BIV – Business Intelligence For British Columbia published Graeme Wood’s article entitled “Will B.C. adopt ‘McMafia’ law to combat money laundering?” on August 11, 2022. In his article, Wood compares the potential advantages and risks of Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) in response to a growing number of large mansions on Richmond farmlands with alleged ties to criminal financial activities. UWOs would allow law enforcement to compel property owners to disclose the source of their wealth in certain circumstances that meet the evidentiary threshold, where criminal activity is suspected. As such, UWOs are an anti-money laundering tool that operate under the controversial reverse onus principle by putting the onus of innocence on the homeowner.
As Richmond farmlands balloon in value to upwards of 20 million dollars, local community groups such as Richmond FarmWatch urged Commissioner Austin Cullen in 2019’s Public Inquiry into Money Laundering (entitled the Cullen Commission) to consider UWOs as a tool for law enforcement to deter illicit financial dealings. While there is no concrete evidence of money laundering, farming advocates refer to media reports of residences used as illegal hotels and casinos with connections to organized crime, as well as foreign buyers’ tax exemption on Canadian farmlands, as justification for the use of UWOs. In his final report, Cullen accepted UWOs as a “valuable tool” in deterring the “accumulation of illicit wealth by those engaged in profit-oriented criminal activities.”
Despite this, Commission observers like criminal defence attorney, Joven Narwal argue that the adoption of UWOs would result in “increase(d) state surveillance and an erosion of privacy protections for all British Columbians.” Narwal contends that how government entities will use information gathered by UWOs is yet to be determined. This information could be shared across institutions that decide independently (and at times arbitrarily) that it’s indicative of illicit activity, sparking costly inquiries, audits and investigations of innocent people. Similarly, the BC Civil Liberties Association object to the use of UWOs, arguing that they “undermine privacy rights, the presumption of innocence and the right to silence. They have only been adopted in a few countries, and there is no credible evidence that they have been effective.”
BC’s Civil Forfeiture Act, to which UWOs would likely fall under, is presently being challenged at the B.C. Court of Appeal.