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Last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet used special powers under the Emergencies Act to freeze the bank accounts of Canadian citizens who supported Freedom Convoy protests against vaccine mandates. The government partnered with banks and other businesses to “de-bank” Canadians, circumventing due process and normalizing a dangerous, undemocratic policy. Canada has since revoked the Emergencies Act and instructed banks to unfreeze the targeted bank accounts, but this action set a dangerous precedent.

On February 22, the House of Commons Finance Committee questioned Department of Finance Assistant Deputy Minister Isabelle Jacques about the details of these financial measures. The government revealed that more than 206 accounts were frozen. Exactly how many “more” was not indicated. Trudeau revoked the Emergencies Act on February 23. But we still do not know how many accounts were frozen. No judicial review is permitted of the actions of banks under the Emergencies Act. 

The government targeted not only protest participants, but also those who merely donated to the protesters. A reporter asked Jacques if a person who donated to a crowdfunding platform with no further involvement in protests could have their bank account frozen. The answer was “Yes.” Some people were punished without being formally charged with a crime at all.

In some cases, the right to a trial and the presumption of innocence were discarded. The Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP) has stated that they provided the names of Freedom Convoy donors to financial institutions. The RCMP claimed that these individuals were major influencers in the protests or truck drivers who refused to leave the area. This might be the case, but we have no way of knowing for sure. Normally, when the RCMP conducts an investigation, they charge an individual with a specific crime and then give evidence to the Crown prosecutor, who decides if the person should be tried in court. If the person is found guilty after trial, then the judge sentences the person, and the sentence is carried out. However, in this situation, the whole process was reversed. The RCMP determined guilt and imposed a punishment before conducting a proper trial for explicit charges. And because this was done under the Emergencies Act, citizens do not have the ability to sue the bank or the RCMP for mistakes—cases of mistaken identity, for example. There was no incentive against carelessness.

There has also been controversy over whose accounts were frozen. The Globe and Mail reports that the RCMP told the House of Commons Finance Committee on March 7 that a “small number” of additional accounts were frozen under the Emergencies Act based on the banks’ own “risk-based” reviews and were not on a list of names provided by the RCMP.

Canada set a new legal precedent by introducing collective punishment for individual crimes. Some of those targeted were only indirectly, even unknowingly, related to the protests. According to one MP, The de-banking provisions are so broad, that literally a clerk at a Kwik-E-Mart who sold a propane canister to a protester could have his account frozen.” Furthermore, family members completely unrelated to the “criminal” acts were targeted. If a husband and father took part in the protest and his bank account was frozen, his wife and children were thereby punished, even though the wife and children did nothing wrong. Totalitarian regimes do this; liberal democracies do not.

Some may assume that since Trudeau revoked the Emergency Act on February 23, everything is fine now and we can forget about this whole affair. However, it is more realistic to assume that this was a “trial run” to see how much public opposition there would be to such actions. Trudeau’s government got a black eye from this misadventure, but public pressure should be exerted on him continuously until he resigns from office. Otherwise, we risk future attacks on democracy. 

Bank account freezing is enticing to power-hungry politicians everywhere. It can be done in the shadows, without public spectacle. It also instills fear in potential protesters who might be willing to risk getting arrested for organizing, but who cannot risk being cut off from the banking system. The invocation of Canadas Emergencies Act is inappropriate short of a war or total societal breakdown. Freezing bank accounts is even more illicit; it is a police state tactic that has no place in a democracy. A prime minister who would use this tactic to target peaceful protesters with legitimate grievances has no business remaining in office.

Craig A. Carter is research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto.

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