Canada vs Alta Energy Luxembourg S.A.R.L., November 2021, Supreme Court, Case No 2021 SCC 49 – 2021-11-26

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ALTA Energy, a resident of Luxembourg, claimed an exemption from Canadian income tax under Article 13(5) of the Canada-Luxembourg Income Tax Treaty in respect of a large capital gain arising from the sale of shares of ALTA Canada, its wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary.

At that time, Alta Canada carried on an unconventional shale oil business in the Duvernay shale oil formation situated in Northern Alberta. Alta Canada was granted the right to explore, drill and extract hydrocarbons from an area of the Duvernay formation designated under licenses granted by the government of Alberta.

The Canadian tax authorities denied that the exemption applied and assessed ALTA Energy accordingly.

Article 13(5) of the Canada-Luxembourg Tax Treaty is a distributive rule of last application. It applies only in the case where the capital gain is not otherwise taxable under paragraphs (1) to (4) of Article 13 of the Treaty.

Article 13(4) is relevant to the outcome of this appeal. Under that provision, Canada has preserved its right to tax capital gains arising from the disposition of shares where the shares derive their value principally from immovable property situated in Canada. However, the application of Article 13(4) is subject to an important exception. Property that would otherwise qualify as Immovable Property is deemed not to be such property in the circumstances where the business of the corporation is carried on in the property (the “Excluded Property” exception).

The tax authorities argued that the Shares derived their value principally from Alta Canada’s Working Interest in the Duvernay Formation. The authorities also argued that the capital gain it realized would be taxable under Article 13(4) unless the Court agreed with ALTA’s submission that its full Working Interest is Excluded Property.

ALTA Energy appealed the position of the tax authorities and argued the contrary view. According to ALTA, substantially all of ALTA Canada’s Working Interest remained Immovable Property because ALTA Canada drilled in and extracted hydrocarbons from only a small area of the Duvernay Formation that it controlled.

In 2018 the Federal Court of Appeal decided in favour of ALTA Energie and the matter was referred back for reconsideration and reassessment.

This decision was then appealed by the tax authorities before the Supreme Court

The Judgement of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the tax authorities but with dissenting judges.

[185] Nevertheless, we agree with Alta Luxembourg that treaty shopping is not inherently abusive. There is nothing necessarily improper about minimizing tax liability by selecting a beneficial tax regime in making an investment in a foreign jurisdiction (Crown Forest, at para. 49). Certain jurisdictions may provide tax incentives to attract businesses and investment; as such, taxpayers are entitled to avail themselves of such benefits to minimize tax. Thus, merely selecting a treaty to minimize tax, on its own, is not abusive. In fact, it may be consonant with one of the main purposes of tax treaties: encouraging trade and investment.

[186] However, where taxing rights in a tax treaty are allocated on the basis of economic allegiance and conduit entities claim tax benefits despite the absence of any genuine economic connection with the state of residence, treaty shopping is, in our view, abusive. As Professors N. Bammens and L. De Broe explain, the use of “conduit companies” is disconnected from the objectives of bilateral tax treaties:
. . . tax treaties are concluded for reasons of an economic nature: the contracting states want to stimulate reciprocal commercial relations by preventing double taxation. The use of conduit companies and treaty shopping structures has very little to do with this economic objective. Treaty shopping thus upsets the balance and reciprocity of the tax treaty: in order to preserve a tax treaty’s inherent reciprocity, its benefits must not be extended to persons not entitled to them. [Emphasis added; footnotes omitted.]
(“Treaty Shopping and Avoidance of Abuse”, in Lang et al., Tax Treaties, 51, at p. 52; see also Li and Avella, at s.

[187] In such cases, as here, the avoidance transaction would be contrary to the objectives of bilateral tax treaties and frustrate the object, spirit or purpose of the specific provisions related to the allocation of taxing rights. Preventing such abuse is the purpose of the GAAR: “. . . most double tax treaties do not contain specific limitations on the ability of third-country residents to treaty shop [and instead] rely on the concept of beneficial ownership or on domestic anti-abuse legislation to safeguard against hollow conduits” (Krishna (2009), at p. 540). Similarly, C. A. Brown and J. Bogle are of the view that the GAAR is “[t]he primary tool to fight treaty shopping in Canada currently” (“Treaty Shopping and the New Multilateral Tax Agreement — Is it Business as Usual in Canada?” (2020), 43 Dal. L.J. 1, at p. 4).

[188] In conclusion, not all types of treaty shopping lead to abuse of a tax treaty. Only when an avoidance transaction frustrates the rationale of the relevant treaty provision will treaty shopping be abusive and the tax benefit denied. For instance, where contracting parties allocate taxing rights to the state of residence on the basis of economic allegiance, as in this case, treaty shopping will be abusive if the resident of a third-party state uses a conduit company to claim treaty benefits conferred by provisions requiring a genuine economic connection with the residence state. Therein lies the undermining of these provisions’ rationale clothed in a formalistic adherence to their text. Ignoring this is to render the GAAR empty of meaningful effect.

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