Back in 2016, when Manulife Bank paid a record $1.15-million penalty for breaking Canada’s money-laundering rules, it cut a special deal with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada – it was allowed to keep its name a secret. That confidentiality agreement raised eyebrows, especially after the lender was outed in a media report, and its parent company played down the breaches as “administrative reporting violations.”
Three years later, the federal government has finally made it mandatory for FinTRAC to publicly name all companies that pay financial penalties. Those changes aren’t retroactive, though, so Manulife is still not listed as a violator on FinTRAC’s website. For that matter, it’s impossible to tell whether the watchdog has levelled any financial penalties on anyone at all since its last public notice in May, 2016.
That lack of transparency is just one reason that Canada has earned a reputation for being soft on financial crime. Our federal government has been complacent for decades, allowing regulators to become too cozy with banks and other industry players. Numerous studies have warned that we’ve become a haven for money launderers. Surely it’s now time for action.
The fact that ordinary Canadians are riled up about dirty money inflating home prices in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto has our federal party leaders smelling an opportunity to score points with voters ahead of this month’s general election. Unfortunately, they’re calling for still more study.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer wants a federal inquiry into money laundering in the real estate sector, and is proposing to spend $20-million over two years. The NDP and Green Party have voiced support for a national inquiry, while the Liberals are vowing to fight financial crime, in part, by cracking down on tax evasion and by creating a national registry to unmask real estate investors who use shell companies. (The NDP is also proposing a similar database and a new $20-million money-laundering unit for the RCMP.)
The fact that at least three federal parties are pushing for a national inquiry at this juncture proves just how clued-out our politicians continue to be in 2019. Report after report from domestic and international sources have outlined in painstaking detail numerous weaknesses in Canada’s anti-money laundering regime – and in a lot more sectors than just real estate. The last thing Canada needs is another costly navel-gazing exercise that enables more parliamentary procrastination. Before the next federal government spends a dime of taxpayer money on a national inquiry, it should dust off existing reports and enact some common-sense solutions.
It should start with cracking down on our regulators’ kid-glove treatment of Canadian banks. FinTRAC, which was established in 2000, has only ever penalized one domestic bank in almost 20 years. That’s shocking considering that domestic banks have a “very high vulnerability rating” for money laundering, according to a 2015 threat assessment by the Department of Finance.
Canada’s top banking regulator, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, has separately recorded 72 failures of anti-money laundering controls at domestic banks between 2009 and 2014 alone, according to The Wall Street Journal. But federal law still prohibits OSFI from disclosing the names of those financial institutions and sharing details about those infractions. And although FinTRAC and OSFI have started conducting concurrent examinations, regulators still engage in turf wars.
Equally troubling are FinTRAC’s maximum criminal penalties for noncompliance – up to $2-million and/or five years imprisonment for failing to file a suspicious-transaction report, for instance – are a pittance for banks that earn billions of dollars each year.
There are other glaring problems: FinTRAC has no oversight of some professionals that assist with real estate deals, including lawyers. And while notaries in British Columbia fall under the watchdog’s purview, those in Quebec do not. And while the Liberals and the NDP are proposing national registries to expose beneficial owners, they need to ensure that such databases are public, as recommended by Transparency International Canada.
The RCMP, meanwhile, shuttered its national proceeds of crime and commercial crime sections in 2012, the very unit that specializes in money-laundering investigations. And when no one in Ottawa blinked, our federal police ended up taking a five-year break from investigating white-collar crime altogether.
Although the Mounties are now under pressure to restore their lost expertise, a recent review in British Columbia found the RCMP didn’t have a single dedicated officer investigating money laundering in the province earlier this year.
Revelations such as these make it hard to believe that Canada is a Group of Seven country and a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. And it’s even harder to believe that politicians are calling for more study, instead of action. Now is time for solutions, not more taxpayer-funded introspection.