The unhappily married couple was introduced by an immigration consultant. Before their marriage, the husband transferred significant sums of money and a piece of real estate to his Canadian bride-to-be.
Meanwhile, the husband had divorced his previous wife in China just months before the wedding on suspiciously friendly terms.
All of these circumstances raised red flags for B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ward Branch when he was asked to write an order for the divorce of Rongren He and Ying Zi (Anna) Shen.
“I am concerned that the parties’ marital and financial relationship was designed, in whole or in part, to mislead Canadian immigration authorities and/or Chinese currency regulators,” Branch wrote in a judgment on Tuesday.
Despite those concerns, the judge said it was still possible to grant a divorce because “the evidence … does not establish with sufficient certainty that the marriage was a sham.” He also saw no evidence of a plan to eventually divorce, and noted that the two-year union was marked by the frequent arguments of many real but doomed marriages.
“The parties’ conflicts during the marriage at least suggest that they were trying to wrestle with their problems rather than simply biding their time before a pre-planned divorce,” Branch wrote.
Shen and He both represented themselves in court and contact information could not be located for either of them. According to the judge’s decision, Shen has now returned to China.
‘Evasive’ testimony from unhappy couple
Branch’s lengthy judgment is split between the standard tallying of relationship troubles and marital assets that can be found in any divorce decision, and a long list of suspicions about the legitimacy of the marriage itself.
It begins by noting that He, 66, and Shen, 56, both testified through a translator in court.
“Either the interpretation was poor or the parties were being evasive. Unfortunately, my assessment is that it was more the latter rather than the former,” Branch said.
The judge then detailed why he has so many doubts about the marriage.
Shen has been a Canadian citizen since April 2017, just a few months after she was introduced to He by an immigration consultant, according to the judgment. The couple married that August.
He had just divorced his first wife under Chinese law in January 2017, on terms that Branch says suggest it “may have been a sham.”
He claimed to have abandoned all property claims in China under those terms. Then, just two weeks after the divorce, his ex-wife “purported to lend” him $600,000, the judge wrote.
“Although the respondent suggested that this loan could be explained on the basis that their divorce was amicable, this transaction is unusual to say the least. If the respondent required funds, one would have assumed that his ex-wife would have been one of his last options, not his first,” Branch wrote.
To date, He has not paid back that loan and his ex-wife has not demanded repayment, the judgment notes.
He also claimed to be penniless when he arrived in Canada, but Branch said that may have been a “charade.” Once in the country, “his friends and relatives showered him with large cash ‘gifts'” totalling more than $300,000.
He purchased an apartment at the University of British Columbia for $1.1 million shortly before the marriage, but then gave Shen a 99-per-cent ownership stake, even though she contributed nothing to the purchase, according to the decision.
Details like this, Branch wrote, suggest “the respondent’s marriage proposal to the claimant may have been more in the nature of a commercial arrangement designed to facilitate the respondent’s efforts to obtain immigration status in Canada in return for certain financial benefits.”
The judgment also notes that He made cash transfers to Shen adding up to more than $130,000 in the weeks before the marriage, which He testified were for business purposes.
Breakup or ‘contractual dispute’?
The couple separated in December 2018 in a collapse that Branch said “may more accurately be viewed as a contractual dispute triggered by the claimant’s determination that the promised financial benefits were not provided.”
That would explain why Shen took jewellery worth $80,800 with her when she left He, the judge suggested.
In a Feb. 3, 2019 text message to He, quoted in the decision, Shen addressed her husband’s concerns about the missing jewellery.
“The jewellery pieces are my wedding gifts from you. Are you trying to get them back? Having obtained the status, you can legally live here permanently and the mission of these rocks are completed, right?” she wrote.
In their text exchanges, He wrote that he’d given Shen “all the money I brought from China,” but then denied in court that he had any assets in his home country, according to the judgment.
In his divorce order, Branch equally divided ownership of the disputed jewellery and awarded He 75-per-cent ownership of the UBC apartment.
However, he denied Shen’s claim for spousal support and said each member of the couple should each keep full ownership of all other properties and debts in their respective names.