Months before the COVID-19 pandemic changed world travel, Qinhua Lu visited Banff with her family. The wide sweeping vistas of the Rockies spoke to Lu, who was 39 at the time.
“Canada has a sense of home,” Lu repeatedly told me in Mandarin.
Lu and her husband lived in Beijing then, running their own business and taking care of their children. After that trip, they started thinking about emigrating to Canada. It would be better for the children’s education, and there would be less air pollution, Lu reasoned.
But three years later, the dream of a better life has turned into a nightmare, a series of disappointments and heartbreak that has cost her family at least $320,000 with nothing to show for it. And Lu has discovered she’s not alone: The Tyee has confirmed that at least four families have lost a combined $1.1 million to a B.C. entrepreneur promising them status as new Canadian residents through Canada’s Start-up Visa Program.
Lu grew up in a farming village in the inland Chinese province of Shandong. At 18, she left home for opportunities in Beijing, with just two sets of newly purchased clothes and a thick cotton blanket her mother made.
After five years in the capital, she and her future husband started a successful airline ticket agency in 2003.
Their income from the business opened new horizons for Lu. She bought a house and brought her parents to live in Beijing. She and her husband raised two well-travelled kids, now 14 and seven. Like many Chinese parents, she saw opportunities for her children’s futures overseas.
While she was still in China looking for information about immigrating to Canada online after that memorable trip to Banff, Lu came across the writing of Xiaochun Bian, who also goes by the English name Brice.
He blogged under the moniker of Brice the Bobcat on Zhihu, the popular Chinese question-and-answer website. Bian, who also posted on other Chinese social media sites, seemed to be providing in-depth information about the various immigration options in Canada. Occasionally, he would write about his life in Canada, posting videos of what he claimed was his newly purchased house in Victoria, B.C.
Curious, Lu got in touch with Bian, asking for advice. Bian introduced Lu to Kaisa Aierken, who he said could help. Like Lu, he was an entrepreneur. Among other things, Aierken was the CEO of Tutti, a local food delivery company in Victoria.
Bian put Aierken and Lu in touch through a group chat and the two started exchanging messages on WeChat. “Kaisa is a good friend of mine and has done the immigration process for many of our friends,” Bian wrote in Mandarin. “You should consult with him directly.”
Lu recalls how Aierken told her about his own journey in Canada: how he came here first as a student, and eventually became a Canadian citizen. Aierken sent Lu photos of his identity cards in China and Canada — including a photo of his BC Services Card. “He said that it was his Canadian identity card,” Lu recalled. BC Services cards are issued by the province. They work as pieces of identification but they do not communicate proof of citizenship. The cards are available to a number of people, including those with temporary immigration status, international post-secondary students studying here on student visas, and B.C. residents who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.
Additionally, Aierken sent her PDFs of business cards claiming to be a project manager of the review board commissioner of the Canadian International Angel Investors, a company that helps early-stage technology companies and their key members come to Canada. Another business card said he was a China venture partner of Venture Development Institute, a company that advertises an eight-week training program for entrepreneurs to work in Canada through a slick two-minute advertisement primarily consisting of computer-generated imagery and stock video footage.
These gave Lu the impression that Aierken was connected with the private-sector groups that have been federally approved to assist entrepreneurs with immigration through Canada’s Start-up Visa Program. Canadian International Angel Investors is among one of the eight approved angel investor groups currently active in the program.
The Start-up Visa Program, administrated by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and its private sector partners, is designed for immigrant entrepreneurs who are able to build innovative, job-creating businesses in Canada.
Aierken told Lu that the Start-up Visa Program was an easy, five-step immigration program that had a price tag of $320,000, and that Aierken would match her with a suitable entrepreneurial venture that she could work and invest in. The whole process would take between six to 18 months, according to an infographic that Aierken gave Lu.
But Aierken is not a registered immigration consultant, according to the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants.
When Lu’s husband asked him about his credentials as an immigration consultant before they signed a contract, Aierken provided a number, 1995-1071, claiming that it was the number of an immigration lawyer with his company.
The Tyee spoke to a representative of the Law Society of British Columbia, who could not find any lawyer with that identification, remarking that his own identification number as a lawyer only consisted of six digits.
But Lu saw Aierken as a fellow entrepreneur just like her, capable and willing to help. She decided to work with him on her big move.
In October 2020, she digitally signed a contract over WeChat. The contract, signed on Oct. 27 under Hong Kong’s legal jurisdiction, was between Lu and Canadian International Angel Investors and called for a $30,000 deposit to be wired to the bank accounts of the Victoria-based Idea Yolk Ventures Ltd.
A copy of the contract shown to The Tyee has several irregularities. Most significantly, the cheque was not to be payable to the federally approved Canadian International Angel Investors but to Idea Yolk Ventures. It said the company “acknowledges to share equal responsibilities and liabilities” with Canadian International Angel Investors.
Aierken is a registered director of Idea Yolk Ventures, according to a company summary obtained from BC Registries and Online Services. Compared to Canadian International Angel Investors, which on its website claims to have 25 years of experience in the immigration business, Idea Yolk Ventures was only incorporated in April 2020.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars
On Oct. 30, 2020, Lu wired $15,000 from Hong Kong to Idea Yolk Ventures’ account in Canada, half of the initial $30,000 deposit fee that she would finish paying on Nov. 11. It would be the first of many money transactions that Lu’s family would pay Aierken.
Three days later, Aierken started asking for the next payment over WeChat, a week ahead of their originally agreed-upon schedule. “The night after he gave me the receipt, he started badgering me for the second payment,” Lu said.
That put Lu in a bind. “It’s very hard to move $320,000 out in an instant,” Lu explained to me. Stringent currency controls in China allow only US$10,000 per year of foreign currency to be exchanged by Chinese nationals, meaning that she did not have enough Canadian dollars for her second payment.
Aierken texted her over WeChat in Mandarin, saying he would accept payment in Chinese Yuan. He provided his own Chinese banking account number and mobile payment transfer numbers. He assured Lu that he was a Canadian International Angel Investors partner and therefore authorized to take payments.
From then on until December, Lu and her husband continuously made mobile payments and bank transfers to make the payment schedule. They’d transfer the money on to Aierken whenever they could.
Aierken would share a screenshot of currency exchange numbers and demand the next payment.
Lu describes this period as months of “finding money where we could and sending it over when we were able to,” she told me. “We’re not particularly wealthy. If we had some money, it all went to [Aierken].”
By Dec. 13, 2020, Lu had paid an equivalent of C$180,000 in Chinese Yuan, all to Aierken’s personal accounts within China. Bank records and chat conversations that Lu shared with The Tyee corroborate her statements. During that time, Aierken introduced Lu to a nascent startup that focused on intellectual property.
In January 2021, Lu started remotely attending Venture Development Institute training classes for Start-up Visa Program applicants that Aierken arranged. They focused on human resources and management, plus investment in Canada. With limited English skills, she found it difficult to follow along, and asked Aierken if she could delay her classes. Aierken convinced her to stick with it, saying that he would find a way around any language requirements, she recalled.
Still finishing Venture Development Institute’s online classes, Lu packed five large suitcases and travelled with her family to Canada to start the next phase of their lives.
A devastating revelation
In April 2021, during the third wave of COVID-19 in B.C., Lu and her family arrived in Canada at Aierken’s repeated insistence. Lu recalls her family and friends being extremely worried for her because of the pandemic. “Everyone was certain that I would die in Canada.”
Living in China meant her move to Canada was complicated by censorship of internet information, which first began with the Great Chinese Firewall, a 20-plus year attempt to control the flow of information within the country. (Los Angeles Times journalists who report on Chinese communities have described switching between the Chinese and non-Chinese internet as “passing through customs,” as many popular Chinese apps require verifications through national identification cards to activate their account). It was difficult to jump the Great Chinese Firewall to verify information regarding immigration procedures and the family’s planned move to Canada, said Lu.
Aierken had already lived for years in Canada. He promised Lu that he would take care of things, which was a big help at the time, she said.
Faced with an unfamiliar environment and language barriers, Lu heavily relied on Aierken in her first few months in the country. Lu arranged a purchase of a car through Aierken so that she would minimize possible COVID-19 exposure points on public transit. Aierken helped enrol Lu’s children in local schools.
Through Aierken’s connections, the family rented a townhouse in Saanich, a municipality that neighbours Victoria. At one point, she considered him almost like a brother.
But soon she said that she started seeing inconsistencies between what Aierken was saying and what he was doing. When the family initially arrived, they were stranded in a Vancouver hotel with no arranged car for them to get to Victoria, despite Aierken’s promises that things would be ready for her arrival. Shortly after leaving the period of mandated post-international travel isolation, Aierken asked her for another payment of $90,000. She paid it, all the while wondering why he was so quick to receive money, yet slow on everything else — receipts confirming payment, support with her entrepreneurial venture, or simply answering her questions about how the immigration process was going.
That same month, in June 2021, she says that Aierken convinced her to join a new startup visa venture, a fitness project called Pocket Gym that was described to her as wholly controlled by Aierken. “We didn’t have any other choice. The money was already paid,” Lu said.
She would not see any progress in this new entrepreneurial project for over a year.
On May 25, 2022, Lu, along with three other people who were also part of the fitness project, grilled Aierken on the irregularities of their immigration experience in a two-hour video meeting. The Tyee reviewed a recording of this meeting.
The next day, Lu called Aierken and asked for her money back. A recording of the 21-minute phone call, provided to The Tyee, shows that she repeatedly asked Aierken to return her money so that she could withdraw from the program.
“That money is our entire family’s hope,” Lu told him during the call.
Aierken, who avoided answering Lu’s repeated requests for a refund, told her that the money was out of his control. He spoke about how well the fitness venture was progressing and how if Lu left, it would derail other members on her team.
“It’s illegal to create fake receipts in Canada,” Lu said to Aierken in the call.
“I know,” he replied.
“Consider this: you’re here in Canada, you’re young. You can have a great future… this $300,000 isn’t worth it,” Lu continued. “Even now, you’re still like a little brother [to me].”
“But after tonight, we’re going to be nothing. It’s going to be business,” Lu said.
Since then, the two haven’t talked. Lu has filed a report to local police, contacted the Canada Revenue Agency, looked up lawyers, and even written to former B.C. Premier John Horgan, but she doesn’t know what would work.
In July, she went public with her experience. She posted a short message on various Chinese social media pages. That’s when she started receiving a torrent of messages from other people, that said that they had also been tricked by Aierken, both in Canada and in China.
Chris Somers of Canadian International Angel Investors would later inform her over email on Aug. 10 of this year that Aierken’s Pocket Gym proposal was suspended.
That email confirmed Lu's suspicions that the receipts she had received were fake. The receipts had Chinese characters on them, something that isn’t typical in Canadian financial transactions. The receipts she received from Aierken were doctored, she discovered, and her money had not been going to the required Canadian investment.
She emailed Canadian International Angel Investors and Venture Development Institute, who provided her receipts showing that combined, the two companies had only received $20,000 transferred on her behalf by Aierken, with the rest of the money — some $280,000 — unaccounted for. Venture Development Institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Tyee.
“I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want everyone to recognize me in Canada. I just want to live here, quietly,” said Lu. “But now that I’ve encountered this situation, I have to stand up and speak out.”
‘They are not legitimate’
After living in Victoria for more than a year, Lu has adopted a cat and her children are comfortably acclimated in local schools. But she still has little idea how she can proceed with her immigration aspirations. She’s in Canada with a temporary visa and she has to regularly travel out of the country to keep it valid.
The Tyee spoke to four families who signed service contract agreements and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Aierken for the purposes of immigrating through Canada’s Start-up Visa Program. Three shared transaction records that show Aierken, posing as someone associated with Canada’s Start-up Visa Program, received an estimated total of $800,000 after promising to help families navigate the immigration system. All four families say that Aierken has not provided what he had promised — immigration to Canada through the Start-up Visa Program. Lu claims that she is in contact with nine other parties who have been defrauded by Aierken.
When Lu found out that Aierken was in hot water for allegedly failing to pay restaurants and delivery contractors that were using Tutti, the B.C.-based food delivery service of which Aierken is the chief executive officer, she was devastated. A provincial restaurant organization estimates that the delivery service owes between $300,000 to $400,000 to various businesses in the province, as first reported by the Times Colonist.
“Maybe their money could be returned. But the immigration fees? How would he even begin to pay it back?” said Lu. She is in contact with nine other people who are like her, she said: large sums of money, given to Aierken with little to nothing to show for it. And she thinks that there could be more people with similar experiences. Idea Yolk’s website claims that they are working with 32 clients.
On Sept. 6, Canadian International Angel Investors and Canadian International Capital Inc. started a civil suit in B.C., suing Aierken for what they claim as damages for fraud arising from his wrongful use of fraudulent documents and invoices to falsely represent themselves as being affiliated with the two companies.
Since September, their company websites have been updated with a notice that says: “Mr. Aierken is not an employee or signing officer of either CIAI [Canadian International Angel Investors] or its parent company Canadian International Capital Inc. [CICI] nor are the companies that Mr. Aierken is associated with, Idea Yolk or Kavi Technology Ltd. [sic], in any way associated with CICI or CIAI.”
“Should you have received any documentation from Mr. Aierken, his associate Mr. Brice Bian, Idea Yolk or Kavl Technologies [sic] purporting to be from or associated with either CICI or CIAI they are not legitimate,” the notice continued.
Kavl Technology is also being sued by a local Victorian restaurant, J&J Wonton, who alleges that they had failed to pay more than $220,000 worth of payments, as first reported by Capital Daily.
Neither claim has been proven in court.
On Chinese social media websites, Brice the Bobcat continues to publish blog posts about immigration, with posts as recent as this September.
Videos posted from Brice the Bobcat’s account that show the house’s distinctive backyard match with satellite imagery of a house near Victoria that Bian owns, according to information obtained through the Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia.
The Tyee asked Bian over WeChat for comment regarding his business dealings with Aierken. He first responded in Mandarin with “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are saying?”
After further questions about his relationship with Aierken, Bian denied conducting any immigration business activities with anyone. He proceeded to block The Tyee on the chat platform: “If you have questions about immigration, you can ask. But a [WeChat] account like yours, claiming to be a reporter and asking odd questions, I’m sorry: deleted,” he wrote in Mandarin.
The Tyee was able to connect with a person associated with an active email address associated with a blockchain mobile game that Bian founded, but they did not respond to further questions for comment.
Bian has documented ties to Aierken. A previous version of Tutti’s website from September 2021, archived through the Wayback Machine lists a person named Bian Xiaochun as an e-commerce manager for Tutti. The startup platform Gust shows Brice Bian as a team member of Tutti’s parent company Kavl Technology, of which Aierken is the chief operating officer. In a 2019 article in Chinese media, Bian was described as a Tutti co-founder.
Since the Tutti controversy, Aierken has kept a low profile, refusing media requests. The Tyee made multiple attempts to reach Aierken over phone, email and WeChat and received no response. The Tyee also contacted a Pitt Meadows-based flight school that previously listed Aierken as an employee before he began receiving media attention this summer, but received no further reply.
Aierken is a registered director of the company, according to a company summary obtained from BC Registries and Online Services on Sept. 26. The flight school is the most recent business that Aierken is associated with, having changed its name from a numbered company to its current name in August 2021. On Nov. 1, a man who answered Aierken’s number hung up the phone after The Tyee reporter identified himself and asked for an interview. He refused to identify himself, and hung up after saying, “I'm not sure where you are calling from.” Further calls received no response.
Inside Canada's Start-Up Visa Program
Canada’s Start-up Visa Program, designed to attract entrepreneurs to Canada, was first introduced in 2013 during the Stephen Harper administration and made permanent by Justin Trudeau’s government in 2018. It’s a program that employs designated non-governmental entities like Canadian International Angel Investors, that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says has expertise in Canada’s startup environment to help deliver its visa program.
Out of the 120 or 130 immigration programs that are offered by Canada’s provincial and federal governments, the Start-up Visa Program appears to be one of the simplest, said Siavash Shekarian, managing lawyer at Shekarian Law PC, a Toronto-based firm that markets its services in immigration and business law to the Persian-speaking community. All a person needs to do is to fulfil “very moderate” language requirements, give proof that you have enough money to live in Canada, have a qualifying business — essentially incorporating a business in Canada, Shekarian tells me — and have an innovative business idea that one can then take to an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada-designated entity to obtain a letter of support.
Acknowledging the fickle nature of success, Canada doesn’t require startups in the program to succeed. Up to five people who are considered owners of the startup can receive permanent residency, as long as they are providing “active and ongoing management” of the business from within Canada, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s website on the program.
About 20 nations across the world have similar programs, all hoping to attract the next big tech unicorn into their countries.
“There’s a competition in the west[ern] world to hunt the best entrepreneurs,” said Shekarian. “Canada is the only country that offers permanent residency from the get-go.”
But only a maximum of 1,000 people can get that through the Start-up Visa Program every year, a quota that the program shares with two other immigration streams, said Shekarian. It’s a tiny sliver of the 430,000-plus people who are becoming Canadian permanent residents every year.
“Outsourcing to these designated institutions has created an opportunity for a lot of things to go wrong,” said Pantea Jafari, a Toronto-based lawyer who focuses exclusively on immigration law.
"We have some organizations that are world famous, they’re very difficult [to get into],” added Shekarian. “At the same time, we have some designated organizations that are practically selling letters of support.”
‘A black hole of intermediaries’
In Canada, designated entities are also legally required to invest money into the ventures that they support: depending on the entity, that sum could range between $75,000 to $200,000.
“There is this black hole of intermediaries that operate in the system,” said Jafari. “Intermediaries who will assist the applicant in coming up with a business idea and preparing their pitch to these [designated entities]. And they charge a large sum of money for it.”
Oftentimes, these intermediaries will have an existing relationship with an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada-designated entity and they will tell their prospective clients that they can guarantee a letter of support if clients are able to pay their fees, said Jafari.
Both Jafari and Shekarian said that Canada’s Start-up Visa Program lacks transparency and needs improvement, particularly in adapting to the cultural differences of potential Canadian immigrants. Information on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s website should be multilingual, said Jafari, to reflect the diversity of Canada’s new immigrants.
“When IRCC does these trips to countries overseas to try to promote Canada, simultaneously, they should be educating applicants on how to check that their representative is licensed, train them in the culture of asking for copies of what’s been filed, asking to verify things ahead of time,” said Jafari. “In 99 per cent of the consultations that I have seen, the person has absolutely no idea what’s been filed on their behalf.”
Canadian International Angel Investors is an intermediary that is one of the eight approved angel investor groups active in Canada’s Start-up Visa Program. When The Tyee asked them to clarify their previous claims to The Tyee stating that they have no relationship with Kaisa Aierken, Glen Dexter shared the following response via email on Nov. 10.
“Mr Aierken is not and never has been an employee or executive or officer of CIAI. Nor has he ever been a director, agent or signing officer of CIAI. Nor has CIAI ever authorized Mr. Aierken to act as our representative. We understand that Mr. Aierken has held himself out to a number of people to be an employee of CIAI and that he has signed agreements and receipts for money purporting to be on behalf of CIAI when he had no authority to do so.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined to comment on Canadian International Angel Investor’s legal actions against Aierken. “IRCC isn’t a party to that court action, and its specific relation to the Start-up Visa Program isn’t clear,” said Peter Liang, an IRCC media representative.
“Designated organizations typically do not focus solely on foreign entrepreneurs and the SUV [Start-up Visa] Program, but also make investments or provide support to domestic entrepreneurs,” Liang continued.
“Designated private-sector organizations vet proposals they receive from prospective entrepreneurs with a high degree of scrutiny before they make a commitment,” said Liang. “Venture capital funds, angel investor groups and business incubators have expertise in Canada’s startup environment and assess what startups they want to invest in and support.”
A search of the current list of designated entities for the Start-up Visa Program will show that they hold one thing in common: their staff are overwhelmingly white, said Shekarian. For him, this raises questions about the degree to which cultural sensitivity is part of their work — especially considering that these organizations are often working with racialized immigrants whose first language is not English. “Did [they] ever go out and say — hey, we’re looking for people to designate because they’re culturally relevant?’” he asked.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, the IRCC’s Liang said that they inspect and suspend entities who are acting suspiciously or have not met their requirements. In cases where an entity does not meet the conditions or has submitted false, misleading or inaccurate information, they can also revoke the designation of an entity entirely.
An internal audit of Canada’s Immigration Pilot Programs published in March 2022, conducted by Canada’s Internal Audit & Accountability Branch, stated that designated entities were not required to report back to IRCC about program implementation.
The same audit also noted that the pilot program had a “heavier reliance” on program evaluations rather than regular monitoring and reporting.
Liang also noted that the industry associations that represent and oversee Start-up Visa designated entities are “best positioned to advise on what organizations should be designated under the program.”
IRCC did not respond to The Tyee’s request for an interview for this article. For individuals who have already submitted applications for permanent residency, Liang recommended applicants contact IRCC’s Client Support Centre.
“When you outsource something, you also have the responsibility to monitor that your contractor is doing its job,” said Shekarian.
“But [the government] is not doing that,” he continued. "They’re just pointing the finger to someone else. They don’t want to take ownership.”
The path forward
Having spent more than 18 months in Canada with no Start-up Visa approval in sight, Lu is considering her next steps.
“What can we do? The children are already here,” Lu said. “We’re the adults. We can’t stay at home with our children, cry, and lose the will to live,” she continued.
The best hope right now is to keep working at her language skills so that she can give her children a future in Canada, Lu said. Demoralized by her attempts to access the justice system in Canada, she’s hired lawyers in China who she says will begin legal action once Aierken’s home province of Xinjiang emerges from a longstanding COVID-19 lockdown.
“Ultimately, I don’t know what will happen,” Lu said.
Lu and her family are still living in the townhouse that Aierken arranged for them to rent. They’re looking to move, hopefully somewhere closer to where her children are starting another year of school. When asked about next steps, Lu sketches out uncertain plans to contact Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Canada’s border agency — or perhaps trying her luck with a member of Parliament.
“All of our previous hopes were extinguished. Now we can only try again.”