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Politics CRA takes aim at tax havens, foreign transfers in plan to recoup $2.6-billion

The Canada Revenue Agency is detailing how it will use a $444-million government commitment over five years to help improve detection, auditing and prosecution of tax cheaters.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is vowing to recover $2.6-billion over five years by targeting notorious tax havens, stepping up audits of large foreign transfers of money and investigating consultants selling shelters.

The first targets of the tax crackdown are wealthy Canadians who have been stashing money on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British dependency with no corporate tax.

"Wealthy Canadians should not be able to buy their way out of paying the taxes they owe," National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said Monday as she detailed how her department will spend nearly $90-million a year in new money from last month's federal budget. The announcement comes amid the continuing fallout from the leak of the so-called Panama Papers – a trove of millions of confidential documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which created shell companies in tax havens around the world for wealthy individuals.

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France said Monday that it will seek tougher European sanctions against uncooperative tax havens and people who help to facilitate tax evasion. New Zealand ordered an independent review of its foreign trust laws. And in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron continued to defend his financial dealings after the Panama Papers linked his father to an offshore investment fund. The CRA is currently auditing 60 companies and individuals who have dealings with the Isle of Man. But Ms. Lebouthillier insisted there will be more as the agency reviews the activities of 350 people and 400 companies involved in recent electronic transfers totalling $860-million to the tiny island state.

"The noose is tightening," Ms. Lebouthillier told reporters.

The Isle of Man investigation is part of a campaign to target four different foreign jurisdictions every year where Canadians are moving large sums of money. Financial institutions are now required to report all international fund transfers of more than $10,000.

CRA officials would not identify the jurisdictions they intend to target next, saying they want to keep the people involved in tax schemes guessing. The CRA said there are as many as 80 "high-risk" jurisdictions around the world where dubious tax shelter schemes are common.

To do the work, the CRA is adding 100 new auditors. The agency is also increasing its audits of "high-risk" taxpayers to 3,000 a year from 600 and will review the activities of 200 tax shelter promoters, including accountants and financial consultants, up from fewer than 20 a year now.

The government also said it will step up prosecutions by "imbedding legal counsel" within its investigation teams to detect cases of tax evasion.

Ms. Lebouthillier, a former social worker and business woman from Quebec's Gaspé region, called it a "historic investment" in the CRA that will "pay off in a big way."

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But tax experts said Ottawa could be doing more to create a deterrent by laying charges against the so-called "facilitators" who sell dubious and illegal offshore tax shelters.

"They seem to be signalling a shift in priorities – to go after big-time tax cheats and the facilitators," remarked Dennis Howlett, executive director of Canadians for Tax Fairness. "The proof will be in the pudding."

A key test, he said, will be how the CRA handles the case of accounting firm KPMG, whose clients the agency is pursuing over their involvement in a tax shelter based in the Isle of Man.

"Whether they charge KPMG with facilitating tax evasion or not, that will show that they are really serious," Mr. Howlett said.

The CRA has a lot of work to do, given that the Isle of Man is a relatively small player in Canadian tax-shelter activities, he said.

"Barbados and the Cayman Islands are the two biggest tax havens where Canadian money goes," Mr. Howlett said. "They need to put those on the list as well."

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The leak of the Panama Papers highlights the need for much better global collaboration, said Gabe Hayos, a vice-president at the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada. "Collaboration is needed among governments and tax experts, especially at the international level where multiple jurisdictions are involved," he said.

Also Monday, Ms. Lebouthillier announced the creation of an offshore compliance advisory committee to be headed by Colin Campbell, a tax lawyer and associate law professor at the University of Western Ontario. The CRA has also begun work to estimate the so-called "tax gap," the difference between what is owed in taxes and what is actually collected.

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