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Feds announce $10M for RCMP to fight money laundering after ministers’ meeting

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VANCOUVER — The federal government has announced $10 million to help the RCMP prosecute money laundering after a special meeting of Canada’s finance and justice ministers to discuss the pervasive problem.

British Columbia has been pushing for nationwide action and while its finance minister said the funding falls short, she stressed it was crucial that other provinces join the effort.

“Criminals don’t know boundaries. They don’t know provincial borders,” said Carole James on Thursday. “If we close loopholes here, we know that dirty money will be looking for another opportunity.”

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair also attended the meeting. Alberta and Saskatchewan were the only provinces that did not participate.

James said it should be no surprise that B.C. will continue to push for more money for enforcement. A recent report found the federal RCMP team responsible for money laundering only had five officers in the province.

“We certainly are doing everything we can to share data,” she said. “But the information is only as good as the people who will move it ahead with criminal investigations and get the prosecutions done.”

Morneau said the new funds will help co-ordinate information so the RCMP can hold criminals accountable.

The government dedicated “significant” funding of about $160 million in its 2019 budget toward understanding how money laundering is happening in Canada, Morneau added.

He said the ministers discussed making corporate ownership of real estate more transparent, with provinces including Ontario and Manitoba agreeing that beneficial ownership needed to be less opaque.

B.C. has introduced legislation to establish a beneficial ownership registry that is expected to be operational in 2020. The Ontario Real Estate Association has called for its provincial government to do the same.

Asked why Ottawa cannot urgently create a framework for provinces to establish such registries, Morneau said there are issues around privacy and the burden of regulations on corporations. But he said he heard Thursday that everyone was willing to take next steps.

He also said ministers discussed gaps in the system and the need to include lawyers in the fight against money laundering. The federal government is working with the Federation of Law Societies, he said.

Lawyers don’t have to report to Canada’s anti-money laundering agency, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, or FINTRAC.

Blair said lawyer-client privilege is a long-standing and useful principle, but the federal government is working with law societies to find ways to ensure there is appropriate oversight.

Eby stressed that FINTRAC’s limitations go even further. A number of sectors don’t have to report to the agency, including luxury cars and post-secondary schools, and even when other sectors file reports they can’t be sure the centre will investigate, he said.

Apart from than the new RCMP funding, the ministers emerged from the meeting without anything firm to announce.

Blair said he was encouraged by the commitments of Manitoba, Nova Scotia and others to work together.

“Organized crime is motivated entirely by profit. By working together, we can take that profit away from them. By doing that, we make all our communities safer,” he said.

B.C. called a public inquiry into money laundering last month after two reports shed new light on the issue. One report estimated $7.4 billion in dirty money was washed in B.C. last year, but it also suggested Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have a worse problem.

Ontario’s Finance Minister Vic Fedeli wrote to Morneau this week to request federal money on par with B.C. to fund anti-money laundering initiatives. Fedeli said he was concerned that the bulk of the money in the federal budget would go toward B.C.

Blair said the ministers didn’t discuss specific allocation of resources at the meeting. The federal government has boosted funding for the Canada Border Services Agency, RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency and FINTRAC to strengthen the response to money laundering, he said.

Eby said he was “heartened” to hear Ontario’s request for funding and he hopes the province also moves forward with legislative reforms including creating a beneficial ownership registry.

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press


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COVID-19

Court martial planned for soldier who criticized vaccine mandate, led march to Ottawa

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The Canadian soldier who recently led a protest march to Ottawa is now facing a court martial for having spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform.

Warrant Officer James Topp was recently notified that he will be allowed to have his case heard in a military court instead of by his chain of command, according to the army reservist’s civilian lawyer.

Phillip Millar says the decision represents a second about-face after the military initially offered his client a court martial when he was charged in February, only to rescind the offer and send his case to Topp’s unit commanders.

“It’s hard to know what they’re doing, because I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” said Millar. “But now they’re saying it’s a court martial.”

The decision raises the stakes for Topp, according to military law experts, as courts martial are allowed to impose heavier sentences against Armed Forces members than if they are tried by their chain of command in what is known as a summary trial.

Yet it also means he will be allowed to have legal representation at trial, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if he was tried by his commanding officer, while his trial will receive much more public attention.

“The stakes are obviously going to be increased in a public-relations context,” said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law in Kingston, Ont.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about whether Topp’s case was changed from a court martial to summary trial and back again.

Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after the army reservist appeared in uniform in two online videos criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

Topp, who is now in the process of being released from the military, later led a months-long march from Vancouver that ended in Ottawa last week and was supported by many of the same organizers as this year’s “Freedom Convoy.”

He has since become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to vaccines, vaccine mandates and perceived government overreach. Some Conservative MPs have also hitched their wagon to him, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.

While Millar questioned the military’s back and forth with his client, and said he planned to question the way Topp’s charges were handled, he nonetheless welcomed the latest decision to allow a court martial.

That is because Topp will now be allowed to have a lawyer present during his trial, where Millar said he plans to call expert witnesses to question the need and efficacy of the military’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement imposed by chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre late last year remains in place even though a similar mandate for most other federal public servants has now been suspended.

“It opens the door for us to call witnesses about the decision to charge him,” Millar said. “It opens the door for us to call experts on whether or not there was any science behind the mandate.”

While the shift from a summary trial back to a court martial means Topp will be afforded an independent trial with legal representation, Fowler said it also means the army reservist faces potentially stiffer penalties if convicted.

Under a summary trial, commanding officers are largely restricted to handing down reprimands and fines. If he is found guilty by court martial, however, Topp faces the threat of dismissal from the military with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said while there may be a number of reasons why the military opted to change the case from a summary trial back to a court martial, he believed the latter was the appropriate venue for hearing Topp’s case.

“It provides for a trial in an open court with all Charter legal guarantees,” Drapeau said in an email. “It also provides for the provision of free legal support to the member.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

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COVID-19

Tamara Lich breached conditions by appearing with fellow convoy leader: Crown

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The Crown is seeking to revoke bail for Tamara Lich, a leader of the “Freedom Convoy,” after she appeared alongside a fellow organizer in an alleged breach of her conditions.

Lich was charged in February with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation for her role in the massive protest against COVID-19 restrictions that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks.

She was released the next month with a long list of conditions, including an order not to communicate with key convoy organizers except through counsel or in the presence of counsel. She was also banned from using all social media.

Crown prosecutor Moiz Karimjee told an Ottawa court on Tuesday that Lich breached one of her conditions by being seen with fellow protest leader Tom Marazzo at a recent gala, where she accepted an award for organizing the protest.

He argued that she should be detained.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he will contest the revocation of Lich’s bail and seek her release with conditions.

Ottawa police Det. Chris Benson, who is the lead on Lich’s case, told the court he reviewed video of Lich and Marazzo appearing together at the awards gala.

Greenspon asked Benson if he knew of any other evidence that Lich and Marazzo communicated before or after the brief interaction in the video, which took place in “less than three seconds.”

He asked the detective if he was aware that some lawyers from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms were present, some of whom are acting as her lawyers in civil matters.

Benson said he believed a photograph showing Lich, Marazzo and others posing together at the award ceremony shows that she breached her conditions due to her physical closeness to him.

Lich monitored the hearing remotely from an Ontario detention centre, watching on video conference and listening in from a cellphone, her blond hair in a high bun.

Both Marazzo and Lich were key spokespeople of the winter convoy protest. Marazzo is also a leader of a group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which staged several rallies in Ottawa over the Canada Day weekend.

Police sought a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Lich for the alleged breach of her bail conditions and she was arrested last week in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives.

Benson said he oversaw Lich’s transport from Alberta to Ottawa after she was arrested.

Lich’s surety, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, said they became aware of the photo of Lich and Marazzo a few days after the event, and immediately contacted Lich about it out of concern that a possible violation of bail conditions took place.

The surety explained that Lich assured them that legal counsel was present at the gala.

Greenspon pointed out the evidence brought against Lich to argue she broke the bail condition consists of a very brief congratulatory interaction between her and Marazzo, adding lawyers approved the photo and were just off-camera.

He argued Benson didn’t provide any evidence that contradicted the terms of the bail conditions.

“These actions were so minimal as to amount to not being prosecuted, let alone convicted,” he said.

The purpose of the bail condition was not to preclude the brief interaction and photo that took place, Greenspon said — rather, it was to prevent a similar event to the one that took place in Ottawa earlier this year. He argued the interactions in question do not risk reoffence.

The matter should have been brought to a judicial referral hearing or some other recourse rather than the Canada-wide warrant that has led to Lich being detained for nine days, he said, noting an email showing the Crown sought the expansion from an initial Ontario-wide warrant.

Justice of the Peace Paul Harris reserved his decision until the next court appearance on Friday.

Lich is charged for her role in the “Freedom Convoy” along with a co-accused, Chris Barber, who remains out on bail.

On Tuesday morning, Barber’s lawyer was granted a publication ban on court documents showing Barber’s cellphone communications, except for those with Lich.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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