11/01/2011 03:10 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Memo to white-collar criminals: Tougher federal penalties kick in today

MONTREAL - Fraudsters found guilty of white-collar crimes in Canada now face tougher sentences and penalties.

Ottawa officially introduced tougher rules Tuesday to deal with Ponzi schemers and white-collar fraudsters, part of just-adopted Tory legislation first tabled in late 2009.

The stiffer penalties include a mandatory two-year prison sentence for fraud over $1 million; financial restitution for victims; latitude for a judge to stiffen a sentence because of aggravating factors.

While the victims who spearheaded calls for change applauded the government, the new measures will come too late to help them.

One such victim is Jean-Guy Houle, a retired 69-year-old from a suburb north of Montreal.

Houle was among the thousands of Canadians fleeced in the financial scam masterminded by money-manager Vincent Lacroix of Quebec-based Norbourg Asset Management.

Described by a judge as the biggest financial fraud in Canadian history, some 9,200 clients were bilked out of a total of $115 million.

Houle had lost his son, daughter-in-law and one of his granddaughters in a violent winter car crash in January 2003, shortly after he had retired.

Two other granddaughters survived — including one that was in the car. Houle and his family were left to raise them.

The girls had inherited a small amount of money — about $97,500 each — which was invested so they could use it down the road.

"We put this money into investments for their education in the future," an emotional Houle recalled Tuesday.

"All this money was invested in a fund that was transferred to Norbourg — and we lost it all."

So after five years of legal battles and sitting through criminal and civil trials, Houle said he's managed to recoup about 75 per cent of the money. The compensation came from diverse sources, including the provincial stock-market regulator and certain accounting firms.

But that won't erase the psychological scars, he said.

Houle said victims suffer a life sentence. Families were broken. Some people developed serious illnesses while others isolated themselves from society, he said.

At least two people he knows committed suicide.

Meanwhile, Lacroix was paroled in January after serving one-sixth of his sentence; he is living in a halfway house and doing community work until 2014.

"We can understand (victims') torment and that of their families," Houle said.

"We, the victims, paid dearly and we're going to pay for the rest of our lives."

It's that devastation that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he hoped to curb by introducing victim-friendly reforms while serving notice to financial fraudsters and Ponzi schemers who target unwitting investors.

"This legislation stands up for victims of fraud and makes it easier for them to seek the restitution that they deserve," Nicholson told a news conference, sharing a podium with victims' rights advocates.

"Individuals who perpetrate fraud will face sentences that match the severity of their crimes."

Judges will now take into consideration certain aggravating factors like the impact of the fraud, the complexity of it and the lengths taken to conceal or destroy documents.

The legislation will also require judges to consider restitution and require a guilty party to repay victims. Those found guilty could also be barred from ever handling people's money again.

A judge will also be able to consider community impact statements when rendering a decision — as opposed to victim impact statements. Nicholson said victims of financial crime often extend beyond those who've been hit with an immediate financial loss.

Nicholson made the announcement in Quebec, where calls for tougher sentences have been vocal following major Ponzi schemes perpetrated Lacroix and Earl Jones.

Jones, who led a $50-million Ponzi scheme that bilked 150 investors including his own relatives, was sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2010.

"It's a welcome announcement after almost two-and-a-half years of struggle for victims of white-collar crime," said Joey Davis, a spokesman for Jones victims, who are now suing the Royal Bank for $40 million in civil court.

Houle and Davis said they hope the new rules might prevent other people from experiencing what they went through.

"My granddaughters and I are just one family that were hit by the Norbourg scandal, a crime that affected thousands and thousands of Canadians," Houle said.

"All of these scandals show that we needed to change the laws and I applaud the government for doing that."