GiveSendGo defends groups raising funds for trucker convoy in Ottawa

By Claire Fenton and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

The co-founder of the U.S.-based Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo says as long as campaigns are legal, he has no issue with hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Proud Boys fundraising on the site.

Following last month’s trucker convoy, Jacob Wells, along with his sister and site co-founder, Heather Wilson, testified before a parliamentary committee Thursday. They defended the site’s use by anti-COVID mandate protesters who blockaded Ottawa and border crossings for weeks.

“If individuals or organizations that are legally authorized to receive payments … and if they pass all of those measures and what they’re fundraising for is legal, then yes, we will allow them to fundraise,” Wells explained.

GiveSendGo became the weeks-long protest organizers’ main fundraising platform after GoFundMe cancelled an earlier campaign that raked in more than $10 million.

That decision came after GoFundMe consulted with police in Ottawa about the trucker convoy, company president Juan Benitez told the committee separately on Thursday.

Local leaders described the protest as an “occupation” because demonstrators in big rigs blocked street access around Parliament Hill and honked incessantly, causing headaches for local residents. There were also reports of local businesses facing harassment by those involved and concerns raised over some protesters displaying swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

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MPs pressed the GiveSendGo founders for allowing protest organizers to use their site to raise millions of dollars after the City of Ottawa declared a state of emergency over the situation.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff questioned the crowdfunding platform’s ties to the Proud Boys, which in Canada are listed as a terrorist entity and have used the site for fundraising.

However, Wells emphasized how the platform values freedom, saying he and his sister believe “completely to the core of our being that the danger of the suppression of speech is much more dangerous than the speech itself.”

In response, committee member and Liberal MP Pam Damoff said, “My brand of Christianity is very different from yours if it includes hate.”

Wells claims 60 per cent of donations was from Canada, and 37 per cent was from the U.S., but didn’t have the exact numbers. He adds most of the donations made were under $100.

He told MPs he saw the protest as being “largely peaceful” and felt there were efforts by what he called a “fringe percentage” of the group to ruin it.

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A hack happened on the fundraiser, and the list of donors was made public, something Wells said was “unfortunate.”

“It seemed very ideologically motivated,” he said, adding they have since brought in more resources to ensure the platform isn’t hacked again the future.

“Funds are being held legally here in the U.S. in a bank account, ” he said. They are considering refunding the donations, but those talks are still underway.

The committee heard Thursday that the more than US$8.4 million raised through the site remains in an American bank account after the Ontario government successfully petitioned a court to freeze its distribution.

Earlier in the hearing, MPs heard from GoFundMe representatives about their decision to release $1 million to a protest organizer, nearly two weeks after the fundraiser began and before it was cancelled.

While previous fundraisers have been mostly church-based, Wells said this was unprecedented for his organization to be holding, especially in Canada.

“A lot of misconception, a lot of misinformation…GiveSendGo had very little involvement in January 6th,” he said.

Wilson says the government never contacted them and they heard about the protests “second and third hand.”

“You could have reached out to us,” Wilson said.

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Kim Wilford, counsel for GoFundMe, said at the time there was nothing to signal there were issues with organizer Tamara Lich, who now faces mischief-related charges linked to her role in the protest.

The money was provided with information on how the funds would be dispersed, including how leftover cash would be sent to registered charities, Wilford said.

It was after the money was released that Benitez said the situation took a turn.

“Things immediately and very rapidly changed,” he said. “Communication changed, information on the facts changed, the convoy itself changed and we responded to those changes.”

He took MPs through a timeline of how it started monitoring the campaign on Jan. 15, one day after it was launched, because of how many people started contributing. At the time Benitez said the fundraiser fell within its terms of service.

But by Feb. 4, after consulting with local police, GoFundMe decided to axe the campaign, which at that point had topped $10 million, and began offering refunds to donors.

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The committee heard that more than 85 per cent of the campaign’s donations came from Canada and the federal Liberal government never reached out directly with any concerns.

Benitez said while there are lessons to be learned from the experience, he hopes MPs recognize the action taken by GoFundMe.

“The freedom convoy fundraiser was unique,” he said.

With files from Nikitha Martins

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