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Trump backers seize on GoFundMe controversy as truckers linger in U.S. headlines


WASHINGTON — An outsized American display of financial largesse, political support and right-wing media sympathy for ongoing trucker protests in Canada have observers in both countries accusing some in the U.S. of fanning the flames for their own partisan gain.

For more than a week, viewers of Trump-friendly platforms like Fox News, Newsmax and One America News have been getting something exceedingly rare in the U.S. media landscape: regular doses of Canadian coverage.

And prominent Republican lawmakers like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spent the weekend seizing on last week's controversy over the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe to keep the story alive. 

DeSantis and Cruz both want GoFundMe investigated after it froze roughly $9 million in donations earmarked for the ongoing Ottawa protest, then announced Friday it would issue refunds upon request or distribute the money to charities chosen by the protest organizers. 

The company reversed course within hours "due to donor feedback," promising automatic refunds. But attorneys general in Florida, Texas, West Virginia and Louisiana — Republicans all — nonetheless urged donors to come forward in the name of launching investigations. 

For Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada under Barack Obama, it all smacks of foreign interference, and he believes Trump is at its centre.

"I do not believe that Americans should fund disruptive activities in Canada. Ever. Full stop," Heyman said in an interview Monday. 

"What we're seeing through (the) former president, for his disciples, for people who have positioned themselves in the extreme right wing of the Republican Party – if we call it that today – all of them have now jumped on and (are) somehow using Canada as a cause to galvanize support amongst their followers."

For his part, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino wanted nothing to do with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who vowed on Twitter to examine GoFundMe for diverting funds away from a "worthy cause."  

"It is certainly not the concern of the Texas attorney general about how we in Canada go about our daily lives in accordance with the rule of law," Mendicino said. "We are Canadian, we have our own set of laws, and we will follow them."

Added Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair: "We're all entitled to an opinion, and in my opinion, (Paxton is) wrong."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked Monday whether the Biden administration is concerned about conservative movements in the U.S. trying to exert influence north of the border. 

Psaki had some talking points ready, but they were focused on the potential impact of the protests on security at the Canada-U.S. border and on supply chains that are already creaking under the weight of COVID-19. 

"In terms of an assessment of any other engagement from here, we don't really have any update on that or investigations to read out at this point in time."

Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and White House adviser who now works as a consultant in Washington, said it will be difficult to parse the movement's authentic grassroots elements from any political jerry-rigging.

"An element is likely organic, but then it gets exploited by other interests — including by foreign interests — who want to sow further division in Canadian society, but also seek to maximize the benefit for their own political purposes at home," Bruen said. 

"I think there has to be a close review of some of the laws and regulations that govern what can be funded, what can be done in co-ordination with foreign political interests."

Heyman said the last thing he wants to do is tell the federal government in Ottawa how to deal with the situation, but he urged Canadians to band together to fight the hate that has been on display in the national capital.

Swastikas, Confederate flags and even the yellow Star of David symbol the Nazis used to identify Jews during the Second World War have all been features of the protest, which has entered its second week. 

"The symbolism of all of this is real, and it is hateful," Heyman said. "We're seeing this going on not just in Canada and the U.S. but around the world. And this is like a virus in and of itself – a virus of hate."

On Saturday, a group of young white men wearing red baseball caps with the slogan "Canada First," evoking Trump's signature look and slogan, traded insults with counter-protesters at Ottawa City Hall.

One of them identified the group as "Groypers," an extreme-right nationalist movement bent on pushing their views on mainstream conservative politics in the U.S. and around the world.

"The Groypers will take back Canada for the Canadian people," said one, who derided the counter-protesters as "globalists" before police intervened. 

The space vacated by GoFundMe was quickly filled by an alternative service, GiveSendGo, which bills itself as a free "Christian crowdfunding" site. That "freedom convoy" campaign, which has a stated goal of US$16 million, had already raised more than $5 million by late afternoon Monday. 

Most of the donors were anonymous, with typical contributions between $20 and several hundred dollars. Many left comments that suggested they were contributing either from inside the U.S. or from further abroad. 

"Thank you Canada for showing the western world what matters," said one. "Many of us in the States are with you," read another. 

Neither crowdfunding site responded to media queries Monday about where the bulk of the money was coming from. But in the case of GiveSendGo, not all of the donations were foreign, nor were they modest sums. 

The largest, registered on the weekend, was for $215,000, followed by four $20,000 contributions. A gun range in Langley, B.C., offered up $18,000, while an auction house in Chilliwack, B.C., contributed $5,000. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2022. 

— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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