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Glasses rest on a copy of Peter German's investigation report into money laundering in the B.C. real estate industry during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, May 9.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Two new reports looking at money laundering in British Columbia, already deemed the dirty money capital of Canada, underscore just how difficult it is to capture with dead certainty the full scope of this particular criminal activity.

For instance, the recently released investigation into the impact money laundering has had on B.C.’s real-estate industry garnered spectacular headlines. Most jumped on the fact that the report found as much as $5-billion in dirty money was cleaned up via real-estate purchases in 2018 alone.

Less attention was given to the admission that the number could also be as little as $800-million. Which represents quite a gap between high and low.

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Consider this line from the section of the report that deals with the challenges the authors faced when it came to finding reliable, bulletproof data with which to work: “Efforts to estimate money-laundering activity must be conducted without the benefit of accurate measurement of actual flows in any jurisdiction, let alone data about the sectors of the economy and the classes of assets into which these funds flow.”

That is quite a caveat, but also one that shouldn’t surprise us if we’ve been paying attention.

In March, The Globe and Mail published a report based on internal documents obtained through a Freedom-of-Information request that showed that even the country’s money-laundering watchdog has no real idea of the depths of this problem. The report by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC) admitted that no one really knows how much money is being “rinsed” in this country, because no one can seem to agree on what the best way of measuring it is.

For me, an alarm went off when the report on money laundering in B.C.’s real estate sector suggested that the problem is even worse in the Prairies. Really? I find that hard to believe. Perhaps sensing the skepticism that tidbit might elicit, the report’s authors added: “If money laundering in Alberta and the Prairies have been overestimated by the model, that implies that money laundering in B.C., Ontario and Quebec have likely been underestimated.”

What is someone to make of that? These numbers might be true, but if they’re not, then the conclusions we made about B.C., Ontario and Quebec could be wrong too, in which case the problem in those provinces is actually far worse than we’ve estimated. Huh?

None of this is to blame the authors of the report for its nebulousness. Money laundering, almost by definition, is going to be difficult to nail down with any specificity. Almost every model used to estimate it is based, to some extent, on extrapolations. And that is always going to be a dicey proposition.

That doesn’t mean that these reports shouldn’t have been written. They have shone a light on a problem that we know exists and we know has been responsible for terrible social and economic hardships. They have also led to some preliminary changes in the laws, especially around the ways casinos in B.C. conduct business as well as information that now has to be provided to provincial authorities when purchasing real estate.

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The reports have also exposed gaping holes in oversight, especially at the federal level. FinTRAC, in particular, has come under heavy criticism for being a toothless watchdog, more a collector of information than an arm of the law with an ambitious mandate to catch criminals up to no good.

On this front, the federal government knows the whole country is at risk unless further efforts are made to crack down on criminals benefiting from ill-gotten gains.

So, what happens next?

B.C.’s NDP government will announce this week whether it will push ahead with a public inquiry. Opinion is mixed on what purpose such a commission would serve. There is enough anger over what money laundering did to distort the housing market in Metro Vancouver that a vast swath of the populace would like to see those responsible held to account. And that would likely include prominent figures of the former Liberal government, which may have ignored it all.

If such an inquiry simply turned into a political witch-hunt, then little good would likely come from it. However, if it provided us with a more honest and reliable picture of just how deep this problem is, it might be all worth it.

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