Joy Thompson has a dream of reuniting her family and having her daughters finally join her in Canada.
Thompson came here in 2004 as a domestic worker to help support her children and put them through school back in the Philippines.
“If I did not go out of my country, there’s nothing for them. There’s nothing for us,” she said.
Thompson saw her children occasionally over the years. Her son, also a nurse, works in Yellowknife.
When Thompson’s boss introduced her to the owners of a Toronto-based employment agency in late 2018, Thompson felt the dream of bringing her two daughters to Canada was finally about to come true.
Her daughters, Aubrey and April Nuval, were working as nurses in the United Arab Emirates. Thompson jumped at the opportunity when Rose and Bert Smith, co-owners of Apex Connection Corp., told her they could help get them Canadian visas.
But almost five years later, her daughters remain in the U.A.E., after their arrangement with the agency evolved into a dispute and the family found themselves with nowhere to turn for recourse.
Last fall, the federal government announced a new immigration plan that would see Canada welcome half a million immigrants per year by 2025, a move that could lead to an increase in those offering prospective newcomers help in obtaining a Canadian work permit.
Experts told CBC News it’s important to only give money to a licensed immigration professional who is authorized to give immigration advice.
Service agreements signed
Thompson said that within a week of meeting the Smiths at the hotel where she worked in Niagara Falls, Ont., Rose Smith told her that a close friend in Newfoundland needed workers at the seniors home she operated.
Rhonda Simms, the owner of Pleasantview Manor in Lewisporte, N.L., needed personal care attendants, Smith told Thompson. The Nuval sisters were willing to take $15-an-hour positions, well below their nursing qualifications to get permanent residency in Canada.
Thompson signed two service agreements with Smith’s agency — Apex Connection Corp. — for $24,000, or $12,000 each for Aubrey and April and their partners. The nurses had raised most of the money and, with help from family, had gathered the funds for the agreements.
The agreements included processing their federal immigration applications, their provincial applications and finding an employer willing to sponsor their permanent residency application.
However, by early 2021, more than two years after the agreements were signed, the job offers were gone.
Ironically, the relationship that Thompson once described as “God sent” spiralled into an acrimonious dispute between the Smiths and the Nuvals over who was to blame for the process falling apart.
CBC News has been granted access to the Nuvals’ immigration files, in addition to email correspondence with them, their mother and with Smith over more than a two-year period.
Thompson said Rose Smith never allowed them access to their immigration applications. At one point in September 2019, when Thompson asked for an update, Smith told her to stop sending so many emails.
“I asked a friend for a favour to sponsor your daughters and she agreed to help me. But at this time, I think I prefer to refund you and close their applications,” wrote Smith.
The Nuvals chose to stick with Smith. Aubrey Nuval’s visa was approved first, but when she asked to speak to the employer Aubrey claims, “Rose didn’t allow us to contact her.”
Smith told CBC News in a written statement she did not prevent the Nuvals from speaking with the prospective employer, and the allegation they were not given a chance to see what was going on in their applications is untrue.
In December 2020, Smith told Aubrey Nuval that the employer had put hiring her on hold because of the impact potential exposure to COVID-19 might have on seniors at her retirement home.
This did not make sense to Thompson and her daughters, who had both been vaccinated in the U.A.E., and knew that Canada was allowing foreign workers to enter the country if they were quarantined for 14 days.
They reached out to an officer with Newfoundland and Labrador Immigration, which administered the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program under which the Nuvals applied.
“We find the information your agent is giving you to be concerning,” the immigration officer wrote.
The officer said the disconnect between the Nuvals and the employer was of great concern to their office, adding it was important they have access to their work permit and permanent residency applications at all times.
The officer also warned them about immigration fraud, and suggested they check if their agent was registered.
N.L. Immigration put the Nuvals’ applications on hold to investigate, and asked them to send a copy of their signed agreement with their agent in Canada.
Not a registered consultant
Under Canada’s Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the only people who can charge a fee for providing immigration advice are lawyers and paralegals who are members in good standing of a Canadian provincial or territorial law society, notaries who are in good standing with Chamber of Notaries of Quebec or citizenship or immigration consultants who are members in good standing of the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC.)
It turned out Rose Smith was none of those, and therefore not authorized to provide immigration services for a fee.
“I know that we should have researched first,” said Aubrey Nuval. “But I didn’t expect that there is such a thing in Canada.”
The Nuvals decided to retain an immigration paralegal to become their new authorized representative. Soon after, Simms withdrew her job offers.
“The employer is not familiar with that individual,” Smith wrote in an email to Thompson. “She is my friend and only sponsored and hired the girls because of our relationship.”
There’s no indication Simms did anything wrong. CBC News reached out to Simms for a response. She said she had no comment but said she wished the best for the Nuvals.
“Our dreams shattered,” said Thompson. “My hope of being with them disappeared.”
When Thompson asked Apex Connection Corp. for their money back, Smith said she did the work they paid her to do, adding “Aubrey already obtained her visa and April is very close to receiving hers.”
The Smiths told CBC News they offered to meet and discuss a compromise with the Nuvals but they declined.
The Smiths also said neither of them is an immigration consultant, nor have they ever held themselves out to be.
When asked by CBC News why she was offering immigration services without a licence, Rose Smith said Apex retained a lawyer “throughout the endorsement process and to represent the Nuvals’ work permit and permanent resident applications.”
Thompson said they never heard from Apex’s lawyer, never knew his name and the only person who ever gave them immigration advice was Rose Smith.
Aubrey Nuval filed a complaint with the Law Society of Ontario, which concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation that Apex’s lawyer engaged in professional misconduct.
“The issues that you have raised relate more closely to the service provided by the certified immigration consultant,” the resolution counsel wrote to Aubrey in an email.
So the family reached out to the federal regulatory authority, the Canadian College of Immigration Consultants (CICC).
Ironically, the fact that Smith is not a licensed member means the CICC cannot discipline her even if it found wrongdoing.
The issue of unregulated consultants charging foreign workers for immigration services is not a new phenomenon in Canada, but one John Murray, president and CEO of the CICC, is trying to bring under control.
“Unlicensed practitioners have been extremely active in every aspect of Canadian immigration,” said Murray.
The CICC was created by federal legislation in November 2021 to replace the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICRC). In addition to licensing and regulating consultants, it was given greater investigative powers.
The CICC has a “very limited power to bring injunctions against unlicensed practitioners,” said Murray, adding that it has asked the federal government to amend the legislation to give it more power to curb this practice.
“We’re still waiting for an answer.”
Few remedies, experts say
Phil Mooney, a regulated Canadian immigration consultant who has served as an adviser to the Canada Border Services Agency and IRCC, and has examined the Nuvals’ immigration case, says there are regulated professions in this country “in order to provide protection to the public.”
Mooney said had Thompson signed service agreements with a licensed immigration consultant or a lawyer, their respective regulatory bodies have mechanisms in place that help protect clients.
“The contract has to be between ourselves and the end user that stipulates how much it costs and what services are being provided and how they can have access to the regulatory body in case there’s a problem,” said Mooney.
“For lawyers and consultants, if you take money from a client, that money should go into your trust account.”
According to the Law Society of Ontario, licensed lawyers are required to maintain a separate client trust ledger account for each client to ensure that monies relating to one client are not misused to the benefit of another.
CBC News has obtained bank receipts that show at least some of the money Thompson paid went into Rose Smith’s personal bank account.
CBC News has confirmed this is not the first time clients have accused Rose Smith of improperly handling their immigration files and their money.
Before starting Apex Connection Corp. in 2016, Smith had practised as an immigration lawyer under her previous married name, Rose-Laure Noel, at the Toronto firm Noel & Associates.
In 2014, the Law Society of Upper Canada — now the Law Society of Ontario — found Noel guilty of professional misconduct for failing to co-operate fully with its investigation into complaints from five clients.
The investigation involved the fees she charged and how she handled those fees. Noel was also found guilty of practising law while under suspension.
Noel’s licence to practise law was revoked in both Ontario and Quebec, where she had practised under her maiden name, Rose Legagneur.
The first complaint came in 2008, from a client known in court files as E.T., involving work Noel had done for him on immigration and family law issues.
An investigation was opened that looked into, among other concerns, issues related to Noel’s billing of services, including whether the retainers she received from E.T. were deposited to a trust account.
A law society hearing panel found Noel guilty of professional misconduct for failing to co-operate with its forensic auditor during its investigation.
The chair of the panel wrote in her summary that Noel “did not take seriously the need to be candid and helpful to the society.”
Clients A.D., M.D. and D.S.
In 2011, the law society received letters from three more clients — A.D., M.D., and D.S. — all complaining about the services of Noel in their immigration cases.
The society repeatedly sent letters to Noel requesting responses to the allegations and the complete original files of the complainants, plus 16 additional clients.
Noel did not respond to most of the letters and did not send the requested information and documents to the society’s investigation department.
Practising while under suspension
In 2012, while still under investigation, Noel’s privileges were suspended with an undertaking not to practise law in Ontario, after she failed to pay annual dues.
A complaint was made to the society that while under that suspension, Noel intervened in a case involving a minor league football club east of Toronto and the suspension of one of its coaches — her fiancé at the time, Apex co-director Bert Smith.
Noel and Bert Smith — full name Englhieberth Sharon Smith — both testified before a society hearing committee that Noel had been acting purely on a voluntary basis. But evidence showed she wrote a letter to the Central Ontario Minor Football League saying she was the legal adviser for the club and that she had been retained by her client to forward a letter that was written on Noel & Associates Barristers & Solicitors letterhead.
In a followup email sent by Noel to the league, she wrote: “We wish to put you on notice that the decision to suspend Mr. Smith was not properly served.”
Noel eventually paid her dues, but in April 2013, the hearing panel ordered Noel’s licence to practise be suspended for a further 12 months for professional misconduct for failing to deposit the trust funds of 16 clients prior to completion of her services.
Later that year, in revoking her licence, the panel concluded that there were still complaints from members of the public for which their investigation could not be completed because of Noel’s non-co-operation with their requests to produce documents.
Civil court case
In 2019, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered defendants Rose Laure Noel and an associate to repay $40,000 to a Markham, Ont., woman for failing to provide immigration services.
In 2013, Keshuai Chai was looking for help to sponsor her brother and his wife to immigrate to Canada from China, when she was introduced to Noel.
After signing a service agreement that promised to secure provincial nominee applications and permanent residence applications, Keshuai Chai paid a deposit of $20,000.
A few months later, Chai was advised that Noel had secured a job offer for her brother and his wife, so her brother made the balance payment of another $20,000 as per the agreement.
Afterward, when Chai inquired about the status of their file, she was advised that such matters took months and years to process.
Four years on, when Chai asked for a status update, her call was not returned and shortly after, Noel blocked her phone number.
Noel refused to respond, communicate or send a copy of the Chais’s file to the new lawyer they retained to help.
In a written response to CBC News, the Smiths said that these were dated and unrelated matters that “distract from the fact that there has been no finding of misconduct in relation to the Nuval sisters.”
Thompson said she has learned a bitter lesson by not ensuring that Smith was a registered immigration consultant.
“I trusted my employer that much, without me looking or trying to search if she is licensed or not,” said Thompson.
Thompson has advice for anyone trying to help a family member immigrate to Canada.
“Don’t trust easily,” she said. “Search first, search many many times. Make sure … to see if they are real … if it’s a legal immigration consultant.”