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Canada is a ‘paradise’ for money launderers: MP Adam Chambers discusses his private member’s bill to combat the crime

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Conservative Member of Parliament Adam Chambers on his private member’s bill to combat money laundering in Canada. They also dive into the political and policy consequences of generational change in Canadian Conservative politics.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by a friend of the podcast, Adam Chambers, who’s the Conservative Member of Parliament for Simcoe North and his party’s deputy shadow minister of finance. Last week, MP Chambers introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-289, that would strengthen Criminal Code provisions concerning money laundering and terrorist financing. He’s also recently participated in a joint event between The Hub and the Cardus Institute on generational change in Canadian conservatism.

I’m grateful to speak with him about both of these important topics. Adam, thank you for joining us for another episode of Hub Dialogues.

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: It’s always a pleasure to be with you, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your private member’s bill, Bill C-289. In your parliamentary remarks at the Bill’s tabling, you called Canada a “money-laundering paradise.” Why did you say that and what’s behind the growing problem of money laundering in Canada?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Well, there are a few things that are happening. The facts are that there’s about $45 to $100 billion laundered a year, every year, in Canada, and that’s from some third-party reports both at Transparency Canada International, Publish What You Pay, and others that have been following this very closely. The other is that countries around the world have taken significant steps to deter money laundering in their countries. That means criminals are looking for other friendly jurisdictions or those with lax regulatory regimes. Unfortunately, Canada hasn’t kept up with our peers. That means these individuals look to Canada as a place to park and hide assets and launder their money.

SEAN SPEER: The obvious question in follow-up is: what does your legislation do? How would it improve the government’s ability to combat money laundering?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: The legislation is quite simple actually. It’s a small amendment to the Criminal Code, which would make it a significant crime to lie to a reporting entity. Think of a bank or an insurance company or say a credit union when you’re opening an account and you’re identifying either yourself or an entity that you represent and who the beneficial owners are of that entity. If you lie in the process of doing that, as an example, you would then face a fairly stiff penalty, either up to 10 years in jail and/or a million-dollar fine. Or, of course, it’s a hybrid offence, so you could also be given a bit of a lesser punishment.

The idea is it gives authorities another tool through which to secure a conviction or to perhaps elicit additional information from one of these individuals, but also having the law itself, even if it’s never used, deters individuals from attempting because they would be scared of the penalties. It is, of course, a small step. There are many, many other steps that need to be taken but as the saying goes, you eat an elephant one bite at a time, and this is one.

I do think it’s complementary, by the way, of the government’s commitment to bringing in a beneficial ownership registry. This in my view goes hand-in-hand with that proposal by the government that they’ve agreed to fast-track, by the way, so we should see something by the end of the year. I was happy to put this forward with the help of some external parties, of course.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to the broader issue and possible other actions to help strengthen Canada’s regime with respect to money laundering and terrorist financing. Before we get there, MP Chambers as you know, private member’s bills, especially from opposition members, don’t tend to get passed in Parliament. Yet there is some momentum behind your legislation. It’s been praised, for instance, by experts such as Queen’s University professor Christian Leuprecht. What’s your sense, Adam? Is there a reason to think that there could be cross-party support for the passage of your proposed legislation?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: It’s a great question. Money laundering itself and going after those kinds of criminals, I think you’ll find very few people who want to stand up and defend those individuals who are taking advantage of our weak laws. I’m very optimistic that I’m going to get cross-party support. I have already engaged members from other parties and in the Senate, from multiple caucuses in the Senate, and have received some initial positive reactions.

The Bill will be debated sometime in the fall. It’ll be a little bit more known as to kind of where people will fall on it then, but I have had some positive reactions from multiple parties within the House. As you say, it is sometimes an uphill battle to get private member’s legislation passed but I am cautiously optimistic.

SEAN SPEER: Do you want to just maybe let listeners into the drafting process? I think few people realize the limited resources that members of parliament have to carry out their responsibilities as members of committees, their work within the house itself, and then, of course, all of the work dedicated to the interests and concerns of constituents. What goes into, first of all, identifying an issue like this, then developing and ultimately putting forward legislation? How did you get from the place of problem identification, Adam, to a bill before Parliament last week?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Well, in terms of problem and identification, if aliens were hovering over the country and looking down, they would think that Canada doesn’t have any white-collar crime, because we have such a low rate of conviction, also such a low rate of even prosecutions, very few. In fact, it was very notable that two individuals from Fortress were charged earlier this week. That’s the first white-collar criminal charge that I can remember in quite some time.

My interest in this was partially driven by my work on the common securities regulator and my previous role with Minister Flaherty and white-collar crime was part of that. I came in with a bit of an idea but I wanted to do something on white-collar crime and money laundering because of its effects. My belief is that money laundering drives the demand for housing because a lot of this money ends up in the real property market, which affects the house prices for everyone by increasing demand, which also affects my own home constituency because we’re within about a 90-minute drive of the GTA or of downtown Toronto.

We’ve seen significant rises in house prices. In fact, the Bank of Montreal singled out Orillia as having a 300 percent increase in house prices since 2016. It really is devastating for those individuals who are trying to enter the market. Of course, for those who are already in the market, it’s a good thing for them and from their perspective, but longer-term, it’s just unhealthy from the sustainability perspective.

In terms of the process, we do not have large government departments that support these kinds of ideas. I would say I was very, very well supported by the legislative drafters. There is a pool of drafters that are available to members and you can get assigned and get a share of one of those drafters. You have a conversation about what you would like to do. They come back with a couple of ideas, “Okay, you’re talking about changing this Act.”

In my circumstance, I went in with a pretty clear idea about, okay, I think I might want to add in a provision to the Criminal Code. Here’s what I’d like it to do. A little bit of a back and forth. My process, I felt, went very well. I was very well supported and got some great advice. Obviously, not having, say, the same resources as the government or a full department, things tend to be either a little bit maybe not as robust as budget bill legislation that’s 500 pages, most private member’s bill legislation is on a few pages, and mine I think probably fits onto one page.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it’s a credit to you and the work of your team that you’ve identified this problem and then produced a solution which, as you said, may not be a panacea but addresses a particular problem in the broader suite of issues with respect to money laundering.

You mentioned in your last answer and in your remarks in the House last week that we have this poor record with respect to prosecution and conviction that has led the BC government to even contemplate establishing its own AML financial intelligence unit because it doesn’t have confidence that Ottawa can properly regulate for money laundering. Beyond your legislation, what other reforms should the federal government be pursuing to regain the confidence of provincial governments and Canadians that it can effectively combat money laundering across the country?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: I found that revelation in the Cullen Commission quite damning frankly, that you have a provincial government as significant as BC—it’s one of the larger provinces in the Confederation—who is questioning the efficacy of the regime.

I think back to one of the earlier parliamentary committees at finance, they had a FINTRAC presentation—there are 13 or 14 federal bodies involved with money laundering and white-collar crime in Canada. That’s just the number of federal bodies. I suspect what BC is highlighting is a challenge in working with a significant number of entities. There are probably some unclear mandates or mission creep happening, or maybe just some, “That’s not really in my wheelhouse or in my purview” going on. When you have 13 or 14 individuals responsible for something, I’d argue you probably don’t have anybody responsible for the whole process itself.

Now I think the government has talked about starting a new financial crimes unit. I’m interested in that of course. It can’t just be a financial crimes unit say on the discoverability or the measures and the monitoring of money laundering. It absolutely has to include the criminal prosecution and the justice part of it. I think what ends up happening is that FINTRAC does a fantastic job of identifying suspicious transactions, but then all of a sudden they get lost in the shuffle throughout these other departments when they get thrown over the wall. There are very complex cases to make out.

I point out that in the United States, most people can name some of the top district attorneys that prosecute these kinds of crimes. You think of Elliot Spitzer or Kenneth Star. You can think of some of these large attorneys that have profiles in the U.S. that prosecute white-collar crime and/or securities fraud. In Canada, I bet you most Canadians, and in fact many parliamentarians, don’t know who the director of public prosecutions is.

I’m not saying we need to have a U.S. model, but I do think we need to have very dedicated prosecutorial resources that are housed directly with the investigative resources that can see these cases through so that we do get some convictions and really send a message that this is not a money-laundering paradise. In fact, some individuals, including Sam Cooper and others at Transparency Canada International, say that Canada’s actually promoted around the world as having lax regulatory oversight when it comes to money laundering. It’s well known that you’re unlikely to be caught in Canada doing some of this activity.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask just one final question on this subject and then we can move on. You’ve made a compelling case that there’s a need for action, including, but not limited to, your private members’ bill. But as part of such an agenda, how could policymakers ensure that it doesn’t come to harm consumers in the form of higher costs and less choice due to the heavy burden of government regulations in reporting. In other words, Adam, how should we think of the trade-offs between better combating money laundering without overly burdening law-abiding small businesses and consumers?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Absolutely. Look, the public beneficial registry is a benefit, especially if it’s housed centrally. I think we can look at the use of technology to keep costs down. You no longer need to keep significant paper records for some of these things. The advent of digital technology, of digital housing and storage, I think is a significant benefit for consumers. The reality is I think a good question to ask is what are the costs to consumers now of the money laundering activity? What is the harm of some of this money laundering activity now to consumers and then weigh that against what the burden might be to combat it.

For example, some of these funds are a direct result of the fentanyl drug trade. We are allowing fentanyl drug dealers to clean their money in Canada and then purchase our real estate. Not only are they purchasing real estate and driving up prices for everyone else, but they’re also providing a drug that’s killing people. I think that’s a significant harm that we have to keep in mind as well when we think about what some of these regulatory burden issues would be in combating it. I think the trade-offs seem relatively worthwhile especially if you can use technology to keep costs low.

SEAN SPEER: Those are great answers. Thanks for your insight. We’ll certainly be following the progress of your legislation over the coming weeks and months.

You mentioned that your interest in these issues in part is due to growing concerns from younger Canadians about high housing prices. You recently participated in a Hub-Cardus event on generational change in Canadian conservatism, and you made an interesting set of comments about the relative youthfulness of the federal conservative caucus compared to the Trudeau Cabinet. I should say if listers are interested, this event was a subject of Hub reporting on June 23rd. Why don’t you just reflect on these generational differences between the parties and how you think they may come to be reflected in politics and policy moving forward?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Give full credit both to you Sean but also to Cardus for hosting that event and giving a platform to discuss issues facing young people. It’s interesting. It wasn’t until you pointed out to me that if you looked at the relative ages of caucus members both in the governing Liberal Party and then in our party, the Conservative Party, we actually have a significant number of people that were say born after 1975 or 1980.

We have a significant number of individuals in shadow cabinet portfolios that are in that cohort. If you compare that to the current government, those that would be in cabinet portfolios or on the front bench, there are actually very few representatives from that demographic. Far be it from me or conservatives generally to talk about identity politics, but it’s just an interesting fact, right?

Then I think you can say, “Well, is there a policy shift happening at the Conservative Party?” Interestingly for the first time in whenever I can remember, the Conservative Party is actually polling higher outside the statistical margins of error in the 20 to 29 category and 30 to 39 category. Now, I think a lot of that has to do with house prices, no doubt, but I do think people will start to see younger people reflected—they are reflected—in the conservative caucus. I think that’s a positive thing. Obviously, it’s a growing cohort in terms of the number of people voting. I think it’s a good thing for the party.

SEAN SPEER: Just as an aside, according to Hub reporting, there are three times as many millennials occupying shadow cabinet positions in the Conservative caucus as there are within the Liberal cabinet. As you say, these developments aren’t merely a matter of perception. They’re also empirical.

You mentioned recent polling that shows that the Conservative Party is performing well with some of these younger cohorts. You talked a bit about some of the possible explanations. I would just ask you to elaborate on what you attribute these trends to. Have young Canadians suddenly become conservatives?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Let’s talk about some of the big issues facing young people. House prices are obviously one of the biggest. I mentioned a 300 percent increase in my riding, but it’s been at least a doubling of house prices since 2015. Remember that the current government campaigned on making housing affordable in 2015—they did a couple of announcements based on that.

The Liberals campaigned on decriminalizing marijuana. They’ve done that already. I’m not really sure there’s much left to do on that file.

Then I think just look at what’s happened in the last two years with COVID and lockdowns. I’ve said this before, but the governments and governments around the world asked young people to put a pause in their life, to make significant sacrifices for the betterment of elderly individuals and the betterment of the community.

Look, we asked everybody to do this, but in particular, it was a serious ask of young people because the virus represented a very low risk to young people. I’ve said, what’re the thanks that young people get? Well, after two years of this, they reemerge from lockdowns and they find that they’re now responsible for a significant amount of government debt—the government doubled the debt—and they can’t afford a house. So, I think they’re kind of frustrated. They did what we asked them to do, what the government asked them to do, and now they’re frustrated.

Separately, a final one would be on the environment. I think if the environment is the number one issue for you as a young person, I’m not sure that the current government’s even meeting them on that measure either.

I think young folks are just kind of saying maybe they don’t see themselves being reflected or their values being reflected in this government as they thought they might have been. And at least two out of those three say COVID lockdown measures and/or call it small “f” freedom measures, and on housing prices, Conservatives have actually been talking about those things very much over the last number while, and I think that’s reflecting in the polling.

SEAN SPEER: Your insights, Adam, about some of the intergenerational trade-offs that were made in the pandemic, and the extent to which that may produce something of a kind of generational identity amongst younger voters that could manifest itself in our politics, is something you raised at the Hub-Cardus event earlier in the month. I’m glad you raised it here. I think there’s a ton of insight that we’ll have to have you back on the program to talk about further.

You mentioned small “f” freedom. Let me pick that point up. We’ve witnessed a series of government failures in recent weeks and months, including the failure to anticipate rising inflation, as well as extraordinary lineups at airports and passport offices. To what extent do you think these developments may push younger people to conservative ideas about limited government and away from progressive preferences for a larger, more activist state?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Well, you hit it. I mean, there are failures and I think that’s what forces people then to reconsider or reevaluate: “Oh, well maybe there is a better way, and what is that better way?” They’re actually just open to hearing an alternative view. And so look, if the airports were running fine and the passports were being issued and there were no other massive failures, then I think people wouldn’t be so frustrated, but I don’t know if for your listeners have traveled or your listeners are looking for a passport.

We applied for my son’s passport in March and we still don’t have it. In terms of what that means for conservatives or small “c” conservative ideas, it gives the party an opening to talk about some solutions because people are frustrated so we can present an alternative. Frankly, the government tries to say, “Well, we’ve doubled the amount of spending,” or “We’ve hired more people.” But people can see that we’re spending more and getting less. We’re actually getting worse results.

Maybe there is a better way. Maybe we should actually look at making some of these things more streamlined. As an example, if people were not applying for passports during the period of lockdowns and reduced travel, what a brilliant time to have been looking at digitizing that process. We’re being told now that, well, there were not many people applying for passports and now they’re all coming back because they want to travel. I mean, we could have used that time to think about making the process better, to make the process simpler. I think people are open to the message that we can make government simpler.

We don’t necessarily always need to make government better because what is better? Let’s just make it simpler. I think that’s a notion that conservatives can really latch onto. Filling out the paperwork, etcetera, waiting in lines. I mean, jeez, you feel like you’re queuing for everything these days. Now the solution, by the way, is you’re going to queue in the morning at a passport office to get a ticket in line, to come back to queue later, to get into the building. Then at which point you need to queue again to wait to get served.

It’s a bit of a mess. I feel bad, frankly, for all the frontline workers and those individuals that have to go through this. I’ve been in these kind of operational issues before where the fixes end up making stuff worse and the exception process gets out of control. But we do need to rethink how we do these things from a total operational perspective and really just say, how can we do this in a simpler way? Conservatives should be bringing those ideas to the table.

SEAN SPEER: Historically a countercultural politics is often perceived as a left-wing phenomenon. One in search of a countercultural identity, in the past, would’ve probably rebelled against the conservatism of one’s parents or the broader society. Yet in today’s milieu in which most mainstream institutions, including corporations, universities, and the media, tilt left, it’s increasingly countercultural to be on the right. What do you think of that formulation, and if you broadly agree with it, how can conservatives, Adam, appeal to these countercultural instincts without changing their character, including giving way to a protest culture that has tended to be associated with the left?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: One, I generally agree that the counterculture movement now is on the centre-right of things. By the way, you don’t have to be very far right of centre to be called far right now. Everything’s moved very far left.

I also think, and I’ll come back to the point earlier about why there’s some younger people that are now being drawn to the conservative party, I actually think on some school campuses now and in some other venues, young people are saying like, “Maybe I don’t agree with all of the new in-vogue wokeness that’s happening, or maybe with those individuals that mostly just thrive on avocado toast and granola.” I think they would say, “Maybe we can have some intellectual diversity. Why do we always have to give in to the mainstream movement here?” I think that’s another reason why folks are being open to the party.

How do you give into it without encouraging protest culture? I think it’s really just that. It’s about saying diversity matters. It also includes intellectual diversity, and I think we should be concerned about intellectual conformity.

I think some of that counter-protest is actually pushing back against intellectual conformity, and that’s where I think we should be focusing our time and efforts. This isn’t about having protests and shutting down people that we don’t want to hear from. This is about making sure that actually differing views can be debated and discussed. There’s some really troubling evidence that a lot of people (including traditional liberals) don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinion now because, they’re not worried about the right-wingers coming after them, they’re actually worried about people on the left because they’re not progressive enough, they’re not woke enough. I think that ultimately will open an opportunity for small “c” conservatives or moderate conservatives to say, “Hey, listen, it’s okay to disagree with people. It’s okay to have a debate. It’s okay to have two people on stage discussing an issue that don’t have the same opinion.”

I think people are starting to either miss that or want that in their discourse. Again, I think that’s an opportunity for the party or conservatives in general.

SEAN SPEER: MP chambers, you’ve been so generous with your time. Let me just wrap up with a final question. You were elected in 2021 and early next fall you’ll mark your one-year anniversary as a member of our national parliament. What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve learned in your first several months as a parliamentarian?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: I had experience in Ottawa before, so I wasn’t new to the city and so didn’t have a learning curve there. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of collaboration that happens amongst party members off the hill, if you will. Many of us stay in the same hotel from multiple parties and we tend to get together at the end of the night, people roll in and you form relationships with these individuals. I think at the end of the day all members of parliament, there’s a human behind each chair there.

Everybody has their own interests and they’re here for—I think everybody’s here for the right reasons, but I think what people don’t always see is some of the collegiality that happens when the cameras are off. In fact, I’ve had some really great success working with an NDP member of the finance committee, Daniel Blaikie, as well as my Bloc colleague. In fact, we significantly amended budget legislation both just this spring and also in the fall.

I think we ultimately made the legislation better, but I think in terms of amending say budget legislation, it’s quite rare to have legislation like that amended at committee. But we worked very well together to make that happen. For those of you who are worried about the demise of parliament and democracy, there are a lot of great people here that want to do the right thing and there are some shared values that many people can work together on across parties.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great point to wrap up on. MP Adam Chambers, the Conservative member of parliament for Simcoe North, and his party’s deputy shadow minister of finance, thank you for joining us today at Hub Dialogues and good luck with the continued stewardship of Bill C-289, your private members’ bill that would strengthen the criminal code concerning money laundering and terrorist financing.