Critics call for new rules for online fundraisers after protest convoy takes anonymous donations

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Critics call for new rules for online fundraisers after protest convoy takes anonymous donations
© Justin Tang/The Canadian Press Trucks participating in a cross-country convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 park on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

Critics are calling on the federal government to introduce new rules for online fundraising campaigns after a fundraiser for this weekend’s protest in Ottawa against vaccine mandates raised millions of dollars — in part from anonymous donors and people using fictitious names.

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Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May said the GoFundMe fundraiser for the protest convoy raises concerns about whether such campaigns could be used by big businesses or foreign state actors to circumvent Canada’s political financing rules.

“If this isn’t worrying, it certainly exposes a possibility that is very worrying, which is that you can be not a political organization, not registered with Elections Canada but find the right kind of dog whistle and put up a GoFundMe campaign,” she said.

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May said she has seen has GoFundMe campaigns raise money for worthy causes, but Canada’s laws haven’t kept up with advances in technology.

“The regulation of the online world is something (where) we’re constantly playing catch-up and this exposes an area that we ought to look at,” she said.

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May said online fundraising campaigns should be required to register with Industry Canada in order to protect consumers. She said the names of donors should be available to government officials, even if they aren’t published on the website.

Follow the money: May

May said a consumer protection authority could look into whether donations collected online go to their intended cause.

“You want someone verifying that the story is true and that it’s not just taking all the money from well-intentioned and generous people and going on a round-the-world cruise,” she said.

The GoFundMe campaign for the protest convoy has raised more than $7.4 million since January 14 from more than 94,000 donors.

An analysis by CBC News of donations made since Monday found that while thousands of donations were made by average Canadians or Canadian businesses, more than one third of the donations were anonymous or made under aliases — names of other people or invented titles like “Justin Trudeau’s Conscience” or “Dump Trudeau.”

A number of other donations appear to have come from abroad. In the comments section of the donation page, some donors said they were sending support from foreign countries, including the United States, the U.K., Australia and Poland.

GoFundMe says it is a violation of its terms of service for a donor to misrepresent their identity. The company has not yet responded to questions from CBC News about what, if anything, it has done about the fake names used to donate to the convoy fundraiser.

A fundraiser organizer has not yet responded to requests from CBC News for an interview.

Earlier this week, NDP MP Charlie Angus said people donating to a political protest calling for an end to COVID-19 measures shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind anonymity.

Jean-Sébastien Comeau is spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc, whose responsibilities include election reform and political financing rules. He said the convoy headed to Ottawa doesn’t speak for Canadians or the trucking industry.

“Canadians should exercise caution before donating to a cause, political or otherwise, to ascertain that the funds will serve the intended purpose,” he said. “Peaceful protest is an essential part of our democracy, but there is no place for vitriolic or violent rhetoric.”

Comeau refused to answer when asked whether new rules should be introduced for anonymous contributions to online fundraisers for political causes.

The Conservative Party declined to comment.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said anonymous donations to political causes are worrisome.

“Anonymous donations to citizen advocacy groups are a problem because they could be coming from a corporation, big business or other organization and that makes the citizen group a front for that business or other organization,” he said. “Voters have a right to know if some business or other organization is actually bankrolling a group that claims to be citizen-supported.”

Conacher said the GoFundMe campaigns for political campaigns should have to be registered under the Lobbying Act and the source of the money should be disclosed in the lobbyist registry. He said he also would like to see the Elections Act reviewed and the issue examined by the House of Commons’ ethics committee.

“We need to know who is bankrolling every lobby effort or any kind of advocacy initiative, whether it is for a protest or traditional means of lobbying,” he said.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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