A number of people in the Persian community are angry and upset after having their accounts at Toronto Dominion Bank frozen or closed for alleged violations of Canada's economic sanctions against Iran.
"We've heard from people throughout the Lower Mainland" including the North Shore, said West Vancouver lawyer Zahra Jenab, vice-president of the Civic Association of Iranian-Canadians of B.C.
The TD Bank recently sent letters to a number of Iranian-Canadians saying the bank would not continue to provide those customers with services, because of Canada's special economic measures against Iran.
Under those measures, Canadian financial institutions are banned from providing services for the benefit of the country.
But Jenab said frustrated Iranian-Canadians who've contacted her don't see how they've broken the rules.
"They aren't really sure how they are connected to the regulations," she said. "The connection for them isn't clear."
In some cases, people who received the letters may at some point have received money either from their own accounts in Iran or from relatives in that country. In others, those who've received the letters say they have no idea what they've done to be targeted by the bank.
"There is little explanation from the TD Bank in terms of who they are sending the letters to," said Jenab. "We're not quite sure who has been affected by it."
Jenab added many people are reluctant to speak publicly about their financial affairs. "It's a very sensitive and private matter."
In some cases, the bank has called in mortgages, giving customers tight deadlines to come up with the money. "They've had to refinance, or and make arrangements for their lines of credit," said Jenab. In cases where the bank has not been able to contact the account holder, those accounts have been frozen and/or closed.
Jeff Meerman, spokesman for the TD Bank Group, said moves to close or freeze accounts have been made in order to comply with the federal government's economic sanctions against Iran. Those rules are "non-negotiable," said Meerman, and prohibit banks from providing services to people or businesses in the country.
Meerman said when the review of an account turns up a possible problem, the bank tries to contact the account holder by phone and by mail. "In many cases we didn't hear back from customers," he said. In those cases, "we can no longer provide products and services to those customers," he said.
"This is how the regulation is applied," he said.
Meerman did not answer questions about exactly what kind of account activity would prompt TD to send out a letter.
That's one of the issues that's made the situation so hard to deal with, said Jenab.
Under Canada's "Special Economic Measures" regulations, everyone in Canada is banned from providing financial services "to, from or for the benefit of . . . any person in Iran", except for specified humanitarian and diplomatic organizations. There is also an exception for "non-commercial remittances of $40,000 or less sent to or from Iran or any person in Iran." Transactions that took place before the regulations were in force or are necessary to fulfill contracts signed before the regulations were put in place on Nov. 22 are also exempt.
So far TD appears to be the only bank interpreting the sanctions against Iran as broadly as it has, said Jenab.
Nobody knows if other banks will follow suit, she added, which is an additional worry for people in the Persian community. At the very least, said Jenab, people affected should be told exactly why they have been targeted by the bank and have an opportunity to appeal.
"It's possible some people who do believe they're innocent are being caught in a bigger net," she said.
Anyone whose account has been affected can apply to the minister of foreign affairs for a permit to complete transactions banned under the sanctions. Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, spokesman for the department, said anyone who wants to make an application can email email@example.com