Melissa Holman, 40, a pianist turned entrepreneur, has said on the website of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association of Canada that she was moved to help newcomers after a chance encounter with a nanny who dreamed of a better life in Canada. She later became head of an agency that places caregivers around the world and then founded the TFWA, a support organization for foreigners.
On the organization's website, Ms. Holman says immigrants are sometimes unwitting targets of those looking to profit from Canada's booming trade in international workers.
"Unfortunately, some lawyers, immigration consultants and agencies have the tendency to hold monetary power over immigrants," she wrote.
Calgary police said on Tuesday that the alleged victim, a 55-year-old woman from Japan who is in Canada on a student visa, was told she couldn't work in Canada and persuaded that she had to hand over the deeds to two homes and $410,000, otherwise she could be deported or her assets seized.
"Most immigrants don't come with this amount of wealth, but this wealth was accumulated through ... a lifetime of working and inheritance," Staff Sergeant Geoff Gawlinski said. "This person obviously felt threatened by what was told to her by the accused, and felt motivated to turn over all of her lifelong assets to stay in Canada."
Ms. Holman, who remains president of the association, cancelled a scheduled press conference on Tuesday and her lawyer did not return a request for comment. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Co-workers said Ms. Holman has helped thousands of people since the organization was founded two years ago and that the case is based on a misunderstanding or vendetta.
"She's an amazing person," said a colleague who asked not to be identified. "There are two sides to every story. Eventually it will come out."
Police and those who work with immigrants say the charges shine a light on the problems of trusting newcomers who are unfamiliar with Canadian laws. In this case, police said the alleged victim's assets had in fact never been in any danger of being seized.
The alleged victim in Calgary did not respond to a request for an interview, but police said she was referred to Ms. Holman's association to assist with a visa matter. Police contend that over a two-week period last summer, the alleged victim agreed to sign over two homes – one where she resided, the second an investment rental property – and provide banking information. By September, friends reported the situation to police.
After consultations with a special prosecutor, charges were laid last week. Police disclosed the case publicly on Tuesday.
Ms. Holman faces five counts of fraud over $5,000 and five counts of theft over $5,000.
She is expected to appear in court on Aug. 21. Investigators have recovered $90,000 and restored ownership of both residences to the alleged victim.
Brandon St. Jean, director of Immigrant Services Calgary, a registered charity with a 35-year track record, said newcomers who bring significant assets to Canada are the perfect "recipe for unscrupulous folks."
He urges new Canadians and temporary foreign workers to research organizations before they turn to them for advice.
"When things like this happen, it just creates so much distrust around the program and the system as a whole," Mr. St. Jean said. "It creates distrust on the end of new Canadians, but it also creates distrust on those of us who have been born and raised in Canada around the whole issue of immigration."
The Alberta Federation of Labour, which has long complained about abuse in the temporary foreign worker program, said the fraud charges demonstrate that the system should be scrapped.
Ottawa counted 300,000 temporary foreign workers across the country as of Dec. 1, 2011, and of those, more than 58,000 were in Alberta, making it the third most popular destination behind Ontario and British Columbia.
Globe and Mail, Tues Jun 12 2012
Byline: Dawn Walton