A Yellowknife businessman and immigration consultant has been ordered to pay $185,523.29 to a former client who sought damages after she claimed her hopes of opening a gift store were dashed.
In an NWT Supreme Court decision last Friday, first reported by the CBC, Justice Karan Shaner ordered Liang Chen to pay Jie Qiao $5,523.29 in interest for breach of contract, $130,000 in punitive damages, and $50,000 in aggravated damages.
Chen did not appear in court, nor file a statement of defence in the case.
Qiao’s statement of claim alleged Chen’s behaviour in their business dealings was “high-handed, outrageous and egregious.” In an interview with Cabin Radio, Chen denied many of Qiao’s claims and said he had good intentions but things turned sour due to unforeseen financial challenges.
According to court documents, Qiao emigrated to Yellowknife from China in early 2019 and hoped to become a Canadian permanent resident. She applied to the business stream of the Northwest Territories’ nominee program – an immigration program that helps people acquire residency – with plans to open a high-end gift shop.
The business stream is designed for foreign nationals with enough cash to open or invest in a business in the NWT. As part of it, applicants have to pay the territorial government a $75,000 “good-faith deposit,” invest at least $300,000 in an NWT business, and demonstrate English-language proficiency, among other requirements.
In return, the NWT government will nominate successful applicants to the federal government for permanent residency, which is federally controlled.
Qiao hired Chen to help her set up her business and navigate the immigration process, as she speaks little English.
In April 2019, Chen registered a business and opened a joint business bank account. He then added Qiao as director of that company. By August, Qiao had deposited $300,000 into the bank account, which she said the company was supposed to hold as equity.
One month later, the company began leasing a commercial unit in Centre Square Mall and Chen hired contractors to prepare the space as a gift shop. Those contractors were never paid in full, however. Qiao said as the business director, she was held liable.
Between May 21 and November 4, Qiao claims Chen withdrew funds from their joint bank account without her knowledge or permission. She said that included $110,000 Chen told her he used to purchase a cabin on Madeline Lake, with promises to repay her. She said despite repeated requests, that didn’t happen.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Chen admitted using the funds to make a downpayment on the cabin, which now offers vacation rentals. He claimed he was desperate after other people who he planned to go into business with were removed from Canada, meaning he couldn’t get money from them as payment deadlines on the property loomed.
“I shouldn’t have done that. It was a bad judgement on my part but it was out of desperation. I gave her the money back afterwards, but … all sorts of hell broke loose because of that,” he said.
“All I can say is, I accept responsibility for that but I certainly did not agree with many of her other allegations.”
Loss of savings
In court, Qiao claimed Chen taking her money meant she was no longer able to operate her business, was forced to withdraw from the nominee program, and obliged to return to China. She said she couldn’t get her $75,000 deposit back from the government because she hadn’t met the requirements of the nominee program.
“Ms Qiao has suffered significant mental distress as a result of being forced to leave Canada and losing her family’s savings,” court documents state.
Chen, however, claims Qiao chose to leave the program because she didn’t believe she would pass an English exam and didn’t want to stay in Yellowknife without her family. He also said she was not at risk of being forced to leave Canada.
According to court documents, Qiao now lives in British Columbia.
Qiao initially hired a lawyer who sent a letter to the territorial and federal governments detailing her allegations against Chen. Qiao claims that when Chen found out, he pressured her to recant the accusations.
Chen claims he only called Qiao to advise her to hire a different lawyer. He said he worried that while the business had not been a fraud, telling the government it was could give officials grounds to remove Qiao from Canada.
“I in no way intimidated her whatsoever,” he said.
Qiao ultimately did hire another lawyer, and subsequently wrote again to the governments saying the first letter did not represent her intentions.
‘The timing was bad’
In late February 2020, Chen and Qiao reached a settlement agreement where Chen agreed to pay Qiao a lump sum of $160,000 within seven days, or with interest if he was late. He also agreed to take over the gift shop lease and ownership of Qiao’s business, along with all liabilities.
Qiao said Chen didn’t pay her the $160,000 until she served him with a lawsuit.
According to the CBC, Qiao’s lawyer described the settlement as Chen strong-arming Qiao into accepting less than her investment in the business.
Chen said he negotiated with Qiao to take over the gift shop because she was no longer interested in pursuing it.
After the Covid-19 pandemic hit and borders were closed to tourists, Chen said the business was no longer viable, which, along with other financial losses, was why he wasn’t able to pay Qiao on time. He said he doesn’t believe the shop will ever open as it’s unclear when tourism will return.
“The timing of it was bad,” he said. “Things happen and you accept your mistakes, and you acknowledge it, and you apologize and you move on. What else can you do?”
Qiao sought interest and damages from Chen in an ex parte application, meaning the judge could make a decision in the case without Chen’s involvement.
The application claims Chen’s “bad faith conduct” was “particularly egregious considering Ms. Qiao’s vulnerability as an immigrant, who cannot speak English and her reliance on Mr. Chen as a certified immigration consultant.”
Chen said he didn’t respond to the lawsuit because he wasn’t legally required to, and because he had defaulted on his agreement with Qiao.
“I didn’t want to waste my time on court and also on legal fees, knowing that the final decision would have been, regardless, the same,” he said. “I guess in hindsight, I probably should have contested the things that were untrue.”
Chen said he has had a clean record as an immigration consultant for 10 years and this is his first infraction.
Qiao’s lawyer, Chris Buchanan, declined an interview with Cabin Radio. Buchanan said Qiao had asked for privacy in the matter.
Earlier this month, the law firm representing Qiao filed allegations on behalf of another of Chen’s former clients, claiming the Yellowknife businessman also owes that client money. Those allegations have not been proven in court and Chen has yet to file a statement of defence in the case.