When Western democracies cut off Russian financial institutions from their international payment networks, Jason Bronius didn’t expect Global Affairs Canada to suggest switching to a Chinese bank.
He is among several Canadians who have shared stories with CBC News about how sanctions against Russia are affecting them here in Canada.
None have any connection to President Vladimir Putin or the Russian government. None appear on the lists of targeted individuals or entities sanctioned before or after last year’s invasion of Ukraine.
But these Canadians are still caught up in the design and administration of their own government’s economic sanctions, while the Liberal government continues to sever as many ties with Russia as possible.
“They want to try to isolate the Russian government. Fair enough,” Bronius said. “Both governments have said okay, we’re just going to walk away from the global financial system.”
But it had serious consequences for his family. “How would you suggest that I give money to my children in Russia?” he said.
The Calgary man’s marriage broke up over a decade ago. His ex-wife, a Russian citizen, made what he calls an “amicable decision” to return to Russia with their two children, who are Canadian citizens. She had become a permanent resident of Canada, but her mother lived in Russia and she wanted to return there.
Under the terms of their divorce agreement, Bronius pays $2,400 a month to support his 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. Despite the distance, they occupy an important place in his life. he said he tried to talk to them every day.
“It was panic”
He used to load those child support payments onto a MasterCard so his ex-wife could spend whatever she needed. After MasterCard and Visa pulled out of Russia last year, he tried sending international wire transfers through various banks. But once Canada joined other allies in kicking Russia out of the SWIFT payment network, that too was shut down.
“It was panic. We literally had no choice but to ferry money to Russia for my children to receive child support,” Bronius said.
Personally making his court-ordered payments would require him to take several days off and spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets from Calgary to Moscow on a recurring basis – which could cost as much as the child support itself.
The Russian government, meanwhile, would not provide any financial support to his ex-wife as a single mother, as she had a judgment from a Canadian court stating that Bronius would pay child support.
“The Russian government left me alone to figure out how to send money to my children. And the Canadian government was of no help,” he said.
Global Affairs suggests Chinese network
A Canadian government official, Bronius said, suggested he find someone to transport money to Russia on his behalf, but he was not comfortable with the idea.
He also worried that traveling with thousands of dollars in cash would make border officials suspicious, even though he had a court document establishing his obligation to pay.
Bronius asked his deputy, Tom Kmiec, for help. He shared email correspondence between the MP’s office and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) with CBC News.
A consular case management officer from GAC’s family unit suggested Bronius turn to a Chinese bank to circumvent Canadian government sanctions.
“Open a UnionPay International (China) card and transfer the transfer details to the person in Russia,” writes Katia Pouliot.
“I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it,” Bronius said.
UnionPay cards, issued by a Chinese company, are now accepted in more than 180 countries. Based on advice from GAC, Bronius tried to get a UnionPay card so he could use this payment network.
But a Bank of China representative from a Calgary branch told Bronius that the bank also couldn’t transfer his money because it didn’t want to violate sanctions.
“Why would [GAC] send me to a Chinese bank when obviously we still have lines of communication with the embassy in Moscow?” he said.
Bronius said he had received help with other matters from the Canadian Embassy and that his ex-wife was willing to take a train to Moscow to receive money there. But embassy officials, Bronius said, were unwilling to help pay child support and made it clear to him that they were not bankers.
The ministerial permit will be useless
Bronius said he learned there was an exemption allowing Canada Pension Plan payments to be made in Russia to support the elderly. But there is no such exemption for child support payments. Bronius said he believed that in its rush to put the sanctions in place, the government had not carefully considered all the exemptions it would need.
“As of now, no one from the federal government has offered a solution,” he said. “They just washed their hands a bit and let me understand.”
Although GAC does not comment on individual consular cases for confidentiality reasons, CBC News asked GAC generally what Canadians should do if they need to transfer funds to or from Russia for urgent and essential personal reasons. , now that SWIFT transfers are no longer possible.
“Canada’s sanctions prohibit interactions that Canadians abroad and persons in Canada may have with listed individuals and entities,” said GAC spokesperson Grantly Franklin.
“Our sanctions are intended to pressure foreign actors, not Canadians. Global Affairs Canada does not provide legal advice to members of the public.”
Following the intervention of his MP, Bronius obtained a letter confirming that he is not prohibited from sending child support to his Canadian children in Russia. But it’s unclear how GAC expects it to make those payments.
Unlike others whose family assets have been frozen by Canadian authorities, he cannot apply for a ministerial permit to circulate his funds.
“It’s a catch-22 situation. They would help me if it was banned, but because it’s ‘unbanned,’ they can’t help me,” Bronius said.
It may not be illegal to pay someone alimony in Russia, but it has become practically impossible as long as the financial networks remain cut off.
Bronius persevered. He found a way, at least for now, to give money to his ex-wife and children.
However, he doesn’t want to reveal how he does it. He is afraid that the Canadian government will also turn off this tap.
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