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No pledge to create new Canadian health care jobs in Chinese takeover

The Anbang Insurance Group's building is pictured in Beijing on Wednesday, March 16, 2016.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

The Trudeau government came under fire on Wednesday for its decision to allow a Beijing conglomerate with ties to powerful families in China to gain a foothold in Canada's health-care system despite a murky ownership structure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended letting Anbang Insurance buy a retirement-home chain that is British Columbia's highest-billing provider of assisted-living and residential-care services, saying it is part of his mandate to "create middle-class jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity for Canadians."

But the undertaking Anbang gave the federal government has no specific promises of new Canadian jobs, even though elder care is booming in Canada.

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Read more: Ottawa approves sale of B.C. retirement-home chain to Chinese group with murky ownership

Related: Canadian investors find real estate strategy shifts along with Chinese economy

Related: Ethics Commissioner to question Trudeau on cash-for-access fundraisers

All the Chinese company has agreed to do is "maintain at least the current levels of full-time and part-time employees at facilities" operated by Vancouver-based Retirement Concepts, according to information provided to The Globe and Mail by the federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

It has also promised not to close existing retirement homes and to "ensure a significant ongoing role for Canadians in the business" and to provide financing in the event of expansions.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose led off Question Period on Wednesday by asking Mr. Trudeau how the Canadian government could green-light the Anbang takeover when the company has an opaque ownership structure that has frustrated U.S. regulators and last year was reported to have discouraged Wall Street's Morgan Stanley from acting as an adviser to the firm.

"Can the Prime Minister please tell us exactly who owns Anbang Insurance," Ms. Ambrose asked.

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Mr. Trudeau ignored that question and defended the approval as good for the Canadian economy.

"We have a policy that allows us to draw in global investments to create jobs and opportunities for Canadians while at the same time ensuring that it is in Canadians' benefit and the benefit of our country that we move forward in a thoughtful and responsible way. That is exactly what we did in this case."

Anbang has faced repeated questions in the United States over who actually owns the giant firm and what ties it has to the Chinese state. The New York Times last year reported that 92 per cent of Anbang was held by firms fully or partly owned by relatives of Anbang's chairman, Wu Xiaohui; or his wife, Zhuo Ran, the granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping; or Chen Xiaolu, son of a famous People's Liberation Army general.

On paper, a majority stake in Retirement Concepts – believed to exceed $1-billion in value – is being sold to a Chinese-owned company called Cedar Tree Investment Canada. That is the deal that federal officials in Ottawa announced they had approved this week. However, Cedar Tree is the company that Anbang is using to make the acquisition.

NDP health critic Don Davies called the Anbang deal a "foreign takeover of vital health-care and seniors facilities" in B.C., and asked the Liberals whether the purchase was ever discussed at one of their cash-for-access fundraisers.

Mr. Davies was referring to a Globe and Mail story that reported the host of a cash-for-access fundraiser in November, 2016, at which Mr. Trudeau was the main draw, later said he suggested the Prime Minister allow more Chinese investment in Canadian seniors' care. There was no indication any specific deal or Chinese company was mentioned during the Vancouver event.

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Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said the foreign investment was "in the best interests of Canadians" and noted that Ottawa consulted with British Columbia on the matter. The B.C. government says it is unconcerned because it believes provincial health authorities will ensure health-care delivery to the residents remains up to Canadian standards.

The B.C. government paid Retirement Concepts $86.5-million in the 2015-16 fiscal year, more than any of the 130 similar providers. Family-owned since 1988, the company has about 24 retirement communities, mostly in B.C.

The Vancouver firm last fall defended the sale by saying the company's executive team will operate the retirement-nursing homes on behalf of Anbang.

A new real estate report from Royal LePage analyzing trends in the last quarter of 2016 suggests that the GTA will become the hottest housing market in the country in 2017, surpassing Vancouver.
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