Wednesday 16 May 2012

PNP and the Media

The Brits have a wonderful word often used in the media there: dodgy... not quite illegal, but certainly not right either. It's how I, and many others felt about the Provincial Nominee Program (the infamous PNP) since it started making headlines in 2008-2009.  There is nothing new about immigrant investor programs, Canada has had them for decades.  Provincial governments here used to control the proceeds through funds that would provide the capital for projects like the Crowbush Golf Course. Local community development organizations would be created to provide the illusion of a private sector project using government money in order to meet the federal rules on how the funds could be used. In the earlier versions the immigrant investors would get the money back after roughly four years, but no interest was paid, and with rates much higher than they are now, this provided substantial savings to groups behind these projects. I could never find any direct involvement by the immigrant investors in the projects then either.

The version that created so much controversy, and was ended by Ottawa, stripped the immigrant investor program down to its basics: pay  200 thousand dollars (plus good will, language training etc), you won't get it back, but you and your family will be fast tracked to becoming Canadian citizens.  The challenge as a reporter covering the story was that it was more of a morality tale than anything else, there didn't appear to be any obvious victims, other than the businesses whose lawyers and accountants didn't get them into the program.  It always looked as if the immigrants were getting what they wanted, Canadian citizenship, and an opportunity for their children to learn English. The PEI businesses got multiples of 30 to 40 thousand dollars that never had to repaid (money for nothing goes the  Dire Straits song), and the middle people (intermediaries, lawyers, accountants, etc.)  and the provincial government made out like bandits. Many  businesses were saved by the infusion of cash during a recession, and surely the middle people spent some of their tens of millions locally on cars, renovations and the like.  Sure it makes PEI look like a banana republic, but what's the harm?

We know all too well that justice or fairness isn't the conclusion to most morality tales. Jason Kenny huffs and puffs about RCMP investigations and states the obvious: "This isn't how this program is supposed to work!!"   The recent excellent work by the King's College journalism students (led by Fred Valance Jones who was once a reporter with CBC here in Charlottetown) gave me at least a better understanding of the personal costs of the program. ( ) It's what happens when you put flesh and blood into a story, get to hear what the participants actually felt. The language/experience barriers when I was covering the story were immense. You had families new to PEI, often staying in motels, who'd walked away from their previous lives, and even with a translator, were very reluctant to be critical of anyone.  Now those that stayed are a little more settled, and able to reflect on what's happened.

The Kings College students really followed in the footsteps of  Peter Rukavina in their use of the on-line PEI corporate registry to better understand who benefited from the program. Peter created a program to allow anyone to link names  with companies and visa-versa, and companies that included directors with foreign or Asian last names gave a good hint (not proof) that they had received PNP units. The PEI government shut down Peter's work, so the King's College students did the heavy lifting of downloading the provincial data, sifting through it using the same last name criteria, and then creating their own searchable database.   (look on the RHS of the page).

Then being journalists they took the extra step of calling about 300 companies that fit the criteria to check out their experience with PNP.  Most hung up, or refused to answer. That says to me there's at least some shame at work here, even, as reflected in the King's stories,  some regret by a few that they had got involved in the program in the first place.

None of this is "breaking news" or proof of illegal activity and it certainly looks like CBC struggled with what to do with the King's College information. The day it came out there were stories on crows  in Stratford, but nothing on PNP.   We do have to remember that CBC spent a lot of money and news reporting time  on its effort to use the courts to force the provincial government to release the names of the companies who received PNP units.  Here is a way of getting this very information, so it begs the question what CBC would do with it if it's ever successful. (and I know there are FOI and transparency issues here too).   The Guardian did re-publish the stories it did on PNP (Teresa Wright did some excellent reporting), which at least acknowledges that the King's College work has importance.

It is a story that works much better in print than on radio and especially television. It's complex, it would take the time and budget of a Fifth Estate piece to properly get the video and interviews in Hong Kong, Damascus, etc., to build up enough trust with businesses here to get insight into what the money was used for.  How often can we see the "guilty building" shots (and I used them too) of  PEI"s Innovation Department headquarters or the one-time demonstration by immigrants more upset about not getting back their good-faith and language deposits, than the PNP program itself.  And again with no obvious victims (other than Olive Crane in her tireless efforts to make Islanders care about what happened), broadcast stories always felt a little hollow. The real people in the King's College stories is what makes them important.

There will be more developments in this story. The province will issue some kind of report on what the money was used for, and this will further show how far it strayed from the original intent of the immigrant investor program. There will be nominees that Ottawa will turn down who will want their money back (that will amount to possibly tens of millions of dollars, and the province says it has a contingency fund to cover this, let's hope it does).  Maybe the Federal Immigration Department will indicate how pissed off/disappointed/whatever it is in PEI.

Full disclosure: I, nor my partner, nor anyone in my family have ever received any PNP units, although when they heard about the details, they certainly wished they'd at least had the opportunity, but they may sleep more soundly that they didn't.