Canada

Pierre Poilievre is trying to cash in on a kind of Bitcoin populism on his way to becoming PM. Here’s who he’s targeting

Aly Haman couldn’t sleep as he wrestled with what he called an “obsession.”

During those long nights of the pandemic’s first month in Canada, the restaurant chain owner would wrack his brain over a gnawing question — for which, he says, older generations of Canadians have always had a default answer.

He’d worked hard, he’d made money. But how could he protect it?

If it had been 1980, Haman, the owner of the restaurant chain Tahini’s based in London, Ont., would probably have just done what others had before him: buy a house and watch as its value, and his nest egg, grew and grew.

But this was not the bygone era of forever-growth — it was March 2020. It the beginning not only of a load of pandemic spending by government, but also of an era of superinflated home prices, and financial markets that seemed easy to manipulate.

The events Haman saw unfolding around him in Canada, reminded him of his past. His family had come to Canada from Egypt after much of their wealth was lost when the Egyptian pound collapsed a decade ago during the Arab Spring.

“We come from a country that went through inflation. We witnessed Egyptian currency get devalued over the course of five years by 65 per cent against the U.S. dollar,” Haman said.

Now, he feared history — and inflation — would repeat itself in Canada. (Indeed, last month, the nation’s inflation reached its highest rate since 1991. Costs for gas, food, shelter and other goods are all on the rise. The pandemic, supply-chain problems, and the war in Ukraine have all been cited as causes.)

“It was kind of a light bulb moment: OK, we know inflation is coming. So I started doing research like a maniac to try to find a way to protect our wealth.”

Fast-forward two years, and Haman believes he has found his answer.

For that reason, last week, he stood side-by-side with Pierre Poilievre, extolling the virtues of Bitcoin.

Haman’s restaurant played host to the federal Conservative leadership hopeful at a media event where Haman handed Poilievre a shawarma wrap in exchange for some Bitcoin — using a transfer technology called Lightning. It was a gesture some might see as small, but for many in the world of the cryptocurrency, it screamed with symbolism.

“Pierre, you are the champion of removing the gatekeepers,” Haman said to a small crowd in his restaurant. Poilievre responded by chanting “open the gates.”

“So let’s remove the red tape on innovation and technology and make Canada the freest and most prosperous nation on this earth.”

“The system is broken,” Poilievre said, gesturing to Haman. “And that’s what you’re trying to fix by promoting an alternative approach to money.”

Haman’s particular fears may not be familiar to all Canadians, but he has been far from alone in his disaffection with Canada’s financial state of affairs. He is part of a millennial generation that feels increasingly “locked out” of the housing market where middle-class Canadians have typically stored their wealth. They have become a cohort that Poilievre, as he takes aim at becoming Canada’s next prime minister, is betting he can sway to his self-described “movement.”

If successful, he could lure what would be a Holy Grail constituency into the Conservative party of Canada.

For Poilievre, Haman and possibly many others, the shawarma show was just the briefest glimpse of what a libertarian populist movement could look like in Canada if it spoke for the first time primarily to millennial anxieties.

Call it Bitcoin populism.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are irreplicable codes that are generated online and can be traded through a publicly accessible database known as the blockchain. The Bank of Canada says five per cent of Canadians own Bitcoin. A quarter of Canadians told a survey last year that they were interested in the cryptocurrency.

The basic reason that Bitcoin enthusiasts such as Haman view it as an antidote to inflation is that there are a finite number of Bitcoin that can be found, or “mined,” unlike government currency, the production of which can be increased by central banks.

Due to the finite nature of Bitcoin, some thinkers, such as Saifedean Ammous, an author with a PhD in sustainable development from Columbia University, have argued it’s an even better basis for “sound money” than was the gold standard.

That argument is why Haman hosted Poilievre in one of his restaurants, and repeated his campaign slogan about freedom.

The upshot of Haman’s view is this: Inflation making everything more expensive is the root of all economic evils, and governments and institutions are making this problem worse when they intervene. In other words, he has the economic anxieties of a millennial, and the outlook of a libertarian — someone who views less, rather than more, government intervention as the solution to problems.

Poilievre wants to appeal to people like Haman.

The 42-year-old MP from the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton has made pro-Bitcoin speeches in the House of Commons. He has stated publicly that he owns Bitcoin, though he has not said how much.

Poilievre has not issued a formal policy statement on Bitcoin, but has said he wants Canada to become the world’s leader in Blockchain, although he has not defined what that means. While at Tahini’s, Poilievre said Canadians should be free to use “other money” beyond the Canadian dollar, including what he called “higher quality cash.”

He said he wants to streamline national regulations for “Blockchain companies” and a simple tax structure for cryptocurrency exchanges.

Observers see political currency in what Poilievre is selling.

“I think it dovetails with his pursuit of that disaffected part of the conservative constituency — under-50 males, maybe even younger, who are not particularly trusting of mainstream institutions,” says Frank Graves, president of the polling agency EKOS research.

“There’s a lot of lures for this group,” he said, and Bitcoin is among them.

A poll released by Abacus Data this week found that 88 per cent of aspiring homeowners feel “locked out” of the current housing market. That was keenly felt across the political spectrum, including 79 per cent of Conservative voters.

David Coletto, the chief executive of Abacus, a research firm, said the sense of unfairness around millennials’ inability to own homes can be “a powerful political wedge that can be exploited.”

“If you’re a Conservative and you want to be the prime minister, you need to figure out how to win more young people, and housing is the way to do that because it’s the number one issue,” Coletto said. “He’s making an explicit appeal to groups that the Conservatives don’t normally go after. … He’s going outside of the norm and saying the system as we know it has put the little guy or gal at a disadvantage.”

Poilievre referred to the economic anxieties of millennials while sitting side-by-side with Haman smoking shisha and talking about Bitcoin. The interview was later posted on the restaurant’s social media.

“I have this buddy whose family immigrated in the early 70s and his family bought a nice bungalow in downtown Ottawa … they paid off the house in seven years,” Poilievre said before taking a drag off the big red water pipe, used to smoke flavoured tobacco. “That same house — their grandkids with a university education would have no chance of affording today.”

“So how is it that we’re falling farther and farther behind?”

This is a key part of Poilievre’s message, says Stewart Prest, a politics lecturer at Simon Fraser University.

Prest teaches classes on populism and said Poilievre’s appeals about Bitcoin and inflation could resonate with young Canadians who cannot foresee ever owning a home.

“What we’re seeing from Pierre Poilievre is a kind of populist appeal in that it’s a critique of the system, but it’s not just the same version of Trumpism that we’ve seen before,” Prest said.

“It’s trying to tap into this new dynamic that has become much more significant — the frustration, the real anger of anyone looking at the current financial system and despairing of ever being able to achieve financial prosperity in the old ways.”

Prest said Poilievre is charting, or attempting to chart, a new kind of populism in Canada that pulls from some of the Trumpist playbook, but also targets the unique anxieties of disenfranchised young people worried about their financial futures and being unable to afford buying a home.

That appeal may extend beyond traditionally conservative voters. Like many populist movements, Prest said, the aim is to attract people who feel ill-served by the political system, and young men putting their hopes in Bitcoin — whatever side of the political spectrum they have historically leaned toward — are the targets for Poilievre’s message.

Poilievre’s overtures to Bitcoin advocates in particular may not matter unless they sign up as party members, and have the numbers in enough ridings. Each riding in the Conservative leadership contest, regardless of the number of voters in it, allocates a total of 100 points to candidates based on their vote share.

Coletto pointed out that Poilievre may be pitching to the Bitcoin community precisely because of the nature of the leadership race, which favours candidates attracting new members to the party.

“These groups aren’t deeply partisan,” he said. “But when activated on an issue they care about, tied to a grievance, (they) become a powerful political force.”

Stephen Punwasi, a machine learning and data analyst in Vancouver, runs the website Better Dwelling, which scrutinizes the Canadian housing market, and was instrumental in exposing money laundering in that market, including by publishing a leaked Canadian intelligence report on the topic.

He’s non-partisan, he said, and very interested in how monetary policy affects inflation and housing prices. He’s also a fan of Bitcoin, and says that being a part of online communities that talk about Bitcoin reveals a group with myriad political beliefs.

There are people like Haman who are go-getter entrepreneurs, working-class people having fear of missing out, otherwise known as FOMO, about not being able to buy a house, and everyone in between. What they have in common is that they tend to be young, male and interested in “sound money,” the concept explained at length by Saifedean Ammous. They worry that currency that can dramatically increase in quantity, like government money, is “unsound,” while money tied to something scarce like gold — or finite like Bitcoin — is more likely to hold its value.

“We’re at a point where a lot of young people know about something that’s very boring, which is monetary policy,” Punwasi said.

He referenced the Wall Street Bets subreddit, an online forum where a bunch of people sent the stock for GameStop from $15 to $325 a share practically overnight by buying it en masse (the stock was at $166 a share as of this week).

That, he said, came from their worries about inflation. They wanted to show how easy it is to send a stock soaring when a bunch of cash is thrown at it.

“He’s directly addressing something that no one else is — and the only person before him that would talk about things like inflation or housing costs in relation to credit was Maxime Bernier,” Punwasi said, who said Bernier may have also turned off a lot of potential voters by turning too far to the social-conservative right with his People’s Party of Canada.

Poilievre is taking talking points that may have drawn young people to the PPC and placing them in a more mainstream party. It’s new not only because neither Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nor NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is doing it, but also because previous Conservative leaders didn’t talk this way either.

“Can you imagine (former prime minister Stephen) Harper saying, ‘You know what, the home prices are too expensive’?” Punwasi said. “When I made (a tweet about Poilievre), there were a bunch of people who responded with, ‘Oh man, I normally vote NDP, but I’m 100 per cent in for Pierre.’”

Many, it must be stressed, do not believe that cryptocurrency generally, and Bitcoin specifically, is the cure for what ails Canada’s economy. At this point, such believers appear to be a relatively small section of the population and of economic observers.

Andreas Park, a professor of finance at the University of Toronto called Poilievre’s Bitcoin shawarma purchase “pandering” to cryptocurrency enthusiasts that overstates the utility of Bitcoin as an asset and downplays the potential problems of the technology underpinning it.

The blockchain may well revolutionize how Canadians interact with the financial system, but that will require complicated and nuanced policy decisions that offer protections to investors, park said.

“That is not the conversation that is happening here.”

Bitcoin itself, he said, is not the future. Less than one per cent of all Bitcoin holders control some 30 per cent of the total available Bitcoins. The digital asset has no intrinsic value and its prices are set by a wildly volatile and unregulated speculator’s market.

“You can actually have a digital representation of the Canadian dollar. It exists already,” Park said. “Using the Blockchain technology, you can make transactions so that you don’t need a banking terminal. You literally have peer-to-peer transactions, which I think is a very good thing.”

He cast doubt on the idea that Bitcoin is the solution to inflation, a problem that is more complex than a government printing money.

“There are other really important factors. We have serious supply chain issues and businesses jacking up prices,” he said. “That can’t be resolved by Bitcoin.”

Still, the populist appeal of Bitcoin was on full display during the recent “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa, in which a group of enthusiasts raised about a million dollars for the protesters using a Bitcoin fundraising site.

One of them was Nick St. Louis, a 33-year-old Ottawa man who ended up as the “Bitcoin team lead” at the convoy. He was one of the leaders of the “Honk Honk Hodl” Bitcoin fundraising campaign. Under the name “Nobody Cariboo” he published a regular blog from the protest that called for the elimination of the “legacy” news media, and the replacement of Canada’s Parliament with a government overseen by “elder councils” that will fire politicians who lie.

A lawsuit by Ottawa residents resulted in an injunction on the funds raised by the Honk Honk campaign. St. Louis is named in the lawsuit, and so would not speak to the Star about the fundraising.

But he did talk about how a young person who views “freedom” and government non-intervention as a priority in Canada can start to see Bitcoin not only as a novel financial technology, but as a solution to some of society’s most pernicious problems. It happened to him.

The former physical therapist now works full time speaking and writing about Bitcoin. He tries to encourage more people to buy at least a bit of it as what he calls a “hedge” against the Canadian dollar.

He said he’s long distrusted institutions, and after a former physical therapy client told him about Bitcoin he bought a couple of hundred dollars’ worth.

But he didn’t get heavily invested — either in his time or his savings — until 2021, when he got really worried about the Bank of Canada buying a lot of government bonds, about 300 per cent of what they bought in 2019, essentially to inject cash into the economy during the pandemic.

To St. Louis, and all the Bitcoin podcasters and YouTubers he was now following, this sounded like a recipe for inflation which, if it came about, would mean his savings account would be worth less in the future than it was at that moment.

So, he became “orange pilled” — the term adopted among Bitcoin believers when they declare the current financial system broken and put their money in Bitcoin instead.

Now he thinks Bitcoin, by providing an alternative to investment in the financial system, has the potential to hold monetary policy in check.

“Bitcoin actually gave me hope. You know, I have a nephew and a niece and I plan to have kids myself, and Bitcoin was one of the big things that gave me hope that, like, they can live in a better world than we have right now,” he said.

One of the Bitcoin community mantras that energizes St. Louis today is “fix the money, fix the world.” He views governments printing money as the root of a plethora of problems — from climate change, to what he views as a crisis of health illiteracy in schools. Because he distrusts government money and the financial system so much, he described feeling a weight lifting off of him when he convinced his closest family members to buy a little bit of Bitcoin each — just in case.

The notion of Bitcoin as a secure place to park money can be counterintuitive. After all, the value of Bitcoin can fluctuate wildly over the course of days and weeks. But to people who are firmly orange-pilled like St. Louis, they put more weight in Bitcoin’s inherent scarcity and the fact that it’s decentralized, rather than its price at a given moment.

And Poilievre has made this a major talking point not only in his campaign, but in his time in Parliament.

One speech that Poilievre delivered in the House of Commons on Dec. 10, in which he referred to money as a “technology” to transport value, was viewed 100,000 times when the politician initially shared it on YouTube. After he reshared the video on Jan. 16 with the caption “What is Money?” the clip was shared by some of the biggest Bitcoin advocates in the world, and drew 2.2 million views.

St. Louis told the Star that even though he has little faith in politicians overall, he thought the speech was “beautiful” and he supports Poilievre.

“I look at Pierre and I say, ‘Well, he’s promoting Bitcoin because he understands the problem of money we have and he sees Bitcoin as a viable solution to solve that problem, and at least to hold governments accountable in terms of their monetary policy,’” he said. “So you know, when he talks about freedom, when he talks about Bitcoin, I think that resonates with a lot of people in Canada and I think it’s wise for him to do that.”

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