Is Vancouver the Tax Haven Capital of Canada?

Panama Papers data shows Metro Vancouver has the highest concentration of links to offshore firms in the country. We asked an international investment and migration expert what's going on.

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02 June 2016, 4:00am

It's been nearly two months since the Panama Papers first made headlines, and still there's so much more to learn from the millions of documents exposing clients of the notorious Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. (Now released into a searchable online database; you're welcome, tax nerds.)

Already we've got the sense there are hundreds of thousands of super-rich people setting up offshore bank accounts and shell companies for various purposes, many of them shady. And on top of all the world leaders, mobsters, C-list celebrities, and sports officials named in the docs, there are also over 1,300 Canadian mailing addresses linked to offshore firms that are just starting to get noticed.

Vancouver correspondent for the South China Morning Post, Ian Young, took a closer look at those Canadian-owned tax havens last week, and found a pretty glaring concentration of them in Metro Vancouver's wealthiest neighborhoods and suburbs. It turns out Vancouver and Richmond addresses are over eight times more likely to appear in the papers than the Canadian per-capita average, while West Vancouver addresses are in there 19.2 times more than the norm. See the whole investigation with graphs and charts here.

While Greater Toronto technically has a handful more addresses linked to offshore accounts than Metro Vancouver (382 to 375, respectively), if you control for the huge population gap between the cities, Young found the west coast is way ahead. "I think Vancouver is definitely the tax haven capital of Canada," Young told VICE. "On a per-capita basis, there's a fairly huge disparity."

Young is quick to note the Panama Papers leak does not give a full picture of all Canadian-made tax havens, nor does it necessarily suggest wrongdoing. "What you can see is the difference in scale between Vancouver and the rest of Canada, between Vancouver and, say, Toronto, which is the financial capital, which you would think would have a very huge number of tax haven companies, or a higher proportion, but it doesn't."

Young also has some theories about why and how this all happened. He's been following "millionaire migration" to Vancouver for a long time, and he says the tax havens are another indication that Vancouver has an unusually high concentration of international millionaires.

"I think you can make some conclusions," Young told VICE. "The situation is this: Vancouver has taken by far and away the great majority of the world's wealthy immigrants that have arrived in Canada."

For nearly 30 years, Canada had an investor visa program that essentially granted citizenship to anyone with the means to lend the government $800,000. That visa program was shut down in 2014, but a similar one run out of Quebec continues to let in more millionaires destined for Vancouver, according to Young's research.

"So many millionaires have moved here, and have been moving money around the world to come to Vancouver, and one of the strategies that people use when they're doing that is tax havens." Young says Vancouver is the end destination for about two thirds of Canada's millionaire migrants, while Toronto takes the other third.

Wealth migration, predominantly from mainland China, has also been blamed for heating up Vancouver's out-of-control real estate market. To get a sense of the size of the issue, University of British Columbia researcher Andy Yan somewhat controversially looked at Anglicized and non-Anglicized Chinese names registered on property documents. This week, Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson, called out pundits who take studies like these and assume "anybody with a Chinese name who is buying a home in Vancouver must not be from Canada."

Young agrees that looking at names doesn't prove anything about individuals. "What it doesn't do is tell you whether or not those are citizens or not citizens. It doesn't tell you whether they're permanent residents or not permanent residents," he said. "All it tells you, basically, too a greater or lesser degree, is whether or not they're ethnically Chinese."

With some caution, Young still thinks this information can add a new dimension to the ways millionaires are shaping the city. "You certainly don't want to come to some conclusion about whether or not ethnically Chinese people have some racial predisposition to misbehavior, that is simply not true," he said. "What there is, is a millionaire disposition."

When compared to census data of the general population, the offshore firm data Young looked at again showed a much higher concentration of Chinese names, particularly in West Vancouver. Again, it doesn't mean the whole group are recent immigrants or from China.

According to Young, that means the international super wealthy can choose to play by different rules on both citizenship and taxes—and both are happening more in Vancouver than anywhere else in Canada.

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