Canada ends freezing of hundreds of accounts linked to protests

OTTAWA — As the streets of the capital are cleared of the heavy trucks and cars that made some of them impassable during three long weeks of protest, Canadian authorities said Tuesday they were lifting the freeze on hundreds of bank accounts associated with the organizers of the demonstration and the Canadians who had blocked Ottawa. streets with their vehicles.

Isabelle Jacques, assistant deputy minister at Canada’s Department of Finance, told a House of Commons committee that banks began unlocking accounts on Monday and there would be no more locked-in finances.

“The vast majority of assets are being unfrozen,” she said.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided a week ago to invoke his country’s Emergencies Act for the first time in Canadian history to quell unrest, it gave police new sweeping powers to attack protesters’ finances.

Ms Jacques said those measures have now been lifted as they were intended to pressure protesters to leave the city streets.

Some could now face long-term consequences, even with the lifting of the freezes.

But for a protest organizer who was arrested last week, the effect was more immediate. The organizer, Tamara Lich, said she had been frozen from all her accounts and could come with only C$5,000 for bail.

The question may be moot: On Tuesday, the court denied bail.

Judge Julie Bourgeois said she was not convinced that if released, Ms Lich would leave Ottawa or stop encouraging others to continue blocking roads. “You had many opportunities to remove yourself and even others from this criminal activity,” she said, “but you stubbornly chose not to do so and consistently advised others not to do so. not do it either.

Justice Bourgeois noted that Ms. Lich likely faces a “long” sentence if convicted.

Around the time the bail hearing was taking place, lawmakers in the Canadian Senate began a debate over Mr. Trudeau’s Emergencies Act order. The night before, overcoming opposition from Conservative MPs, Mr. Trudeau convinced the House of Commons to endorse his decision.

After the statement, police began releasing the names of organizers and people who actively blocked Ottawa roads with their trucks and other vehicles during the blockade, which was triggered by opposition to government restrictions in the event of pandemic.

On Sunday, the national police said in a statement that 219 “financial products” had been frozen, 253 Bitcoin addresses linked to protesters and organizers had been given to virtual exchange operators, and a bank had frozen $3.8 million. Canadians held by a payment processor.

Ms Lich, who is from Alberta, was the driving force behind a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than C$10 million for the protest. About $1 million was given to him before the crowdfunding site ended the campaign. Authorities charged Ms Lich on Thursday with counseling to commit mischief, a serious offense under Canadian criminal law.

All frozen accounts were to remain so for up to 30 days from February 14, when the national emergency was declared. But the government could extend or shorten that period – and that’s what it said it was doing late Tuesday.

Leah West, a professor specializing in national security law at Carleton University in Ottawa, said there would most likely be lasting effects for protesters and organizers when it comes to their finances.

“At the end of the day,” Professor West said, “banks may decide that they are not people they want to provide financial services to because they have engaged in illegal activity. Would anyone give you a mortgage if you used your house to sell drugs? Probably not.”

Faced with the large-scale police operation that began clearing the streets on Friday, many protesters fled to avoid arrest and their vehicles being seized. By Monday morning, police had arrested 196 people and accused them of either organizing the blockade or participating in it, and towing 115 vehicles. In the first days of the demonstration, more than 400 vehicles occupied the streets of the city center.

Some of the protesters didn’t get very far.

After leaving the streets of the capital, a small group set up a new camp Sunday across from a truck stop on the Trans-Canada Highway about 100 kilometers east of Ottawa. While the attendees were busy setting up food canteens and organizing stocks of firewood, a chef who would only be identified as Eric declined to discuss their plans.

Mr Trudeau told the House of Commons that there were two other small groups outside the city.

Acting Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said last week that police would continue to work “for months” to track down protest participants.

“If you are involved in this protest, we will actively seek to identify you and prosecute you with financial penalties and criminal prosecution,” Chief Bell said.

Vjosa Isai contributed reporting from Toronto.

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