Canada

Sabrina Maddeaux: Liberals allow a narco state to fester under their noses

Officials would rather paint a picture of isolated, struggling addicts than a full-blown narco state where dirty money has infiltrated everything from real estate to banking

A man injects drugs in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 2019.

If Netflix is looking for its next hit show, it should consider a new chapter of its wildly popular crime thriller “Narcos”  — this time set in the Great White North. While Canada once evoked images of serene mountainsides and dim-witted cartoon Mounties, we’ve become something much more exciting — and sinister.

We’re now the North American capital for transnational crime syndicates that traffic in everything from hard drugs to money laundering, political corruption and real estate. “Narcos: Canada” would practically write itself. The only problem: screenwriters would probably have to tone down the details to actually make it believable.

The original “Narcos” featured the violent excesses of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and its spin-off, “Narcos: Mexico,” covered 1980s Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán. They offered wild stories of corruption and violence, but Canada may just have them beat.

Take, for example, that the man dubbed “Asia’s El Chapo” holds a Canadian passport. Or that the RCMP’s top intelligence official allegedly undermined organized crime investigations for years by selling information to foreign entities and crime syndicates. Or that Canadian casino bosses fail to question “whale” gamblers who march into their venues night after night carrying hockey bags and Louis Vuitton duffles full of stacked $20 bills.

Then there’s the subterranean trend of “iceberg homes,” in which the super rich, often with untraceable incomes, dig down two or three stories to add extra space to their luxury abodes. One such underground bunker on the West Coast, which is owned by a non-Canadian resident, boasts the largest private weapons collection in Canada, including vintage rocket launchers and a full-size fire truck. The show practically writes itself!

Amazingly, while the citizens of Colombia and Mexico lived in fear of the drug cartels that controlled their countries, Canadians are mostly blissfully unaware. They’re too busy trading each other houses for higher and higher prices without ever stopping to wonder why the spike in real estate prices almost perfectly matches the increase in overdose deaths, as investigative journalist Sam Cooper demonstrates in his new book, “Willful Blindness.”

This may be because Canada’s government and public health officials still prefer to address the opioid crisis largely as a health problem, with supports for mental health and addiction. While these are certainly needed, they downplay the role of organized crime and how it contributes to the crisis.

Officials would rather paint a picture of isolated, struggling addicts than a full-blown narco state where dirty money has infiltrated everything from real estate to banking. In his book, Cooper connects the dots through his years of reporting on how fentanyl deaths on the streets mean historically unprecedented profits for Chinese organized crime syndicates, which are then laundered through the country’s casinos, financial institutions and real estate markets.

Even more amazingly, Canada’s top politicians were warned about this vicious loop as far back as the ’90s, but chose to ignore it in favour of trade missions to China and ballooning provincial coffers thanks to gambling profits. Worse, there’s evidence that taxpayer dollars helped fund this country’s descent into a real estate-obsessed narco state.

Cooper writes, “For me, one fact underlined the absurdity of B.C.’s systemic problems. Fentanyl overdose deaths roughly doubled on the days when addicts received their social assistance. Addicts were immediately converting welfare cheques into cash for drug binges— and dying. And in the process, Canadian tax dollars were transferred directly into the hands of the Big Circle Boys, who could launder the drug money in casinos and real estate, and transfer funds back to chemical factories in China … in order to produce and import more fentanyl to Vancouver, causing more overdose deaths.”

This trend was magnified by the pandemic: as Canada Emergency Response Benefit money flooded the market last year, opioid overdoses in some parts of Canada spiked by as much as 75 per cent compared to the prior year. At the same time, housing prices soared. “You can’t just allow narcos to buy up Canadian land with no regulatory response. But they did,” writes Cooper, who argues that our housing bubble isn’t fuelled by subprime lending, like it was in the United States prior to the 2008 financial crisis, but rather “sub-crime lending.”

Yet, when the Conservatives presented a motion to address the housing crisis — which was supported by the NDP, who called for bolstering law enforcement’s ability to fight money laundering — the Liberals voted against it. Instead, Mikaela Harrison, the press secretary for Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, said, “Rather than overhauling our housing policy, as the Conservatives have suggested, we’ll continue working closely with our partners to ensure every Canadian has a safe and affordable place to call (home).”

The Liberals’ current plan mostly rests on an underwhelming First-Time Home Buyer Incentive that doesn’t address absurd housing prices or the illicit funds and opioid profits that are adding fuel to the fire, but instead simply allows buyers to take on more debt. Their refusal to seriously address money laundering places political expediency over the financial future of young Canadians. After all, it’s not a great look to draw attention to the narco state you’ve allowed to fester right before a rumoured fall election.

What’s happening — not just in Vancouver and Toronto, but across Canada — sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. While many politicians would rather sweep this all under the rug, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau loves nothing more than to embrace a trending pop culture topic. Perhaps “Narcos: Canada” becoming a global hit will inspire his government to finally take action.

National Post

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