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Case study: PEI immigration project, student team, University of King’s College, Halifax


Students at the Halifax University spent six weeks investigating an immigration program in Prince Edward Island that had allowed immigrants to invest up to $200,000 in an Island business, in exchange for expedited passage into Canada. The immigrants were supposed to be active partners in the businesses, but King’s students found many business owners and their immigrant partners hadn’t even met. Laura Armstrong, who has since worked at the Trident, Ottawa Citizen, and Kemptville Advance, was student editor of the project.

Q. Where was your project published/broadcast?

A. “Cashing In” was published on May 9, 2013, in the Huffington Post Canada, in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and on a King’s website, http://immigration.kingsjournalism.com.

Q. How did you get the idea for the story/project?

A. The inspiration for the project came from Michael Tutton, a journalist with the Canadian Press’ Halifax bureau. Tutton had done a number of news stories about Prince Edward Island’s controversial provincial nominee program, but felt there was more to be told.

Q. What initial research did you do to confirm that the story was valid?

A. We used the Factiva database to research previous news stories on the subject, including work done by The Guardian in Charlottetown, and we searched the PEI government’s website for archival material.

Q. What was your initial theory as to what the story would be?

A. We hypothesized that PEI effectively sold access to Canadian citizenship as a way of raising money for Island businesses.

Q. Once you had confirmed that you had a story, how did you plan out your research?

A. We immediately broke the workshop into four teams, each with specific research goals. One set out to uncover how the program worked in the context of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s rules and regulations, another scoured Hansard and the Canada Gazette records for specific detail, the third began looking for immigrants who had participated, and the fourth was on the hunt for businesses that had been part of the program. Fortuitously, a member of the group spoke Mandarin, enabling us to communicate directly with immigrants who entered Canada through the program. Each group was tasked with three general duties: figure out what you do know, figure out how you’re going to find out what you don’t know, and compile a list of whom you’re going to talk to. We moved forward with the first two steps right away, but held off on step three until we could crosscheck the list of names each group came up with to ensure we wouldn’t contact the same person twice. When it came to conducting interviews, we always knew timing would be vital.

Q. What secondary source research was required?

A. The majority of our secondary source research was done as we prepared to begin our own investigation into the program. We familiarized ourselves with the research Tutton had done himself, as well as researched Factiva for stories that were previously written about the program, from its inception to its closure in 2008. We also learned the general guidelines for immigrating in Canada, mainly through research on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website. We also researched articles from news outlets in China, such as The Post in Shenzhen, for any mention of the program or Prince Edward Island as an immigration destination.

Q. What primary sources did you use?

A. We manually downloaded thousands of corporate records from the Prince Edward Island’s government website and the Royal Gazette, the provincial’s government’s official newsletter. One of the students was adept with computer programming, and he wrote a “scraper” script to compile information from the reports into a database. The database then drove our reporting.

We used a remarkable range of other records including legislature committee evidence, land registry records, Immigration Canada data on visa issuance for provincial nominees, and private records that were given to us by sources, including notes from a private meeting in 2009 between representatives of the Korean Association of PEI and the province’s Premier Robert Ghiz, which noted that as far as the association knew, not one Korean immigrant who came to Canada through the program had ever actually participated in a business in which they had “invested.”

Q. How did they contribute to the story?

A. Most important was the data we collected from the government website and the Royal Gazette. It allowed us to identify businesses and immigrants that took part in the program. We identified participants through a range of discrepancies, such as whether companies had filed to change their capital structures to qualify for immigrant money and whether the businesses had directors on the boards with unusual last names considering the Island’s homogenous demographics. We also looked at the director’s “home” addresses, which often led us to addresses in care of immigration companies, in foreign countries, or addresses listed simply as “Prince Edward Island.” We ended up with a 300-company list of businesses including hotels, stores, non-profit entities, and a prominent manufacturer and retailer of ice cream.

Q. What were the most important interviews for the story? Why?

A. Probably the interviews with business and immigrant participants were the most important because they took us to the heart of the story. We called more than 100 businesses and spoke to more than 20 of those. The others either refused to be interviewed, hung up the phone, or simply could not be found. Immigrants were even harder to locate; most of them weren’t actually in PEI. Nonetheless, through persistence we spoke to about a dozen. All these interviews established the pattern of “silent partnerships,” immigrants entering Canada through the Island’s provincial nominee program, supposedly to invest in a business and be active participants in its operation, but often not even knowing the name of the business. It was all arranged by a network of lawyers, accountants, and immigration companies.

We also had key interviews with immigrant consultants and Citizenship and Immigration Officials. We spoke to many of them on background, as their jobs would have been at risk had they spoken publicly. A final interview with Robert Vineberg, a retired director general for Western Canada for Citizenship and Immigration, helped put all of our findings into context.

Q. What methods did you use to organize your research? The materials you found? Did you use any computerized techniques to do or organize research? If so, what were there and how did you use them?

A. We relied heavily on Google Docs (now Google Drive) to organize our research, particularly all of the factual information. We also had Google spreadsheets of people who were important to our investigation and their contact information, and timelines. We used an internal university server to store transcripts, notes, rough drafts, and our final copy. We also had paper hard copies of all of our information, which was collected and organized by a designated researcher.

At times, group members travelled to Prince Edward Island. During these occasions, we used Dropbox to send copy, photos, and videos back and forth.

Q. Did you use any undercover reporting for the story? If so, what did you do?

A. It was not required.

Q. Did you use freedom of information requests for the story? If so, what requests did you make and how many?

A. No. There wasn’t time.

Q. Many projects have a turning point when it all seems to fall into place. Was there such a point for this story/project? If so, please describe in detail that turning point.

A. There were various moments throughout our project that could be described as turning points, most notably interviews with businesses, immigrants, and key government officials. The major turning point in conceptualizing the story, however, came early in our project when we unearthed the Hansard transcript of then PEI Lieutenant Governor Léonce Bernard’s 2002 speech from the throne. It was the first ever reference to the PEI nominee program in the assembly. He said, “The Ministry of Development and Technology will aggressively market a new provincial nominee program to potential immigrants. The objective of this program will be to make available investment capital to new and existing Island businesses.” This helped shape our understanding of how the entire Island had viewed the program, as a cash cow.

Q. Did you story change from your first theory? If so, how?

A. While our story did evolve into larger story than I think any of us ever imagined it would, our initial hypothesis did lead us in the right direction. The behind-the-scenes showdown between the federal and provincial government over the program, which played out quietly over many years, ultimately turned into a story of its own, and was an aspect that we did not initially anticipate.

Q. How many stories did you write?

A. We wrote 10 stories for “Cashing In.”

Q. What was the most challenging part of writing these stories?

A. The time crunch we were under, as the workshop runs six weeks. The research and interview process took longer than expected, and we were left with only a week left of the program to write all of the stories. That process continued for several weeks after the workshop concluded, coordinated by email.

Q. Over how many days/broadcasts did the story run?

A. The stories were published on one day, May 9, 2012.

Q. Did you story/project include online elements? If so, what were these and how did they fit into the overall presentation?

A. The project was published on its own website, which featured all 10 stories as well as corresponding photos. We posted a flow chart describing how the immigrant money was shared as well as graphs relating to the creation of new companies and where the immigrants came from. The data we collected was made available on our website for readers to search and, after a successful CBC court challenge, forced the PEI government to release a full list of immigrant partner companies, months after our story was published, we made that list available on our website. Many of these elements were also available on the websites of our publication partners.

Q. What was the most difficult this about doing this story/project? The most challenging?

A. We ran into many difficulties throughout this project, from simple things, such as being forced to stagger the time and location of the data collection to keep PEI’s website from potentially shutting us out, should it recognize that one IP address was performing extensive searches, to language barriers, location challenges, etc. The most challenging part was timing: when should we break the story? A major concern for us was when to start calling Island businesses. We knew once we did so, word of our activities would spread and we would find some doors closed. But, we were under a time crunch and had to get the word out sooner rather than later, otherwise the workshop would finish with an incomplete story.

Q. What was the most satisfying part of the story/project?

A. Each member of the team who worked on the project had different highs and lows throughout the process, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that it was hugely satisfying when, a day after the project was published, our findings prompted then-Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to call on his officials to launch an investigation into the PEI program. He spoke out strongly against the program two weeks later. When the list of participants was released pursuant to the CBC court challenge, our own list of companies identified through the data analysis was shown to be almost perfectly accurate.

Q. How long did the project take to research and write?

A. The project took about three months to research and write, although the bulk of the work was done during an eight-week period.