti

Faculty advisor: Fred Vallance-Jones

Photos: Adam Scotti

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