GoFundMe head testifies over Freedom Convoy fundraising, says most donors were Canadian
The president of GoFundMe told members of Parliament on Thursday that according to the crowdfunding platform's records, the vast majority of the donors to the Freedom Convoy were Canadian.
Speaking before the House of Commons public safety and national security committee, Juan Benitez said 88 per cent of donated funds to the movement originated in Canada and 86 per cent of donors were from Canada.
Given the Freedom Convoy raised more than $10 million on the site before the campaign was suspended for violating the company’s terms of service, approximately $1.2 million came from outside Canada.
Benitez said GoFundMe did not identify any donors affiliated with terrorist groups or organized crime activities.
“We do extensive analysis on the activities that are happening on our platform. In fact, it’s our goal to be the most trusted platform in social fundraising,” he said.
“If we were aware that something like that was occurring, those folks are not welcome to participate on our platform, those activities would have been prohibited and we would have filtered that out.”
However, Benitez noted the company began closely monitoring the convoy’s campaign after it launched on Jan. 14 because of “significant” fundraising activity.
While its initial analysis concluded that the fundraiser was operating within GoFundMe’s terms of service, Benitez said the “shift in tone” in the public statements from the organizers became notable.
“From Feb. 2 through Feb. 4 we heard from local authorities that what had begun as a peaceful movement had shifted into something else. They shared reports of violence and threatening behaviour by individuals associated with the movement,” he said.
It was at this point that GoFundMe announced it would reimburse funds raised to donors.
Convoy organizers turned to Christian website GiveSendGo to host their second fundraising campaign. They’ve so far raised more than US$9.5 million on the platform.
GiveSendGo also appeared virtually before the committee Thursday afternoon.
The American co-founders fielded questions about why they continued to allow the convoy organizers to raise funds on their site given the illegal actions by protesters.
The Freedom Convoy movement began as a protest against all vaccine mandates and other public health restrictions, and quickly dissolved into a pursuit of more nefarious objectives, including overthrowing the federal government.
Protesters blockaded downtown Ottawa for three weeks, shuttering businesses and disrupting residents. Their actions also inspired blockades at various border entries, interrupting the flow of goods and people.
Co-founder Heather Wilson argued that the federal government should have contacted GiveSendGo directly to flag concerns about the source of funding.
“If you were concerned about GiveSendGo and what we were allowing, I do not know why [no one] reached out to us, to ask us to take a look at this. We were all on hearsay by what we were hearing from media on both sides,” she said.
Wilson said that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had spoken directly with the truckers protesting, “a lot of this would have been avoided.”
The blockades prompted the invoking of the federal Emergencies Act, mostly to support police efforts in and around Parliament Hill to clear out the convoy encampment.
The Act required crowdfunding platforms to comply with Canada’s financial reporting rules, and authorized banks to freeze accounts it suspected was involved with the “illegal” blockades.
While the Emergencies Act has been revoked, MPs on the committee asked both GoFundMe and GiveSendGo whether they’d be prepared to comply with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada rules should the government move to make the temporary order permanent.
GoFundMe’s General Counsel Kim Wilford said the company will co-operate and “welcomes” the opportunity to work with government to pinpoint and address concerns about the reporting process.
“We will consistently and continuously not only meet our obligations under the laws that apply to us but always work to operate a little but above that,” she said.
GiveSendGo’s Jacob Wells said, “we’re going to do everything that we’re required by law to do in order to keep our platform viable.”
The funds raised on GiveSendGo remain in the U.S., unable to be distributed in Canada after the Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted a request by the Ontario government to freeze access to the millions of dollars donated.
Wells said the company is considering refunding donors of the convoy, as GoFundMe did.
“It’s on the table. Obviously this has been an ongoing situation that’s rapidly changing. The response of the government has rapidly changed. There’s a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of variables,” he said.
“We’ll be making decisions over the next several days about how we want to proceed.”
Wells was adamant that the platform will remain a space for all organizers.
“If we started mandating litmus tests for how good people ought to be in order to use public services, we would be in a very, very difficult situation…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,” he said, answering a question about whether the company would allow the Ku Klux Klan to set up a campaign.
GiveSendGo has hosted the fundraising efforts of the Proud Boys, who are deemed a terrorist organization in Canada.