Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said financial institutions have started freezing bank accounts belonging to protesters involved in blockades based on information from the RCMP, and predicted the number of accounts being targeted will rise in the coming days.
The minister, who is also Minister of Finance, said she has specific statistics about how many accounts have been frozen so far and intends to make them public “in due course, and soon.” But she withheld those details on Thursday after discussions with law enforcement, in an effort to avoid jeopardizing what she called “operational actions.”
Financial institutions took the first steps to freeze customers’ accounts after the RCMP sent letters to them and to cryptocurrency exchanges on Wednesday, sharing lists that named protest organizers, and identified digital wallet addresses linked to demonstrators. The letters encouraged the financial institutions to cease transacting with those individuals and digital accounts, and Ms. Freeland said on Thursday that banks and other financial institutions are “collaborating properly and effectively.”
“I do want to assure ... all Canadians that action is being taken. We are seeing it and that action is going to increase in the coming days,” she said at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.
The RCMP’s letter to financial institutions had an initial list of fewer than 20 names tied to the anti-government demonstrations, some of whom were identified as main organizers, according to a source who has reviewed the document. A separate letter to several cryptocurrency exchanges flagged more than 30 digital wallet addresses.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to discuss correspondence with the RCMP.
The national police service described the list in the letter sent to banks as a first disclosure of information, but it remains unclear how broadly personal and business bank accounts could be targeted.
An emergency order published on Tuesday temporarily gives financial institutions a duty to freeze accounts and cut off services to protesters who are involved in the illegal blockades, which began as a demonstration against pandemic restrictions. It allows banks, credit unions, securities dealers and other financial sector companies to cease providing financial services, but gives them final authority to decide when to do so.
Ms. Freeland said on Thursday that financial institutions, “working with law enforcement, will be making the operational decisions.”
Spokespeople for the Canadian Bankers Association and several major banks declined to comment on the minister’s remarks.
The standoff has also put a spotlight on Canada’s emerging cryptocurrency sector after supporters of the protests turned to alternative forms of fundraising to circumvent traditional financial controls. The emergency powers enacted this week are in part an attempt by the federal government to broaden its financial surveillance to include digital transactions.
Early indications suggest federal authorities have started by targeting a select group of a few dozen individuals who are closely involved in organizing the convoys that have blocked roads in Ottawa and at border crossings between Canada and the United States. So far, it does not appear that the measures are aimed at donors who gave small amounts to support the blockades. But the emergency order granting banks exceptional powers sets no specific threshold for designating a person as part of an anti-government protest or blockade.
When asked if donors’ accounts have been frozen, Ms. Freeland did not specifically address the question. But she said in French that efforts to cut off access to financial services for participants in illegal demonstrations are “a continuous process, it’s a process that will accelerate if the blockades, if the occupation continues.”
It is also still unclear what recourse protesters may have after their accounts are frozen. The emergency order protects financial institutions against civil liability for freezing or suspending personal or business accounts, which is permitted without a court order as long as the institutions act in good faith to use their temporary powers.
The minister was asked by a reporter whether precautions are in place to prevent problems such as someone being misidentified as a protest supporter because they have the same name as a person identified by police.
“That is something that we and law enforcement and the financial service providers have been working on very, very carefully,” she said. “And that’s why I say the use of the financial tools is actually going to increase in the coming days because it was important for us to be sure that safeguards were in place.”
She added that even while emergency measures imposed by the government are in force, “due process remains in place. Charter rights remain in place. And of course, the courts are there. … These will all be institutions that will be there to support Canadians.”
Ms. Freeland did not address how her reference to the courts fits with the immunity against civil suits that the emergency order grants to financial institutions.
She also said crowdfunding platforms and payments providers have started work to register with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), the country’s anti-money laundering intelligence agency, as required by the government’s emergency order.
“We now have the tools to follow the money,” Ms. Freeland said. “We can see what is happening and what is being planned in real time. And we are absolutely determined that this must end, now and for good.”
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