GiveSendGo defends decision to raise money for protest convoy

Politics

American crowdfunding site GiveSendGo is defending its decision to host a fundraiser for the Ottawa convoy protest, telling a parliamentary committee Thursday that the Canadian government never asked it to stop.

Police enforce an injunction against protesters — some of whom had been camped in their trucks near Parliament Hill for weeks — on Feb. 19, 2022.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

American crowdfunding site GiveSendGo is defending its decision to host a fundraiser for the Ottawa convoy protest, telling a parliamentary committee Thursday that the Canadian government never asked it to stop.

The site's spokespeople also told MPs that it would host fundraisers for the Proud Boys or the Ku Klux Klan if what they were planning to do with the money was legal.

Jacob Wells and Heather Wilson, siblings and co-founders of the site, told MPs it's important to defend freedom of speech.

"We believe deeply, to the core of our being, that the suppression of speech is much more dangerous than speech itself," said Wells.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff grilled the pair, asking them about the company's decision to host fundraising campaigns for members of the Proud Boys — which has been listed as a terrorist entity in Canada — and other groups that have promoted Islamophobia or white supremacy.

"I just wonder how you can justify giving people like that a platform to raise funds?" she asked. "Would you allow a fundraiser on your platform for the Ku Klux Klan?"

"If the fundraising activity was legal and it was legally authorized to … happen, we would allow people to fundraise," Wells replied, adding the fundraiser would have to pass the company's checks.

The exchange came as the House of Commons public safety committee resumed hearings on the millions of dollars raised to support the anti-vaccine mandate truck convoy protest, which paralyzed downtown Ottawa and blocked a number of border crossings across Canada.

A crowd of protesters gathers in downtown Ottawa during the second weekend of the anti-vaccine mandate convoy's occupation of the parliamentary precinct on the night of Feb. 5, 2021.(Felix Desroches/CBC News)

It also comes as the government has been raising questions about the amount of money donated to the protest from outside of Canada, and asking whether crowdfunding platforms should be added to Canada's monitoring regime for money laundering and terrorist financing.

Wells told the committee that roughly 60 per cent of the donations to the convoy through GiveSendGo came from Canada and 37 per cent came from the United States.

Two campaigns to support the convoy are still active on GiveSendGo's site. The Freedom Convoy 2022 fundraiser has raised $9.7 million US from nearly 113,000 donations. A second Adopt a Trucker fundraiser has raised $591,440 US through 8,375 donations.

While two Ontario judges have issued orders to freeze funds raised for the convoy, Wilson said the money isn't in Canada.

"The funds are in a U.S. bank so they're not necessarily frozen," Wilson told the committee. "They cannot get to the recipient on the ground in Canada at this moment."

GiveSendGo organizer blames Ottawa

Wells said the company has been consulting lawyers about ways to transfer the money to its intended recipients. He said that if it can't, it will refund the donations.

The company came under fire from some MPs for agreeing to raise funds for the protest — and for not shutting down the fundraiser when the protest ceased to be peaceful and turned into an occupation.

Wells described the protest as largely peaceful, despite an attempt by fringe participants to marginalize it.

Wilson said the company was "seeing both sides of the narrative" during the protest. If there was a problem with the protest, the Canadian government should have contacted the company, said Wilson, adding it was the government's fault for not reaching out.

"You did not communicate with us at all about what was going on," Wilson told MPs. "We had to hear about it second- and third-hand as we were trying to walk out what we should be doing as best practices … The government of Canada is making all these moves and never even contacting us and getting any information from us."

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters are removed by police from a blockade of the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ont., on Feb. 12, 2022.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Wilson said the company also wasn't told about the Ontario court decision on Feb. 10 to freeze money raised by the fundraiser.

"We heard about it on social media and, you know, I can find out about aliens on social media as well," she said.

The responses by Wells and Wilson to the committee's questions presented a sharp contrast to the actions of rival American crowdfunding site GoFundMe — which agreed initially to host the Freedom Convoy 2022 fundraiser before cancelling it on Feb. 4 after being told by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and then-deputy police chief Steve Bell that the protest was being accompanied by acts of violence and harassment.

It was at that point that the company determined that the fundraiser violated the company's terms of service.

A protester walks through an encampment near Parliament Hill in Ottawa shortly before being arrested on Feb. 17, 2022.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"This fundraiser as a whole … was an unprecedented event in terms of the scale in which it evolved, the pace at which it evolved, the centralized nature of it, the complexity of the participants who were involved in the fundraiser," said Juan Benitez, president of GoFundMe.

Benitez said GoFundMe's records show that 88 per cent of the money raised and 86 per cent of the donors came from Canada.

Kim Wilford, general counsel for GoFundMe, said the campaign first attracted the company's attention because donations were coming in so quickly. While it was initially satisfied with the explanations offered by organizers, it began to have concerns about organizers' ability to distribute the money.

She said the company has refunded all donations, transaction fees and tips it received.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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