Portraits of National Chapters: Transparency International Canada

"In Canada, we like to promote ourselves as squeaky-clean"

© TI Canada

James Cohen joined Transparency International Canada in 2016 and became its executive director in 2018. We spoke to him about the work of his chapter, its self-perception as an advocacy organization and the reasons why criminals love Canadian real estate – and what to do about it.

When was your chapter founded and how do you finance your staff and activities?

TI Canada was founded in 1996 and became a registered charity in 2011. We've been a mostly volunteer based organization, up until 2015, when we established a permanent office in downtown Toronto. Since then we've had a staff size from one to three people working on various projects. To pull together that staff, we have funding through organizations like the Open Society Foundation, through our organizational supporters, our members, individual donations and through events.

What are your main areas of work?

At the beginning of this year, we brought out our new strategic plan for 2021 to 2023 and decided to prioritize working on outreach, research, education and advocacy. What's new in our strategic plan is really emphasizing the word advocacy, because we used to kind of debate: Are we an advocacy organization? But now we very comfortably are okay with that.

Could you explain this debate further?

For a long time, our work was very heavily focused on research and education, which we still do. However, increasingly, we realized that we have to recommend changes – and that is advocacy. There were questions as to what is advocacy. A lot of people thought that it's only protesting on the streets. But basically advocacy is anytime when we saw and spoke of a need for change. So even when we were still debating the idea of ‘Are we really an advocacy organization?’, we had already advocated for the introduction of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act (CFPOA). So once we talked with our members who don't come from a civil society or advocacy background about that, more people became comfortable with it. It was a real change in our work when we said: We can't just have conversations and hope that things change on their own; we as TI Canada have to be the instigator of change. And now that we have staff, we can properly do that.

What are your current advocacy priorities?

Our longest running project is probably on enforcement of the corruption of foreign public officials. That concerns Canada's commitment to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. According to the OECD peer review and TI’s Exporting Corruption research reports, Canada has a very low enforcement rate. We've been looking at ways that Canada can improve that enforcement: What other laws do we need to complement it and what capacities do we need to enforce it?

Moreover, we've been involved in TI’s global thematic initiative on accountable mining. We've looked at transparency and accountability and environmental assessments in three sub national jurisdictions in Canada – in Ontario, British Columbia and Yukon. Just recently we received funding to extend it to either Québec or Newfoundland. We're trying to bring the recommendations from that to government, to the mining industry and especially to indigenous communities, so that they can take control of the knowledge that we've helped to produce, and that they can work with it within their communities.

Another big project of ours is about illicit financial flows and the establishment of a pan-Canadian publicly accessible registry of beneficial ownership. When most people think about stashing money, it is either in a tropical island or the Swiss Alps. In Canada, we like to promote ourselves as squeaky-clean. That’s why, traditionally, we have a weak enforcement system and very weak beneficial ownership regime. Therefore, no one is really going to notice the money laundering in Canada and even if they do, the mechanisms to conduct anti-money laundering aren't that effective. That is why the Canadian system is attractive to a lot of money launderers.

With regard to this issue, you focused your activities especially on the real estate sector so that people can understand it and relate to it.

Most people have no idea what “beneficial ownership transparency” means. However, in the context of the Panama Papers investigation, a Toronto lawyer coined the phrase “snow-washing” instead of money laundering: bring your dirty money to Canada and it will be cleaned like pure white snow. We chose this as the title of our campaign and it was picked up in public discourse.

When you talk about corruption and money laundering, the numbers become very abstract. But when you get to it, its influence is facilitating criminal activity and the absorption of available housing spaces and increasing the price of those housing spaces that are actually available. In the last couple of years, the number of our major real estate hubs just go through the roof. I would never say that money laundering is the reason that real estate prices are going up – there is a multitude of reasons – but it definitely contributes. During an investigation into money laundering in British Columbia, it was estimated that money laundering impacts real estate prices at 7% on average across British Columbia.

In Germany, it’s a similar story. According to a study that we recently publishedwe don’t know the owner of one out of ten apartments in Berlindespite having a beneficial ownership registry.

Especially in Vancouver, it is becoming an increasing issue that luxury condos are going up and not only we do not know who owns it, but no one even seems to live in there. In some cases, notorious people around the world are using these condos as safety deposit boxes in the sky.

Do you generally have the impression that Canadians are receptive to your work?

There is the idea that corruption is done by the powerful and there is nothing you can do about it. One thing I always wanted to fight against is apathy and cynicism – the feeling that we can't flush out corruption. Of course, there are always going to be people who want to try and game the system. Systemic abuses, however, that we consistently see, can be thwarted. Everyday people can demand actual action. Corruption makes people so angry. It's the sense of injustice. But it can change. We have to show that if you stick with it and work on specific things, change can happen.

Do you have some legislative achievements or success stories that you would say you are really proud of?

Bringing the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act to Canada, back in 1998, that is still a crown jewel achievement for TI Canada. Another success is the fact that, in April 2021, the beneficial ownership registry came up in the federal budget as a pledge. This is a huge win. Finally, we have a process in place with the aim that Canada should have a publicly accessible beneficial ownership registry by 2025. There is still work to be done to make sure that it will be the best registry possible. But the goalpost is now squarely in our favor. We just need to make sure it doesn't shift.

Interview: Adrian Nennich

Key Figures on Transparency International Canada

Established: 1996
Location(s): Toronto
Yearly Budget: $215,508 CAD (2021)
Employees / Volunteers: 2 / 30+
Twitter: @TI_Canada
CPI: Rank11 / Score: 77 of 100 points (2020)