Large number of donations to support convoy came from aliases, unnamed donors

·6 min read
Supporters of an anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy bound for Ottawa cheer at the Vaughan Mills outlet mall in Vaughan, Ont., on Jan. 27, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Supporters of an anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy bound for Ottawa cheer at the Vaughan Mills outlet mall in Vaughan, Ont., on Jan. 27, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

At least a third of the donations to the GoFundMe campaign set up to support the convoy of trucks headed to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates came from anonymous sources or were attributed to fake names, according to an analysis by CBC News.

While thousands of Canadians and Canadian businesses have dipped into their pockets to fund the cause, thousands of other donors to the campaign are listed simply as "Anonymous."

As of 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday, six of the top 10 donations, all over $10,000, were listed as anonymous, including the single largest donation of $25,022.

While the campaign is fundraising for a Canadian political protest, some donations appear to have come from outside of Canada, based on comments left by donors on GoFundMe.

Some donations were made using the names of other people. Among the most common donor names listed on the GoFundMe site are Justin Trudeau, Sophie Trudeau and Theresa Tam — the name of Canada's chief public health officer.

On Thursday afternoon, a $25,023 donation was listed as coming from Sophie Grégoire. It disappeared minutes later.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office and Tam's office confirmed that neither the Trudeaus nor Tam donated to the convoy's fundraising campaign.

Other listed donors identified themselves as "Fidel Castro - Justin Trudeau's dad," "Justin Trudeau's conscience," "Dump Trudeau" or used a number of other phrases laden with obscenities.

Some aliases were less obvious. A $15,100 donation Wednesday afternoon put the name David Fisman at the top of the GoFundMe donations list for a day.

Ian Black/CBC
Ian Black/CBC

Dr. David Fisman, a professor in epidemiology at Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said his family name is rare because it was the result of a spelling error made when his family immigrated.

"Given that whoever did this also wrote 'follow me on Twitter' in the comments, and I have a fairly well known (by Canadian standards) verified Twitter account with 110,000 followers that seems to be much detested and disparaged by opponents of vaccines and public health measures, I think it's reasonable to assume that this was intended to be seen as a donation that I had made," said Fisman.

Donations to the convoy have been growing rapidly. By 6:30 p.m Thursday, the campaign had raised $6.4 million from 82,500 donors.

Questions have been raised about the destination of the money, particularly since some of the organizers have been involved in politics.

GoFundMe — which gets a percentage of all the money donated — delayed disbursement of the funds earlier this week, saying it wanted to know more about how the money was going to be used. It announced Thursday that it would begin releasing money after the organizers of the fundraising campaign provided a distribution plan for the funds.

GoFundMe only makes public a fraction of the donations on the web page at any given time, and the list changes constantly as new donations come in.

CBC analyzed 35,270 donations totalling $2.8 million, collected from GoFundMe's public website every half hour since Monday morning. The fundraising campaign was launched on Jan. 14.

The data collected by CBC show that thousands of donations appear to have been made by Canadians and Canadian businesses. Many of the businesses that appear on a list of the top donations are actual small businesses, often located in more rural communities — particularly in Ontario and Alberta.

Another 11,477, or 32.5 per cent of the entries viewed by CBC News, were listed simply as "Anonymous." The anonymous donations examined by CBC News totalled $912,801.

Money from abroad

A number of donors identified themselves in comments as living abroad, in countries such as the United States, Australia, England or Poland. It is not possible to know how many people from outside Canada donated to the fundraising page.

GoFundMe says donors misrepresenting themselves is a violation of its terms of service and it removes and refunds those donations. However, it has not yet responded to questions about what, if anything, it has done regarding the donations to the Freedom Convoy's page using invented names or the names of other people.

Alexander Reid Ross, a Portland, Oregon-based senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, said GoFundMe has often been used to raise money for political causes, although the protest convoy has raised more money than most.

"GoFundMe has been used by political actors all over the spectrum," he said. "It has been used by right-wingers to support people who are going to jail, to pay for bail, to pay for lawyer fees and things like that."

He said some donors may have reasons for not wanting their identities made public.

'Conspiracy theorists'

"You have a lot of conspiracy theorists ... who think that if they float their name out there on a GoFundMe campaign that they will be added to a government watch list. You also have a lot of people who just aren't comfortable putting their name out there on the internet," he said, adding that some donors further hide their identity by using burner ATM cards to donate.

"There are a variety of reasons why someone would want to donate anonymously."

That same anonymity could be used to mask interference in a political debate by extremists or foreign state actors, he said.

"It wouldn't be surprising at all because their number one objective is to destabilize a political climate that enables liberal democracy," he said. "So they will empower whatever political tendency that might militate against liberal democracy for whatever reason."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

NDP MP Charlie Angus said GoFundMe is a valuable tool to help raise money for good causes but he's troubled by people donating money anonymously to a political cause.

"I'm sorry, if you're putting big money into a cause like this, and it's political and you're calling for the overthrow of the medical standards that we have in place, I don't think you get to hide behind anonymity," he said. "We should know who you are."

Angus said he has questions about where the money is coming from, where it is going and whether some of it is coming from other countries.

What happens next should depend on whether Saturday's demonstration on Parliament Hill is peaceful, said Angus.

"I think we're going to watch and see what happens and if lessons need to be learned and changes need to be made, I think there will be a real appetite to move on it," he said.

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

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