The developers who built Champlain Towers – the Florida condo complex where a building partially collapsed earlier this year, killing 98 people – also built dozens of apartments and condo high-rises in Canada, a Globe and Mail investigation has revealed.
But what four months of reporting couldn’t unearth is a complete list of where the Canadian developments are located, and without that information, there was no way for us to inquire about the condition of those buildings.
While we were able to identify more than a dozen specific addresses, primarily by searching old classified ads and court filings, we suspect this is only a portion of the total. The frustrating reality is that there is no straightforward way to trace this type of information in Canada, which is part of a larger problem in this country around access to information.
Records that took months to locate in Canada were available with a few clicks in Florida when we needed the American equivalent. We also spent thousands of dollars in fees pulling Canadian property records, incorporation documents and court filings that were either free or available for a nominal fee in Florida. In many cases, information that we found to be readily accessible in the United States was not even available here.
If Canadian institutions operated like those in Florida, we could have published today’s investigation months ago. Canada’s archaically opaque system and countless barriers to information mean many stories vital to the public interest are not being told.
When part of Champlain South collapsed in the night on June 24 in Surfside, Fla., crushing nearly 100 people in their beds, the tragedy made headlines around the world, because buildings don’t just fall down in developed countries – especially after they’ve been standing for 40 years. It soon emerged that the towers’ developers were Canadian, but they weren’t household names.
Our reporting objective was straightforward. Who were these people? Did they build anything in Canada or other buildings in the U.S.? If so, what is the state of those buildings?
The information inequity between Florida and Canada showed up immediately as I, U.S. correspondent Adrian Morrow and national reporter Uday Rana began working on the story.
One challenge was that all of the primary developers were deceased. Of the friends and former business partners we could locate, most were very old and many had significant health challenges, such as dementia. This meant we had to rely heavily on documents.
To start, we went to the Miami-Dade Clerk’s Office website, typed in “Champlain Towers” and found a trove of documents, including the developers’ initial paperwork from 1979, which listed all the companies involved in the partnership, as well as the 1981 incorporation certificate, which identified the main players: Nathan Reiber, Nathan Goldlist, Isadore Goldlist, Roman Blankenstein and Stephen Gonda.
We were able to run those company names through another public dataset to pull up all the officers and directors involved. With a few more clicks, we identified other Florida companies connected to those individuals. We were then able to find many of their other Florida projects by typing the company names into the original clerk’s office website.
Altogether, this took a few days to complete.
Now let’s turn to Canada.
We couldn’t type “Nathan Reiber” into a website and find all the companies he’s been associated with as an officer or director. And we couldn’t type the name of a company – or a person – into a database and learn what properties they’ve owned in the past. (You can pull current owners, but that wasn’t useful for this investigation since we primarily needed records from the mid-1950s through the 1980s.)
Business records and property ownership information are available in Canada, but it’s complicated and often costly to access, especially historical records. In general – and it’s the same for court documents – you need to know exactly what you’re looking for to get it.
Instead, we relied almost entirely on old editions of The Globe and Mail, which are available online and (mostly) keyword searchable through the Toronto Public Library.
Classified ads from the 1950s led us to Mr. Reiber’s law firm, Newman & Reiber, which then connected us to the name of some high-rise projects, such as Canyon Towers in Toronto.
The Globe also used to print brief summaries of court cases, which linked Mr. Reiber to other developers and businesses. We ran all those names through the old Globes too, which pointed us to more properties. As our web of information grew, we pulled more land titles, filed more requests for old incorporation records, and had the Ontario Archives retrieve more archived court cases.
Every time we searched a company it cost between $27 and $40. Property records ran from $30 to $200 a pop. We tried to be judicious about what we ordered, but the total bill is well north of $4,000.
Not all of the documents were useful, but some gave us new leads to chase down, including Don Valley Towers, Carousel and Centennial House. Once again, we returned to the old classified ads to try and connect addresses. There were many project names we were never able to nail down to an address with certainty.
This process, with the help of Globe researchers Stephanie Chambers and Rick Cash, took the entire summer.
Some people might point out that Florida is an extreme example of transparency, given that the state’s Sunshine Law is one of the most open in the world.
That is true, but Canada ranks as one of the most difficult jurisdictions in North America for accessing public information. Our institutions would say the barriers exist to protect your privacy. But we are less transparent than the United Kingdom and countless other countries.
In the end, Canada’s information laws can act as a shield and protect governments and companies from greater scrutiny.
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