Exposing Canada’s back door: How a King’s journalism class got an NNA nomination for their investigation into P.E.I’s cash-for-residency immigration policy

J-Source goes behind the story of the National Newspaper Award-nominated story “Cashing In: Inside PEI’s Controversial Immigrant Partner Programs.” Laura Armstrong, a graduate of University of King’s College journalism program and deputy editor for “Cashing In,” explains how their student investigative workshop exposed the inner workings of the province's immigration program.

J-Source goes behind the story of the National Newspaper Award-nominated story “Cashing In: Inside PEI’s Controversial Immigrant Partner Programs.” Laura Armstrong, a graduate of University of King’s College journalism program and deputy editor for “Cashing In,” explains how their student investigative workshop exposed the inner workings of the province's immigration program.

Faculty advisor Fred Vallance-Jones teaches students at University of King's investigative journalism class how to search P.E.I.'s corporate registry. Credit: Adam Scotti

By Laura Armstrong

A melting pot of cultures, Canada is a country known for its diversity. Annually, about 170,000 people are granted Canadian citizenship. Numbers show most of these immigrants will end up in major economics centers, a trend the federal government attempted to dispel when creating provincial nominee programs.

Last week, an expose by University of King’s College and Huffington Post Canada into P.E.I’s interpretation of the program was nominated for a National Newspaper Award.

Rather than pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Island’s strategic sectors and helping to increase population by establishing new immigrant communities, the program fell short of the standards set by Ottawa. It became a way for foreign nationals to buy a coveted maple leaf card by making one-time investments that would never be repaid.

As allegations of fraudulent activity within the program came to light, Ottawa became increasingly alarmed, leading to a federal-provincial showdown in the spring of 2008.

Thousands of foreign nationals came to Canada, but who they were and which businesses were involved was kept confidential until King’s students pieced together a picture through public records, legislative transcripts and dozens of interviews.

Here’s how we did it:

Offered annually to soon-to-be graduates as the last in a series of compulsory workshops, the King’s investigative project mandates an 8-week report on a major story in Atlantic Canada. In its fourth year, the 2012 investigative workshop boasted its largest registration to date. Our 20-person team — comprised of five fourth-year undergrads, 13 post-grad one-year students and one second-year student — was tasked with creating a multimedia project, which would be published on its own website and in The Chronicle Herald. The investigation also ran on the Huffington Post Canada, which provided editorial suggestions and provided in-house legal vetting of the finished product.

The rest was up to us: the research, data collection, interviews, writing, photographs, video, website and social media aspects were all done by students.

The hush-hush collaboration technically began in mid-February. In reality, though, the investigation started earlier in the year at the Bluenose Restaurant in Halifax, where our project’s faculty advisor Fred Vallance-Jones was having breakfast with journalist Mike Tutton from the Canadian Press. Tutton had done a number of news stories on the program but felt there was a lot left untold with far too much for one person to take on alone. He suggested the investigative workshop class might be able to dig deeper into the question of who benefitted.

Theoretically, the concept was fairly simple: P.E.I’s immigration program, a product of a federal-provincial partnership, was created to help provinces tailor to their labour market needs by allowing them to nominate people to enter the country. So why did a program that flourished in western provinces, successfully redirecting immigrants from common big-city destinations such as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, flop in P.E.I.?

From the get-go, we knew the project hinged heavily on two aspects: data and timing.

Data collection

Prior to the investigation, the P.E.I. government refused to release a definitive list of companies that received money through the program. So we attacked from another angle through P.E.I.’s corporate registry. To get money, businesses had to be profit-making corporations with corporate records available to the public. This catch 22 was our “in”, and we used the records to decipher which companies got the cash.

Through the government’s website and the Royal Gazette, the P.E.I. government’s official newsletter, we manually downloaded thousands of corporate records. The process was slow as we were forced to stagger the time and location of the data collection to keep P.E.I’s website from potentially shutting us out, should it recognize that one IP address was performing extensive searches. Once we had collected the data, we identified companies through a range of discrepancies such as whether companies had filed to change their capital structures to qualify for immigrant money and whether the businesses had directors on their boards with unusual last names considering the Island’s homogenous demographics. We also looked at the director’s home addresses, which often led us to addresses either care of immigration companies in foreign countries or none at all, unlike non-immigrant directors who offered legitimate Island-based residencies.

Armed with tentative knowledge of money recipients, a 300-company list including hotels, retail stores, and land developers among many other types of businesses, the question became to break or not to break?

It’s all in the timing

After Ottawa shut down the program in 2008, the focus of storytelling was on the  possibility of businesses that received investment money having political connections. More controversy arose in the fall of 2011 when former employees of Island Investment Development Incorporated, the company in charge of selecting “nominees”, alleged misgivings in the application process. P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz dismissed qualms about the program’s validity and his re-election suggested Islanders’ support was in his favour.

A major concern for us was when to start calling Island businesses. We knew once we did so, word of our activities would spread and we would find some doors closed. So we used a strategy of calling small companies first, figuring it might take a little longer for word to get around. Only later did we contact well-known Island corporations, such as the Confederation Centre for the Arts, a non-profit that created two companies just to receive money. Speaking with immigrants, thanks in large part to a student fluent in Mandarin, and businesses alike confirmed what the data suggested: the partnership created between businesses and immigrants through P.E.I’s provincial nominee program existed mostly on paper.

What we accomplished

“Cashing In: Inside PEI’s Controversial Immigrant Partner Program” series was published on May 9, 2012 in the Huffington Post Canada, Chronicle Herald in Halifax and on our own website. The King’s website made the data we had assembled available for anyone to search.

A day later, our findings prompted the Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to call on his officials to launch an investigation into P.E.I’s program and he spoke out strongly about the program two weeks later.

The student work, including links to the stories on our partners’ websites, investigation can be found here.