The federal government’s claim that the Freedom Convoy was mostly foreign-funded was challenged on Thursday as a House committee met to review the fundraising behind the weeks-long cross-country protest.
The meeting of the Public Safety Committee was often tense as some MPs berated the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe for initially even accepting to carry the convoy’s fundraiser, and then for GiveSendGo to pursue it to this day despite legal action.
The government’s claim that the trucker-led movement against COVID-19 restrictions was a “largely foreign-funded, targeted and coordinated attack” on Canada’s democracy, as described by Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, was contradicted by numbers shared by GoFundMe’s president.
“Our records show that 88 percent of donated funds originated in Canada, and 86 percent of donors were from Canada,” said Juan Benitez.
Benitez also said his company has capabilities in place to detect nefarious activity related to donations, but in the convoy campaign, it wasn’t significant.
“In this campaign, as part of our normal filtration activity, our tools did flag some behaviour that we deemed unacceptable, and we did remove some donations,” he said.
The Freedom Convoy was started by truckers as Canada imposed on them a vaccine mandate in mid-January for cross-border travel, and evolved into a three-week occupation of downtown Ottawa that was dismantled over the Feb. 19–20 weekend after the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.
GoFundMe released $1 million in funds to the convoy organizers before shutting down their campaign on Feb. 4, which had raised over $10 million.
Benitez said that his company was not contacted by the federal government nor local authorities about the convoy fundraiser, but rather it proactively reached out to local authorities based on their public statements in the media and social media.
“Based on that, we began direct outreach to them to ensure that we were fully apprised of the facts and circumstances on the ground and the real-time information that was developing around the Freedom Convoy,” Benitez said.
On Jan. 31, three days after the convoy settled in downtown Ottawa, the city’s mayor, Jim Watson, said his staff was looking into the possibility of using the funds raised on GoFundMe to pay for the cost of policing the protest.
On Feb. 7, then-Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly claimed his efforts and those of the city led to the cancellation of the GoFundMe fundraiser on Feb. 4.
When GoFundMe was asked about what exactly was shared by the City of Ottawa and its police, the company’s general counsel Kim Wilford said she had not herself been in contact with law enforcement and that what was being reported to her company were “acts of violence, that there was damage and destruction, harassment was occurring.”
Given this testimony, Conservative MP Doug Shipley wondered when the Ottawa Police would be able to testify to find out more information about these allegations.
Shipley remarked that he was never provided this kind of information about these dangers, and he and his staff were walking to work, passing by the protest.
“Nowhere ever did I see in any of those reports shared that there was violence, threatening behaviour, and damage and destruction being done,” he said.
Some MPs on the committee were distraught by the fact that GoFundMe allowed the fundraising to occur in the first place, due to the views and aims of some of the participants shared on social media.
Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed wondered how GoFundMe could allow the fundraiser to be established, given indications that “the organizers had ties to the Yellow Vest movement, the anti-Muslim Clarion Project.”
“Had you known that the organizer had been previously linked to organizations or movements that had promoted hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, intolerance of any kind related to race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, etc., would you have allowed that person to set up a GoFundMe campaign?” he asked.
Yellow Vest was a protest movement a few years ago against Liberal government policies such as the carbon tax, and the Clarion Project states its mission as “educating the public about the threat of radical Islam and other extremist ideologies.”
“There was nothing in the diligence that we did on the campaign organizer that suggested that there were any issues,” responded Wilford. “The campaign caught our attention because of the donation velocity.”
Wilford said they were proud of how they handled the campaign.
The money collected by the other campaign, on the self-described Christian platform GiveSendGo—which started after the GoFundMe shutdown—is still active and has reached over $12 million.
GiveSendGo’s co-founder Jacob Wells told the committee that roughly 60 percent of donations on the platform came from Canada and 37 percent from the United States.
An Ontario court froze access to the money on Feb. 10. Wells said there are ongoing discussions as to what will be done with the funds, with the primary intention being to legally transfer the money to the recipients. If that is not possible, the donations will be refunded.
Wells and the other co-founder, his sister Heather Wilson, were given a much harsher ride than GoFundMe by Liberal, Bloc, and NDP MPs, who questioned the ethics and legality of its actions.
The MPs asked why GiveSendGo kept the fundraising alive after GoFundMe cancelled the fundraiser over what it said were violations of its terms of services, after the city of Ottawa and the province Ontario declared states of emergencies, and after the Ontario court’s decision.
NDP MP Alistair MacGregor asked GiveSendGo if it feels it’s important to abide by and respect Canadian law, to which the co-founders answered “yes.”
MacGregor brought up a statement posted by GiveSendGo on Twitter on Feb. 10 that said “Canada has absolutely ZERO jurisdiction over how we manage our funds here at GiveSendGo.”
“How does your statement on Twitter fit with what you just told this committee right now?” asked MacGregor.
“As much as you want to say that the Canadian government made all these statements, if you were concerned about GiveSendGo and what we were allowing, I do not know why that was not reached out to us to ask us to take a look at this,” said Wilson.
The impartiality of GiveSendGo as a neutral platform was also questioned by MacGregor, who quoted the affidavit of an Ottawa police officer that was used by the Ontario court to freeze the convoy fundraiser on GiveSendGo. The affidavit said, “GiveSendGo does not appear to be an impartial provider.”
“You have been defending GoFundMe. So it shows that you have a stake in the game as well, because you had GoFundMe do exactly what you wanted,” Wilson told MacGregor.
There were other intense exchanges, with Liberal MPs accusing GiveSendGo of supporting the group Proud Boys, which their government designated as a listed terrorist entity in February 2021, despite the group not having conducted any terrorist act.
The Proud Boys portrays itself as “Western chauvinists” and is accused by detractors of being white nationalists, and the listing by Canada followed their involvement in the U.S. Capitol breach of Jan. 6, 2021, which liberals and progressives have referred to as an insurrection. Before Jan. 6, the Proud Boys were mostly known in the United States for getting in street fights with far-left militants.
“So the Proud Boys will still be able to fundraise on your platform and you would not have a problem fundraising for the Ku Klux Klan, is what you’re saying,” said Liberal MP Pam Damoff.
“If individuals or organizations that are legally authorized to receive payments, and go through the KYC [know your client] checks and the AML [anti-money laundering] checks that everyone is required to and have been done through our platform, and if they pass all of those measures and what they’re fundraising for is legal, then yes, we will allow them to fundraise,” said Wells.
“The groups that we’re talking about are hate groups—groups that promote islamophobia, groups like the Proud Boys, groups like the Ku Klux Klan have no place in our society. I’m sorry, all this mumbo jumbo about legal—do you not have anti-hate provisions in your terms of service?” Damoff said.
“We have plenty of terms [of service] … that guide how we operate as a business, as an organization, we believe—completely to the core of our being—that the danger of the suppression of speech is much more dangerous than the speech itself,” Wells answered.
“My brand of Christianity is very different from yours if it includes hate,” said Damoff as the meeting adjourned.