All three levels of government said they wanted to find out what went wrong with Quest University in Squamish, BC, after the institution revealed it was suspending operations indefinitely at the end of this academic year.
And newly released audit documents from the Canada Revenue Agency have local politicians raising questions about the university’s financial history.
HISTORY OF QUEST
Quest opened in 2007, led by former UBC president Dr. David Strangway. He described the private university as an “experiment in education,” with smaller classes and a blended curriculum.
It has also had a long history of financial troubles.
In 2017, there was a court dispute with the District of Squamish over developer cost charges, the same year a former president sued the university for alleged breach of contract. There was another court challenge over land ownership in 2018, and in 2020 the university was forced to seek court protection after being unable to pay its debts. That same year, the land and buildings were sold to Primacorp Ventures, with Quest leasing it back.
In response to Quest now suspending operations, Squamish Major Armand Hurford told CTV News, “This isn’t a complete surprise, but I think everyone hoped to avoid having this chapter.”
Hurford said Quest has been “incredibly impactful for the community,” with students and many staff living on campus and contributing in various ways to the community.
“There would be professors sitting in the cafe, incredible presentations at the library, students working in the community,” he said. “On our council we have two elected officials who have spent time at Quest.”
Other local politicians say the Canada Revenue Agency may be part of the investigation into what went wrong.
Recently posted decisions from the CRA show that between July 2022 and January 2023, 12 BC charity foundations had their charitable status revoked. All are connected to now-retired Vancouver lawyer Blake Bromley and his former company. Bromley is also a founding director of Quest, and was a key player in raising the initial funding to get the university off the ground.
Audit documents, various tax returns and land title records show Quest is connected financially to a network of dozens of charity foundations linked to Bromley and his company. One of the foundations that had its status revoked, the Timothy Foundation, is named alongside Quest in the 2017 court dispute with the District of Squamish.
In almost all cases of revocation, the CRA alleges there was a “failure to devote resources to charitable activities,” and in the case of one foundation, the HSEF Renaissance Academy, the CRA claims it “operated for the non-charitable purpose of promoting private tax planning arrangements.”
Tax-receipted donations can be used to lower a person’s income tax. The CRA’s allegations regarding these foundations have not been tested in court.
Patrick Weiler, the member of parliament for Sea to Sky Country, told CTV News, “With what the CRA has released publicly with the documents, it does raise a lot of questions.”
“The potential defrauding of tens of millions of dollars should be a concern to all Canadians,” he added. “The CRA does take concerns of tax evasion very seriously and the integrity of our Canadian tax system overall is something that it’s there to protect.”
When asked if he wanted to know what went wrong with Quest, he assured, “You can count me as one of many people who really want to get to the bottom of it,” but added that the CRA is an independent organization and cannot be directed by politicians.
Local MLA Jordan Sturdy echoed Weiler’s comments. After the audit documents were released by the CRA, Sturdy said in a statement to CTV News: “This has been a long, drawn out and painful process for Squamish and the Sea to Sky. The CRA charity audit process took far too long… I trust that CRA will continue their focus on this mosaic of charities and whether the Canadian taxpayer was well served.”
Hurford told CTV News he also wanted to find out what happened.
“I think it’s absolutely important that we understand as much as we can what went wrong along the way,” Hurdford said.
CTV News contacted Bromley to request an interview about Quest, but was told he was traveling and could not accommodate. CTV News also asked Bromley to respond to the CRA audits and concerns raised by Weiler and Sturdy. He did not respond by the deadline. This article will be updated if a response is received.
Past students of Quest University spoke highly of its programming. Jake Henderson is originally from Washington State and discovered Quest at a college fair in Seattle.
“I wasn’t the best high school student and I had my issues with the educational structure that we’re used to,” Henderson said. “Quest seemed to hit all of the points that I had an issue with in high school and it was just sort of mind blowing that an institution like that was there.”
Henderson said he was drawn to the smaller classes and blended the program. “You’re always sitting at the same table as the professor,” he said, adding that the location of the campus was also a big draw card.
“That view of the Tantalus Range never gets old,” he said. “It is hard not to be constantly inspired on that campus.”
Henderson lived on campus for nine years, studying for four and working on the maintenance team for five. He then left for law school and now works at a law firm in Vancouver.
Upon learning the university was suspending its programming, Henderson said there was a “heartbreak, but there was also a bit of confusion because there wasn’t a whole lot of response.”
Caitlin Mooney-Fu graduated in 2014. She is originally from Vancouver and said she was drawn to the idea of Quest but initially dismissed the idea due to the price tag of the private university. She ended up attending on a partner scholarship, and described her time at Quest as “awesome.”
“Everyone is expected to and encouraged to speak and ask questions, I was surrounded by people who were interested and engaged and wanted to be there,” Mooney-Fu said.
Similar to Henderson, Mooney-Fu described her reaction to the school suspending operations as “disappointed, and also not surprised and kind of angry.”
Both alumni are now in discussions with government representatives and the Quest board to see if they can be part of a solution.
“If this university closes down, it is a horrible thing to happen to Squamish, to BC, and to just the education period,” Henderson said. “And it’s a tragedy, and people need to see it as a tragedy and people need to get fired up and do something about it.”