Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has called on his officials to launch an investigation in the wake of a joint probe of P.E.I.'s controversial immigrant nominee program by the Huffington Post Canada and King's College journalism students.
“I have referred these findings to my department for further investigation,” Kenney said.
The series, reported by students at the University of King’s College in Halifax, found the now-defunct program offered some foreign nationals a way to purchase entry into Canada by making “investments” they would never recoup, in companies they might not even know.
"It appears that some provinces, including P.E.I., have been raking in huge fees for both government coffers and financial 'arrangers', while paying little or no attention to the needs of the immigrants themselves or of the local economy,” Kenney said in a statement.
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"It's wrong; it's not what provincial nominee programs are intended for, and we do not tolerate this sort of abuse."
P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz had little to say Thursday when asked about Kenney’s remarks.
“Fine, I think he’s already turned it over to the RCMP and I’m still waiting to hear from them,” Ghiz said.
Even though the P.E.I. government had full control over the design of its own nominee program, Ghiz Thursday suggested the federal government was responsible.
“We don’t have it [the program] anymore and they [Ottawa] were the ones who put it there in the first place. So he can start investigating his own department.”
Prince Edward Island’s ‘provincial nominee program’ (PNP) was intended to attract immigrants who could actively participate in the province’s economy. The P.E.I. government took the position that being named to the board of directors of a company constituted "active" involvement.
An exhaustive search of corporate records by King’s students 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.
About 3,300 immigrants participated in the program after its launch in 2002, mostly from China and the Middle East, and each paid more than $100,000.
That investment was divided up among various players, including provincially appointed middlemen, lawyers, government, local businesses and overseas agents, who made more than $150 million over the life of the program.
With no tangible connection to P.E.I., many PNP immigrants never came or moved on quickly, rather than settle on the Island as Ottawa intended.
P.E.I. Opposition Leader Olive Crane said immigrant retention rates on the Island are “deplorable” and she welcomed the extra scrutiny by King's and HuffPost.
"I'm just so glad that somebody else realizes that there is a major issue here. People were wronged and I am really glad that it's an outside group so it shows it wasn't just politics," she said.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that participating businesses did anything illegal; everything they did was approved by government officials and involved mountains of paperwork handled by accountants and lawyers.
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. She started the Beijing Restaurant as a way to bring in money and gain a sense of purpose in their new home, she said. 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.” (Photo: University Of King's College)
Ottawa shut down the program in 2008 following a protracted dispute between both levels of government. During that time, P.E.I. raced to nominate as many immigrants as it could while the federal noose tightened. Officials in Ottawa became increasingly alarmed at what the sudden surge would mean for processing times, due diligence and the possibility of fraud.
In 2008, nearly 8,000 immigrants applied to the P.E.I. program, representing 88 per cent of all provincial nominee applications from all provinces managed through Canada’s Hong Kong mission.
“If what has been reported is true … it also confirms what I have heard for some time about the cynical abuse of passive immigrant investment programs,” Kenney said.
“We will ensure that provincial immigration programs focus on their intended purpose of filling regional labour market shortages and spreading the benefits of immigration across the country.”
Among other findings of the eight-week probe:
- Out of more than a dozen immigrants interviewed by King's students, only one knew which company his money went to.
- Organizations such as non-profits 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.
- In the great rush of applications at the end of the program, provincial interviews with immigrants were moved overseas to speed up processing.
“I commend King’s College and the Huffington Post Canada for their diligent and thorough work on this issue,” Kenney said.
With a file from Althia Raj.