Canada: Oh Canada, Our Home and "Snow-washed" Tax Haven??

Last Updated: February 8 2017
Article by Sabina Mexis

The release of a joint CBC / Toronto Star investigation earlier this week has made headlines across the world and calls Canada's tax system into question.

Most Canadians would argue that Canada's tax rates are among the highest in the world and that the Canadian tax system is designed to ensure that income earned in Canada is subject to Canadian income tax, whether that income is earned by an individual, a corporation, a partnership, joint venture, or any other form of organization. In the normal course, a Canadian entity earning income in Canada from a business or property is required to report, calculate, and remit income taxes on such income to the Canada Revenue Agency.

The CBC and the Toronto Star used the term "snow washing" to refer to the use of Canadian corporations and limited partnerships as part of complex offshore money laundering and tax evasion schemes, due to the perception of the legitimacy of such Canadian entities and Canada's reputation as a "whitelisted, respectable jurisdiction". The Toronto Star / CBC investigation identifies the practice, advocated by some other offshore jurisdictions, of non-residents incorporating companies or setting up other entities (such as Canadian limited partnerships) and installing Canadian "nominee directors". The Toronto Star article reports as follows:

"Canada is a new player in the world of offshore companies," claims the website of a Swiss firm. "Canada is the most preferable destination for compliant tax planning since it has no negative offshore reputation and no association with tax avoidance or evasion. It is by far one of the best neutral jurisdictions, providing offshore benefits without any of the traditional offshore drawbacks."

In another article in the series, the Toronto Star states the following:

Nominee directors are not illegal in Canada, but the secrecy they provide facilitates abuse. The tax haven industry relies on nominee directors to put a legitimate face on companies, masking their real owners and allowing them to evade tax, launder ill-gotten money or bribe corrupt officials.

Corporate statutes, both provincial and federal, impose duties and liabilities on directors of Canadian corporations. Directors are regarded as fiduciaries of their corporation, and as such, are required to exercise a duty of care, to act honestly and in good faith, and to ensure that they protect the corporation's interests. Other statutes (such as the Income Tax Act), impose other responsibilities on corporate directors.

The key premise of the Toronto Star / CBC joint investigation, is that the opacity of our corporate registry system, whereby it is almost impossible to identify the real owners of companies, creates an environment of secrecy that encourages money laundering and tax evasion. The Toronto Star articles make the assertion that "[t]he use of nominee directors is a key channel of tax evasion", and that "[s]ecrecy is at the heart of financial crime".

The conclusions reached in the series of Toronto Star and CBC investigative articles, are that, to curb abuse of the system, Canada needs to adopt a more transparent corporate registry system, such as one recently adopted in the U.K., which provides that individuals holding more than 25% of the shares or voting rights in a company are listed on a public database. In addition, the articles conclude that some structures, such as Canadian limited partnerships, help avoid tax because non-resident owners are not required to file a Canadian tax return. This is not entirely correct. Limited partnerships are required to file annual information returns setting out details of their income and the names of the partners who are entitled to such income.

Tax evasion, avoidance and abuse of our financial, corporate, and legal system are deplorable and certainly have negative repercussions for all Canadian taxpayers. It is commendable that the CBC and the Toronto Star have undertaken this investigation, exposing the deficiencies in the system and the opportunities for exploitation that such deficiencies create. We can hope that as a consequence of these articles, the Federal and Provincial governments will act to close loopholes in reporting and accountability and minimize opportunities for abuse. That being said, it is a maxim of Canadian tax law that taxpayers are entitled to arrange their affairs to minimize tax. There are many valid and legal strategies which can be implemented by Canadian taxpayers through effective tax planning.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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