More than 12 years after a propane explosion in Toronto killed two people, levelled large parts of a neighbourhood and sent thousands running from their homes in fear, those convicted on regulatory charges have yet to pay more than $5 million in fines imposed by an Ontario court.
They are among the hundreds of unpaid fines worth more than $1.3 billion that provincial and territorial governments across Canada are owed but have failed to collect. Some of them date back decades.
“With no statute of limitations on provincial offences fines, some of these fines go back to the ’80s,” said Susan Garossino, director of court services for the City of Toronto, which has more than $550 million in unpaid fines on its books.
“Our earliest fine, I think, might even be from the ’70s.”
A CBC News investigation conducted over the past five months found the vast majority of the more than $1.3 billion owed across Canada is small fines, with a number of notable repeat offenders.
The fines relate to everything from environmental violations to tax infractions and unpaid parking tickets.
CBC News asked justice departments in every province and territory for records of unpaid fines, and every one except Alberta provided some information — not the names of the entities in default but, usually, the amount of the fine and the date it was levied. (Some additional data was provided by municipalities and other provincial agencies.)
Some jurisdictions provided data on all unpaid fines; others only on certain violations, so the data gives only a partial picture of the total amount owed across the country.
Someone owes Regina more than $68,000 for parking tickets
Someone in Regina, for instance, owes more than $68,000 in parking tickets accumulated over just four years, from 2014 to 2018.
There are 30 individuals in Regina who together owe the city $529,160 in parking fines dating as far back as January 2006.
In Toronto, there are more than 10,000 offenders who each have 25 or more defaulted fines, many relating to parking or driving offences, according to a 2018 auditor general’s report.
“It’s shocking,” said Jon Reid, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“It’s a huge amount of money. And I think that would go a long way to assist the city in supporting all the different budgets and proposals they’re trying to move forward on.”
Even large fines go uncollected
About one-sixth of that more than $1.3 billion owed are large fines, where individuals or companies have defaulted on penalties of more than $50,000.
Information provided by justice departments indicated there are 890 fines over $50,000 in default worth more than $220 million overall.
The largest single unpaid fine the investigation uncovered is in Quebec. In 2019, a judge issued a fine of more than $13 million under the provincial Distribution of Financial Products and Services Act.
The oldest unpaid large fine dated back to 1994. Someone in Newfoundland and Labrador was fined $72,323.30 for criminal offences involving driving infractions.
Many of the largest fines in the country were issued under provincial tobacco tax acts and the federal Excise Tax Act. Unpaid tobacco-related fines made up the biggest category of unpaid large fines, totalling more than $105 million nationally. Most of that is owed in Quebec.
Quebec also had the highest overall total owing from unpaid fines over $50,000 — more than $162 million.
But nine provinces and territories are each owed more than $1 million from large fines in default. Yukon is owed $547,000, Saskatchewan has $181,800 on its books, and Nunavut says it has no fines owing above $50,000.
Other types of unpaid large fines relate to securities and tax violations, as well as occupational health and safety infractions.
Nearly 20 per cent of the types of statutes in default over $50,000 involved environmental offences.
“It’s extremely troubling,” said Ramani Nadarajah, a former prosecutor for the Ministry of Environment who is now counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, a free legal clinic and advocacy organization.
“When it comes to environmental offences, the primary objective of sentencing in environmental cases is to ensure general deterrence. If people know these fines are not being collected, then they’ll simply not treat these types of offences very seriously.”
The largest environmental fines in default stem from the Sunrise Propane explosion in August 2008.
The blast at a fuel depot in the Downsview area of Toronto created a massive fireball that could be seen across the city and forced the evacuation of 12,000 people.
Sunrise employee Parminder “Rocky” Saini, 23, was killed. Bob Leek, 55, a Toronto firefighter, died of a heart attack while fighting the raging fire that followed.
A numbered company, Sunrise Propane and its two directors were convicted of seven charges under the Environmental Protection Act and two violations of Ontario’s Health and Safety Act.
They were fined a total of more than $5.3 million plus victim surcharges. An appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling in 2017.
The City of Toronto confirmed $5,642,058 is outstanding.
In addition to the fines, a court in 2014 granted a $23-million settlement to the people affected by the explosion.
There is no record of any bankruptcies involving Sunrise Propane or the related numbered company. Corporate records filed with the province show both are still technically active corporations, though there is no indication whether they are still operating. A property search did not turn up any property in Ontario owned by either of the company directors who owe fines.
CBC News attempted to contact Sunrise Propane and its directors for comment, but they could not be reached.
“It’s still raw. The wounds are still raw there,” said Saini’s brother, Vikram.
Saini said he and his family were not aware that Sunrise and its directors had not paid their fines.
“I am very surprised,” he said. “They found the company doing the wrong thing. Even after they find that, no justice to my parents, no justice to be found there.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s attorney general said in a statement that “municipalities administer the courts in which Provincial Offences Act matters are heard.”
“Questions about collections of unpaid fines should be directed to municipalities, as they are responsible for the enforcement and collection of resulting fines.”
Provinces downloaded collection to cities
The City of Toronto has various methods of collecting unpaid or defaulted fines. It refers them to external collection agencies, adds them to municipal tax bills, sends notification to the Ministry of Transportation to suspend a driver’s licence or deny vehicle licence plate registration.
The city can also take civil enforcement action in the Superior Court of Justice.
With Sunrise, the city has referred the overdue fines to collection agencies. It has not, however, commenced civil enforcement with the company’s directors.
“Most people pay their fines voluntarily,” said Garossino.
At the same time, $100 million of Toronto’s unpaid fines are more than 20 years old.
“The enforcement mechanisms and the computer systems and the access to information that was available to courts 20 years ago is certainly changed in today’s landscape,” Garossino said.
“Collection agencies, particularly, wouldn’t have had perhaps the information we have today to find individuals as we’re more digital as a community. So, the tools have improved for collections, and our collection rates have improved on these defaulted fines as a result.”
But others say some fines can pile up because of systemic breakdowns and bureaucratic inertia.
Traffic convictions can take a year to get through the courts and then that information has to get to the Ministry of Transportation, says paralegal Mark Breslow, who specializes in helping people fight traffic tickets.
“They’re human beings. Sometimes, there’s a breakdown in communication,” he said. “There are infinite numbers of ways for the system to mess up.
“In order for the system to change, in order for that to happen, there would have to be a political push. Now, that’s not really going to happen because that’s not really glitzy.”