When Western democracies cut Russian financial institutions out of their international payment networks, Jason Bronius wasn’t expecting Global Affairs Canada to suggest switching to a Chinese bank.
He’s among several Canadians who have shared stories with CBC News about how sanctions against Russia affect them here in Canada.
None have any ties to President Vladimir Putin or the Russian government. None appear on any lists of targeted individuals or entities sanctioned either 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, as the Liberal government continues to sever as many ties to Russia as possible.
“They want to try and isolate the Russian government. Fair enough,” Bronius said. “Both governments have said fine, we’ll just walk away from the global financial system.”
But this has had serious consequences for his family. “How would you suggest I get money to my children in Russia?” he said.
The Calgary man’s marriage broke down 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 have Canadian citizenship. She had become a permanent resident of Canada but her mother lived in Russia and she wanted to go back.
Under the terms of their divorce agreement, Bronius pays $2,400 a month to support his daughter, 15, and son, 11. Despite the distance, they’re a big part of his life; he said he tries to speak to them every day.
‘It was panic’
He used to load these child support payments onto a MasterCard for his ex-wife to spend on whatever they 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 had literally run out of options other than me carrying cash to Russia to get my children their child support,” Bronius said.
Personally delivering his court-ordered payments would require him to take several days off work and spend thousands of dollars on airfares from Calgary to Moscow on a recurring basis — which could cost as much as the child support itself.
The Russian government, meanwhile, wouldn’t provide his ex-wife with any financial support as a single mother because she had a Canadian court judgment stating Bronius would pay her child support.
“The Russian government left me on my own to figure out how to get money to my kids. And the Canadian government was no help,” he said.
Global Affairs suggests Chinese network
One Canadian government official, Bronius said, suggested he find someone to carry money to Russia on his behalf, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea.
He also worried that travelling with thousands of dollars in cash could make border officers suspicious, even if he had a court document laying out his obligation to pay.
Bronius asked his MP, Tom Kmiec, for help. He shared e-mail correspondence between the MP’s office and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) with CBC News.
One consular case management officer from GAC’s family unit suggested Bronius turn to a Chinese bank to get around the Canadian government’s sanctions.
“Open a UnionPay International card (China) and transfer the details for the transfer to the person in Russia,” wrote Katia Pouliot.
“I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that,” Bronius said.
UnionPay cards, which are issued by a Chinese corporation, are now accepted in over 180 countries. Based on GAC’s advice, Bronius tried to get a UnionPay card so he could use that payment network.
But a Bank of China representative from a Calgary branch told Bronius that bank couldn’t transfer his money either because it didn’t want to run afoul of the 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 assistance on other issues from Canada’s embassy, and his ex-wife was willing to take a train into Moscow to receive money there. But embassy officials, Bronius said, weren’t willing to help deliver his child support and made it clear to him they aren’t bankers.
Ministerial permit won’t help
Bronius said he learned there’s an exemption to allow Canada Pension Plan payments to flow into Russia to support seniors. But there’s no such exemption for child support payments. Bronius said he thinks that in its rush to get the sanctions in place, the government didn’t carefully consider all the exemptions it would need.
“As of yet, I haven’t had anyone from the federal government offer a solution,” he said. “They’ve just washed their hands a bit and allowed me to figure it out.”
Although GAC doesn’t comment on individual consular cases for privacy 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 aren’t possible.
“Canada’s sanctions place prohibitions on the interactions that Canadians abroad and persons in Canada can have with listed individuals and entities,” said GAC spokesperson Grantly Franklin.
“Our sanctions aim to apply pressure on foreign actors, not on Canadians. Global Affairs Canada does not provide legal advice to members of the public.”
Following his MP’s intervention, Bronius obtained a letter confirming it’s not prohibited for him to send child support to his Canadian kids in Russia. But it’s not clear how GAC expects him to make these payments.
Unlike others who have had family assets frozen by Canadian authorities, he can’t apply for a ministerial permit to get his funds flowing.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation. They would help me if it was prohibited, but because it’s ‘non-prohibited’ they can’t help me,” Bronius said.
It may not be prohibited to pay child support to someone in Russia, but it has become practically impossible to do, so long as financial networks remain cut off.
Bronius persevered. He’s found a way — at least for now — to get money to his ex-wife and kids.
He doesn’t want to disclose how he’s doing it, however. He’s afraid the Canadian government will turn off that tap, too.