It’s been an international enigma for the last two years: Who really owns the lavish Vancouver Island estate. Where Prince Harry and Meghan wintered in 2020 as they reportedly hashed out their plan to step back from official royal duties?
Is it the Russian-born billionaire who several media outlets linked to the property? Is it Canadian mining magnate Frank Giustra, as (erroneously) reported by the New York Post’s Page Six?
CBC and Radio-Canada found the answer, and it does indeed involve a Russian. But it wasn’t easy — it took an international leak of tax-haven data, access to a company’s. Internal records and intense research. All that, experts say, shows once again just. How opaque Canada is when it comes to assets like real estate and who owns it.
“It is very easy for criminals around the world to be laundering their dirty money in Canada. And buying real estate,” said Kevin Come as, a lawyer and financial transparency expert. “And we have no way of knowing who they are or [the] ability to chase their money. “
From B.C. to Caribbean to Channel Islands
There is no suggestion of criminality surrounding the Mille Fleurs mansion in North Saanich. About 30 kilometres up island from Victoria. But it certainly shields its owner well.
For starters, unlike with most properties in B.C., you can’t find it in the provincial land registry. Each homeowner on the land has shares in the country club corresponding to their lot.
The club’s records are not public. But CBC/Radio-Canada was able to review an internal spreadsheet that tracks club owners’ property tax. It lists a British Virgin Islands company called JEMC Management as the owner of Mille Fleurs.
Of Jersey, a tiny tax haven off the coast of France. The trustee is a company whose sole officer lives in Cyprus.
The Andromeda connection
Two years ago, as speculation about who was really hosting Harry and Meghan hit fever pitch. A name that kept emerging was billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner, arguably the highest-profile Russian-born investor in Silicon Valley.
He knows Canadian music producer David Foster,Harry knows Meghan Markle from their school days.
Foster, a 16-time Grammy winner, even gave an interview to Britain’s Daily Mail about the mansion in 2020, where he said he’s been friends with the mansion owner for years. The music producer said that, although Milner wasn’t the owner, he had helped Milner rent the house “about five or six years ago… for a short time.”
Milner-run investment funds took early positions in Facebook and Twitter before those companies went public, stakes that generated mega profits. But as journalists revealed in 2017, about half the capital for his firm’s investments in Twitter came from VTB Bank, the No. 2 bank in Russia, which is majority-owned by the state.
“It’s probably one of the two banks that fund most connected government officials and oligarchs,” said Jamison Firestone, who practised business law in Moscow for nearly two decades and has become a leading figure in the global campaign against Russian state corruption. He called VTB “a slush fund” for the Russian government.
Milner’s Facebook play, meanwhile, was partly seeded with money from a company that had itself obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from a subsidiary of the Russian state energy company Gazprom, the same media investigation showed. An oligarch named Alisher Usmanov ran the Gazprom subsidiary and eventually obtained a stake in Milner’s Facebook investment.
Milner has said he was just doing business, seeking funders and making investments. While VTB Bank and Gazprom are under sanctions in Canada, the U.S. and the EU, that didn’t start until 2014 — three years after he raised the money.
Milner has not raised capital from Russian investors since 2011. Usmanov was only added to Canada’s sanction list this March. Milner has never been sanctioned, and isn’t generally considered to be an oligarch.