VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government needs to set clear goals and a firm timeline if it launches a public inquiry into money laundering, says a former provincial attorney general who led an exhaustive probe of missing and murdered women.
Wally Oppal said he believes his inquiry had an impact after it wrapped in 2012. Police now investigate these cases far differently than they did when serial killer Robert Pickton was preying on vulnerable women, he said.
"A lot of good things can come of them, but before governments establish inquiries, they should first of all ask themselves: What questions need to be answered? Did something go wrong? And what are the powers that we're going to give to an inquiry commissioner?" Oppal said.
"The other thing is you have to have a definite end line, otherwise it can go on forever."
Calls for an inquiry have been mounting since the provincial government released two reports on money laundering last week. One report estimated $7.4 billion was laundered in B.C. last year, of which $5 billion was funnelled through real estate and drove up home prices five per cent.
Premier John Horgan has said his government will decide whether to call a public inquiry into money laundering following a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Oppal also led a public inquiry into municipal policing in B.C. in the 1990s and, while attorney general, called an inquiry into the death of a Polish immigrant at Vancouver's airport. He said most inquiries take longer than planned and costs can spiral out of control, as witnesses get "lawyered up."
"In the Pickton inquiry, we had 19, 20 lawyers in the room at any given time," he said. "But in that inquiry, we needed to find out why so many women were murdered. ... It was important that we got answers as to what mistakes were made."
Before calling an inquiry into money laundering, the province should also consider whether it would compromise any ongoing police investigations, he added. People who are subpoenaed to give testimony in an inquiry may not be able to give evidence if they're subject to a criminal investigation.
The missing-women inquiry cost about $10 million and the province reported in February that it had made "significant progress" on the recommendations.
Progress hasn't always been swift. In his 2012 report, Oppal urged the province to immediately commit to providing public transit along the so-called Highway of Tears, but it didn't unveil a bus-service plan until 2015.
Several politicians calling for a money laundering inquiry said it should be modelled on Quebec's Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the construction industry, which led to arrests, convictions and the recovery of $95 million in public funds.
Brad West, mayor of Port Coquitlam in Metro Vancouver, said he's offended that criminals profiting from the deadly opioid crisis are funnelling their "blood money" through real estate, inflating prices for residents who work hard and pay taxes.
"If this doesn't call for a public inquiry modelled after the Charbonneau Commission, then I don't know what does," he said.
"We should just stop pretending that we're ever going to have public inquiries, if we don't have one into something that is as important and as consequential to the future of our province as this."
Green Leader Andrew Weaver has also been calling for an inquiry. He said it would ensure that names are named, people are compelled to testify, recommendations can be put forward and more information that is otherwise kept confidential comes to light.
Despite a common perception that B.C. is the dirty-money "capital" of Canada, one of the reports released last week painted a different picture.
It said the province ranked fourth for money laundering among a division of six regions in Canada, behind Alberta, Ontario and the Prairies — collectively Saskatchewan and Manitoba — at least for the years 2011 to 2015. It also said B.C. only accounted for 15 per cent of the $47 billion laundered across Canada last year.
Weaver said the report's finding about the scale of the issue in B.C. compared with other provinces didn't change his mind. It's not surprising that more dirty cash was washed clean in a larger province such as Ontario, he said, adding that money laundering has affected B.C. differently than Prairie provinces.
"If you're not having pressures on your real estate like we've had here, a five per cent push or a seven per cent push in one year on prices from laundering money may not have had the same effect as it did here. Our affordability issue is second to none in the country.
"That, in and of itself, is the reason why we need to show leadership, and frankly, I think it's good on government to show leadership. We don't have to wait for others to follow."