Despite growing concerns about foreign ownership of Canadian real estate, Canada has not joined a global move to create a public registry that would disclose the ownership of foreign companies that hold property.
Britain, France and a handful of other countries each agreed on Thursday to establish public registries of the beneficial owners of foreign companies that own, or intend to buy, property. So far, 12 countries have committed to setting up the registries or at least exploring the idea. Canada is not among them.
These kinds of registries are considered a key part of cracking down on corruption because buying property in Western countries has become an increasingly popular, and secretive, vehicle to launder illicitly obtained money. Britain will now require all foreign companies that own property in Britain, or are seeking to buy property, to make their ownership public.
"If you don't know who owns what, you can't stop people from stealing from poor countries and hiding that stolen property in rich ones," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday during a global anti-corruption summit in London. Having public registries "will mean that everyone in the world will be able to see who owns and controls each and every company in these countries."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who attended the summit, said the federal government is committed to the idea of a registry, but setting one up in Canada is complicated. "Part of the challenge in Canada is the multiple jurisdictions that have to collaborate and co-operate," Mr. Goodale said. "Obviously, this is a goal to work toward."
Mr. Goodale added that the Liberal government wants greater transparency in the property market and he noted that Canada is part of a G7 initiative to lay out objectives. "I don't mean to sound pessimistic at all. I know it's complex, as everything in Canada that in one way or another touches upon the constitution is," he said. "This is all a process of raising awareness, raising the bar, emphasizing how fundamentally important this is."
Canada did join a newly created International Anti-Corruption Co-ordination Centre, which will be based in London and exchange information on anti-corruption practices.
Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International U.K., said the move toward public registries was a major step forward in the battle against global corruption. "At the moment, it's a kind of global free for all on corruption," he said in an interview during the summit. "You can steal the money from a health budget from a country in Africa and park it wherever you want around the world with total secrecy."
Afghanistan, Kenya, the Netherlands and Nigeria also agreed on Thursday to set up public registries along with Britain and France. Australia, Georgia, Indonesia, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway have taken steps toward setting one up.
"Compared to where we have been up to this date, there is very big progress today," Mr. Barrington said.
However, the United States and Britain came under fire during the summit for failing to do more to combat corruption. Several states, notably Delaware, do not require much disclosure of foreign ownership and Britain's overseas territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, have been criticized for being popular tax havens.
"The U.S. is the elephant in the room," Allan Bell, the Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, told the summit. He said one building in Delaware is home to 285,000 registered companies and the United States has done less than many British territories in moving toward greater transparency. "We need action [from the U.S], not fine words," he said.
Mr. Cameron said the overseas territories have made great progress in exchanging information and establishing registries of foreign ownership, although not public. He said many have gone further than several American states.
"What I'll be pushing for as long as there is breath in my body is for everybody [to create public registries] and not just picking on small islands. I'd like to see the United States of America, China, India, everybody do it."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference that the United States has taken steps to improve transparency of business ownership.