VANCOUVER — Self-professed students and house wives were buying multimillion dollar homes in the Vancouver area, with dubious sources of income, or none at all.
A family of modest means transferred at least 114 million Canadian dollars to British Columbia.
Loan sharks cleaned their dirty money by giving garbage bags and hockey bags full of illicit Canadian 20 dollar bills to gamblers who took it onto casino floors.
Those were just some of the findings from a long-awaited report into money laundering in Canada’s western province of British Columbia, which after two years of testimony was finally released by a special commission on Wednesday.
Canada is a “major money laundering country,” with weak law enforcement and gaps in its laws, that put it on a list of countries that included Afghanistan, China and Colombia, according to a 2019 report by the State Department.
Few places in Canada launder as much money as the province of British Columbia, specifically the region around Vancouver, which has one of the country’s biggest underground economies. The province has earned an international reputation as a haven for “snow washing” — a term for money laundering in Canada, according to government officials.
Billions of dollars a year have been laundered there by criminals, using tactics such as gambling in casinos, buying and selling luxury goods and taking out residential mortgages that are paid off in cash installments small enough not to trigger any alarm bells.
British Columbia’s gambling industry is a cash cow for the provincial government. At its height in 2015-2016, gambling generated a record 3.1 billion Canadian dollars in revenue, about one-third of which went to the government and was used to finance hospitals and health care, community organizations and other projects.
The commission was tasked to delve deeply into how bad money laundering in the province had gotten, and whether regulatory organizations, as well as the government itself, had failed to stem it, or even worse, turned a blind eye to it. While the report found no evidence of corruption, some elected officials were aware that suspicious funds from the gambling industry were entering the provincial revenue stream and took no action to stop it.
The report, more than 1,800 pages long, lays out the staggering scope of money laundering in the province and sets out more than 100 recommendations for addressing it.
The province should create an anti-money laundering commissioner and a dedicated money laundering investigation and intelligence police unit to address this “corrosive form of criminality,” the report says.
“Money laundering is fundamentally destabilizing to the society and the economy that we all want for the province,’’ Austin, the head of the commission and a former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice, told reporters on Wednesday. “Sophisticated money launderers have used British Columbia as a clearing house or a terminus for laundering an astounding amount of dirty money.”
The provincial government announced the inquiry in May 2019 after a series of government-sponsored reports found what the commission called “extraordinary” levels of money laundering in the real estate, casino, horse racing and luxury car sectors, fueled in part by the illegal drug trade.
Books, podcasts and news reports had raised the alarm across the country, accusing gangs in China of importing fentanyl to the Western province, and then laundering the proceeds through casinos and high end real estate, helping to further inflate housing prices in a city already deemed the most expensive for housing in the country.
A 2019 report to the province estimated that in the prior year, up to 5.3 billion Canadian dollars in laundered money flowed through real estate investments in British Columbia, inflating housing prices by as high as 7.5 percent because they were purchased with the proceeds of crime as a way to clean — or legitimize — that money.
The commission, headed by Mr. Cullen, a well-respected judge, has been a constant drum beat across the country throughout the pandemic, hearing from almost 200 witnesses, including a former premier, a government minister accused of ignoring warnings about money laundering in casinos because they offered huge revenue for the government, and police officers alleging their investigations into illicit gambling were shut down for similar political reasons.
Witnesses told the commission how one scheme worked. Rich gamblers from China flew in, wheeling hockey bags stuffed with tens of thousands of Canadian 20 dollar bills to play baccarat at private salons inside Vancouver-area casinos. The money was suspected to come from loan sharks connected to Chinese criminal gangs and drug traffickers. The loan sharks laundered their drug money by lending it to the gamblers, who would in turn repay them with clean money deposited to bank accounts in China or Hong Kong. This became known as the “Vancouver Model.”
Specialized gambling police and lottery investigators raised an alarm but found their investigations shut down or blocked, or even worse, they were fired, the commission heard. The betting limits in casinos were hiked to 100,000 Canadian dollars per hand, allowing even more money to be laundered.
British Columbia’s Attorney General David Eby, who has been campaigning against money laundering for many years, told reporters earlier this month he hoped the report would offer his government a road map for turning the province and Vancouver, “into a model for fighting money laundering instead of a center where it takes place.”
Already, the British Columbia government has taken some steps to combat the problem. It has tightened the rules at casinos, requiring gamblers to declare their source of funds and in 2019, launched a public land ownership registry, requiring certain real estate holders in the province to disclose their owners, particularly those hidden behind shell companies, trusts, partnerships and other “beneficial owners.”