05/09/2012 04:05 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

King's Investigative Series: How P.E.I. Cashed In on its Immigrants

Prince Edward Island's provincial nominee program has become something you don't talk about and you don't ask questions about. If you participated in it, you keep that quiet too.

But, it wasn't supposed to be this way. And people will tell you that.

When we started this project in early 2012 we had something to work with; there were lots of provincial and national articles outlining the political controversy surrounding the program, as journalists and the public alike had reported on MLAs, a deputy minister and others with political connections who were associated with firms that received money under the program. There were also a plethora of public documents that detailed the rules, regulations and laws of the nominee program to read and compare with the sources we spoke with.

We wanted more. We wanted to put a face to the businesses who received money, the immigrants who came to P.E.I and the middlemen who facilitated both sides of these partnerships. We wanted to understand how the program really worked, and compare that to how the government said it worked.

After downloading and analyzing thousands of P.E.I. corporate records -- over two weeks -- we had lists of businesses and immigrants we believed participated in the immigrant partner program. We made cold calls to at least 100 businesses, and found our inquiries were not always welcome. Many people didn't want to talk or didn't want to be quoted, some businesses no longer existed, and some simply didn't return our calls.

Our Chinese-speaking colleague searched online phone directories for hundreds of immigrants, but very few could be found. It was as if hundreds and hundreds of people had simply vanished. Those we did speak to usually refused to be photographed, perhaps for fear of being singled out or ostracized.

They were inquisitive, questioning our motives for speaking to them and wondering why we knew they came to the Island through the nominee program.

It can be like that on P.E.I.

Everyone wants to know everyone's business (literally), but when something doesn't feel right or doesn't benefit the right people, no one wants to talk or be seen to talk.

As we tried to access the public documents of some businesses believed to have received multiple investments through the program, we again faced a barrier. Although annual corporate tax returns are public documents we were told we'd have to wait two weeks to get all the files we requested. Ultimately, we got them in a week.

After our mass downloading of corporate data, we noticed that all addresses of corporation directors, officers and shareholders had been removed from the P.E.I. business registry. This information is now only available on request.

Small groups of us made three trips to the Island over two months, meeting many of the characters in our stories in person. On one of the trips, we spoke to "whistleblowers" who showed regret, disappointment and anger at what happened to the nominee program that had once employed them but seemed to go off the rails at the end.

And that's the nub of the problem. The nominee program could have done amazing things for P.E.I had more of the money been used to bring innovative business expertise to the Island and solve labour shortages.

Through our series "Cashing In," we found a flawed immigration program that benefited many people in many walks of life, and undoubtedly poured enormous sums into the tiny Island economy at a time the rest of the country was hurting badly.

But it only worked as an immigration program, for P.E.I. at least, because so many foreigners were nominated that even a small proportion staying has made a difference.

Because of the program's failure to connect the people involved in the program and to keep track of the money trail, much of the potential vitality and culture that could have been injected into the Island has been lost. Everyone has been shortchanged.