Despite the RCMP saying that information on donors to the Freedom Convoy protest is not being forwarded to banks under the Emergencies Act, an Ottawa defence lawyer says banks may act of their own accord and freeze the accounts of a wide range of protest supporters, including donors.
In a Feb. 21 statement, RCMP said that while it remains up to banks to decide which accounts to freeze, at no time did it provide them with a list of donors.
“The list that was provided to financial institutions included identities of individuals who were influencers in the illegal protest in Ottawa, and owners and/or drivers of vehicles who did not want to leave the area impacted by the protest,” the RCMP said, adding that it’s “now working with the banks to build a process to address the accounts that were frozen.”
In a Feb. 23 statement, the RCMP said it’s provided new information to banks that “can be assessed alongside all other information to help inform decisions to unfreeze certain accounts.”
But Matt Wolfson, a criminal defence lawyer at Ottawa-based David Anber’s Law Office, says the wording of the financial regulations that came into effect under the Emergencies Act on Feb. 15 suggests that anyone who provided property to support the protest could be flagged by banks.
“My take is that accounts can indeed be frozen on the basis of donations, or prohibited activity on or after the order came into effect on Feb. 15,” Wolfson told The Epoch Times. “Anyone engaged in other prohibited activity, that is attending or participating in protests, are to have basically their funds frozen.”
“So you should expect many, many more account freezes.”
On the night of Feb. 21, the House of Commons voted 185 to 151 to approve the temporary emergency measures, while the bill is now being debated in the Senate.
Members of the Commons finance committee spent the afternoon of Feb. 22 questioning staff from the Finance and Justice departments about the controversial financial emergency measures.
“Just to be clear, a financial contribution either through a crowdsourced platform or directly, could result in their bank account being frozen?” Conservative MP Philip Lawrence asked Department of Finance Assistant Deputy Minister Isabelle Jacques.
“Yes,” she replied.
“They didn’t have to actively be involved in the protest, they didn’t have to be here in Ottawa at one of the blockades?” Lawrence asked.
“No, not themselves,” Jacques replied. “It could be indirectly.”
Jacques confirmed lawyer Wolfson’s claim that only donors who contributed to the protest after Feb. 15’s emergency declaration could have their accounts frozen.
Jacques added that such actions would be “very unlikely,” but definitely possible.
She also said police stopped freezing accounts on Feb. 21 as the protests in Ottawa had been cleared.
219 Accounts Frozen
The Commons finance committee meeting was held after unverified claims by some Conservative members of Parliament were told on Twitter that they’ve heard from constituents who made small contributions to the convoy and had their bank accounts frozen.
B.C. MP Mark Strahl tweeted on Feb. 20 that Briane, “a single mom from Chilliwack working a minimum wage job,” made the donation “when it was 100 per cent legal” and had not otherwise taken part in convoy-related activities.
He provided neither her last name nor financial institution but said “her bank account has now been frozen.”
While Strahl didn’t reply to a request for comment, he tweeted he wouldn’t share further details with media, citing privacy reasons.
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu tweeted on the same day that a woman in her riding “had her bank account frozen for buying a $20 Freedom Convoy Tshirt.”
On Feb. 21, the RCMP said its enforcement efforts under the act has led to the freezing of 219 bank accounts and other financial products and the disclosure of 57 people or organizations. Those efforts have also resulted in “the addresses of 253 bitcoin shared with virtual currency exchangers” and in a financial institution freezing the account of a payment processor for a value of $3.8 million.
Lawyer Keith Wilson, who represented convoy organizers during the Ottawa protests, tweeted he’s representing nine Canadians alleging frozen accounts or cancelled insurance policies.
“None of them are charged with any offences,” Wilson wrote. “Most had no trucks in Ottawa or elsewhere.”
Benjamin Dichter, one of the protest coordinators, says his credit cards and personal and corporate bank accounts, alongside many other trucker protesters’ accounts, have been frozen.
“Our lawyers are all over it working on it right now,” Dichter said in a phone interview. “Everything is frozen without any explanation from the bank whatsoever—no notices in our message box, emails, nothing.”
Dichter says he’s currently getting financial support from friends and is concerned about other drivers in the protest.
“The average driver is in their mid-50s, and there are some who have to get their medicine. Some have said they need to get insulin by March 15. They can’t buy medicine that they’re dependent on to live. Like it’s crazy,” he said.
Dichter says it appears most of the protesters he’s heard about who’ve had accounts frozen were those who had their vehicles parked.
‘We Will Actively Look to Identify You’
While attorney Wolfson says he’s not representing Dichter, he said some of his clients include those arrested under the Criminal Code for crimes related to what police call “unlawful protests.”
However, Wolfson says most of his clients worry they’ll also have their accounts frozen.
He points to comments from Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell, who said on Feb. 19 that “if you are involved in this protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges.”
The investigation would continue for “months to come,” Bell added.
While banks didn’t respond to inquiries, the Canadian Bankers Association said the government has indicated that the Emergencies Act measures “are intended to be temporary and focused only on a narrow group of individuals and entities involved in specific activities covered by the Order.”
“The vast majority of customers are not impacted by these measures,” association spokesperson Mathieu Labrèche said in an email.
Wolfson says financial sanctions against convoy protesters or supporters can only be enforced under the act for 30 days starting Feb. 15, unless the House of Commons lifts or renews the order.
But he said it remains to be seen what parts of the act the Trudeau government will try to keep in force once the order is lifted.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Feb. 18 that the expanded powers given under the act to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) to monitor donations to crowdfunding and cryptocurrency platforms would be made permanent.
“The authorities of FINTRAC, I believe, do need to be expanded to cover crowdsourcing platforms and their payment providers,” she said. “That is something that we need to do, and we will do, and that needs to be in place permanently.”
However, Freeland said the ability to freeze bank accounts under the act are only to be used temporarily to ensure the authorities can put an end to all convoy protests.
In a Feb. 21 news conference, she said people not directly involved in the protests should contact police if they believe their accounts were unfairly frozen.
‘A Form of Social Death’
Financial crime experts have previously told The Epoch Times that the broad new financial powers to quash the trucker protests are an extreme and unnecessary overreach.
Akaash Maharaj, ambassador-at-large for the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, said that the legislation was originally crafted to target terrorists and transnational organized crime.
“In a 21st-century economy, it would be a form of social death, making it effectively impossible for [a flagged truck protester] to hold a job, obtain housing, or pay for his basic needs,” Maharaj told The Epoch Times.
Financial crime consultant Vanessa Iafolla says invoking the Emergencies Act is entirely out of proportion to the threats posed by the protesters.
“These new powers are a broad overreach and I do not believe they are steps necessary to maintain public order,” she told The Epoch Times.
Iafolla said these new measures can increase banks’ surveillance power on people based in part on their political positions. Under the legislation, there will be no appeal process for the banks’ actions, something she says should be concerning for Canadians.
‘This Is About Civil Liberties for Everybody’
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is calling on the government to revoke the use of the Emergencies Act, pointing out on Feb. 21 that “the orders limit peaceful assembly across the country and require financial institutions to freeze accounts without judicial oversight.”
“The federal government does not control how and when these laws are used. These legal powers have been placed in the hands of police officers across the country,” CCLA executive director and general counsel Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said in a statement. “As with all broad grants of power, the risk of abuse is significant.”
The CCLA had announced on Feb. 17 that it would pursue litigation to challenge the government’s use of the Emergencies Act. “It is in light of all these violations of civil liberties that we will be taking the government to court,” said CCLA director of criminal justice Abby Deshman in a statement.
Protest organizer Dichter says it was refreshing to get support from the CCLA, which he says is usually more known to be politically left-leaning. He warns those cheering on the Trudeau government’s use of the Emergencies Act that those powers could be used by future governments that may not support their political beliefs and rights to protest.
“I would think people [should] think with a little bit more foresight,” he said. “I’m not against people on the political left protesting. We should be allowed to protest, [as] we live in a free democracy.”
“You can call us whatever names you want,” Dichter said. “This is about civil liberties for everybody. It doesn’t just affect us, it impacts you as well.”