The Canadian Bankers Association told a parliamentary committee that its members froze Freedom Convoy protesters’ bank accounts during the public order emergency not only to comply with RCMP disclosures but also based on "their own determinations."
“We primarily relied on the names provided by the RCMP, but there were obligations under the order separate from that, that required banks to make their own determinations,” said Angelina Mason, general counsel and vice-president of the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA), as she testified before the Finance Committee on March 7.
“What banks were obligated to do, though, was apply their normal risk-based approach in monitoring their accounts as they would do for money laundering or what have you," said Mason.
"And if something then was flagged that was suggestive, again, looking through the eyes of the activities in Ottawa, then there would be, again, an obligation to freeze.”
Mason said the number of accounts frozen unilaterally was small, but didn’t provide an exact figure. “A small donation wouldn't have been caught by our normal risk-based approach,” she said.
Since the revocation of the Emergencies Act, which was in effect from Feb. 14 to Feb. 23, all accounts have been unfrozen except those under court orders, and no accounts were frozen by mistake, Mason said.
The Emergencies Act was invoked by the government to deal with cross-country protests and blockades demanding the lifting of COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.
The freezing of bank accounts without a court order was one of the most controversial measures put in place under the Act, with some opposition MPs questioning the necessity of the measure given its serious impact on people's lives and Charter rights.
Banks froze 180 accounts based on RCMP disclosures, according to Mason. RCMP officials also testified at the committee that at least 257 accounts were frozen by financial institutions, which includes banks and credit unions.
Mason also said that clients who had their accounts frozen will now have a marker on their file indicating as much.
No Written Guidance From FedsSome MPs on the committee honed in on how the government provided information to financial institutions that led to the freezing of accounts without the normal legal process required to obtain a court order and did so while providing banks with immunity.
Mason said the institutions didn't receive any written guidance from the government and were only briefed verbally on how the emergency powers would be applied.
"Several of our members did have discussions with [the Department of Finance]. We were given a heads up that this was coming, but we did not have the specific details. We received the regulations at the same time as the general public," said Mason.
“From my point of view, it's very difficult to have clear rules when they are not written down. What guidance were you given about joint accounts?” asked Bloc Quebecois MP Gabriel Ste-Marie, seeking clarity on the potential impact for someone who shared an account with a protestor but was not involved in the protests themselves.
Mason said joint accounts would not be exempt and the "entire account" would be frozen since there was no related guidance in the order. She added the CBA raised the issue of "humanitarian exceptions" with the Department of Finance but it became moot when the Act was revoked.
“I would say there were details that were missed out in terms of the detailed execution of the order. I really find that really unacceptable. Sorry, for me, that really poses a serious problem,” Ste-Marie said, noting protestors' children and spouses could be harmed by the measures.
Mason said they also haven’t received any guidance on how long the financial institutions should retain the information provided by the RCMP.
“There are obligations under privacy legislation to only hold information for the purpose for which was provided as long as necessary,” said Mason.