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Canada Asks for the Panama Papers as Its Biggest Bank Defends Mossack Fonseca Dealings

Canada's Minister of National Revenue wants access to the 2.6 terabytes of data on offshore bank accounts, as the Royal Bank rejects the idea it had any hand in tax avoidance or nefarious deeds.

by Justin Ling and Natalie Alcoba
Apr 4 2016, 10:50pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Francisco Diez

Canada has asked for the list of data released through the Panama Papers, as governments around the world react to a massive leak of information about offshore banking and tax havens.

Some 350 Canadians are reportedly named in the trove of documents given to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) more than a year ago and made public this weekend through a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organizations. The Panama-based firm at the center of the data is Mossack Fonseca.

VICE News has not been able to independently consult the documents, nor is there any evidence of wrongdoing by the hundreds of Canadians mentioned in the leak. While offshore bank accounts or companies can be used to avoid tax or launder money, they can also be used for legitimate purposes, in full accordance with the law.

"Measuring the tax gap will assist the government in determining if the Canada Revenue Agency needs $444.4 million or $777.7 million to fight overseas tax evasion. Without the tax gap information, they are only guessing at the resources they require."

But Canada's Minister of National Revenue, Diane Lebouthillier, is looking into the matter and wants to know if the leak could serve as evidence of tax fraud.

"The Minister of National Revenue has instructed [Canada Revenue Agency] CRA officials to obtain the list of data leaked through Panama Papers in order to cross-reference this information with data already being obtained through the Agency's existing mechanisms," said a spokesperson for the minister.

"Since January 2015, the CRA has collected information on all international funds transfers over $10, 000 including from Panama, and it is selecting the highest risk taxpayers for review or audit," the spokesperson added.

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has allocated $440-million over five years to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) with the express purpose of combatting tax evasion and "aggressive tax avoidance," including offshore. That funding is on top of tens of millions of dollars already invested in recent years, which have closely monitored electronic fund transfers and to ensure that Canadian taxpayers are adequately reporting their overseas financial activities. CRA dedicates 70 staff just to monitoring offshore banking.

Canada's rate of return on tax evasion isn't spectacular, however.

According to the CRA, just 62 Canadians were convicted of hiding money offshore between 2006 and 2014. The total amount of taxes avoided was just $20 million.

Part of the problem is that it's entirely unclear how much is really being hidden in offshore accounts. The CRA has resisted requests from an independent government watchdog to release information relating to offshore accounts, citing privacy concerns.

"Measuring the tax gap will assist the government in determining if the Canada Revenue Agency needs $444.4 million or $777.7 million to fight overseas tax evasion," said Senator Percy Downe, who is introducing legislation requiring the government to analyze how much it is losing out to tax avoidance — the so-called 'tax gap.' "Without the tax gap information, they are only guessing at the resources they require."

On Monday, the Royal Bank of Canada, the country's largest financial institution, responded to reports by the CBC and the Toronto Star that is had used Mossack Fonseca's services to set up at least 370 offshore corporations for its clients.

"There are a number of legitimate reasons to set up a holding company," Tanis Feasby, of RBC, said in a statement to CBC News. "If we have reason to believe a client is seeking to commit a criminal [offense] by evading taxes, we would report the offence and not do business with the client."

"We have an extensive due diligence process to ensure we understand who the client is and what their intentions are, and will not proceed with a transaction until we do."

Feasby went on to state that the bank works within the legal and regulatory framework of every country it operates in.

"Tax evasion is illegal, and we have established controls, policies and procedures in place to detect it and prevent it occurring through RBC. We have high standards, and our internal policies build on the regulatory requirements in each jurisdiction."

"We make sure our clients have the information they need to properly file their taxes and we advise them of their obligation to do so. We also advise them to seek independent professional tax advice."

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