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A person walks by trucks blocking roads downtown as truckers and their supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa on Feb. 7.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

Donations are pouring in from supporters around the world for protesters who have effectively shut down Ottawa’s downtown core, as the fundraising effort bypasses traditional channels and turns to cryptocurrency.

U.S. crowdfunding platform GoFundMe broke ties with the demonstrators late last week, scuttling what had quickly become one of the biggest fundraising campaigns in the company’s history, with about $10-million in contributions. “This fundraiser is now in violation of our terms of service,” a GoFundMe statement said, citing the “promotion of violence and harassment” in the streets across Parliament Hill.

Funding for the self-declared “Freedom Convoy” protesters is now coming through cryptocurrency exchanges and in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), technology built using blockchain ledgers that offer participants the ideal of anonymity. As a result, such funding no longer relies on any international banks or a single crowdfunding platform.

Paris and Brussels set to be hit with Canadian-style convoy protests over the weekend

Donations are coming from people in the United States, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, France and Britain, among other countries, according to chat-room messages on the platform Discord and conversations on mobile app Zello Walkie Talkie.

Because of the inherently concealed nature of cryptocurrency, figures are scant and difficult to verify. Some protest organizers said in livestreams this week they have received more than $300,000 in bitcoin alone, but other ad-hoc leaders claimed that number is at least US$500,000 when factoring in Dogecoin, Ethereum and Tether donations.

The fundraising organizers include Vancouver entrepreneur Jeff Booth, Ontario-based consultant Greg Foss, convoy organizer B.J. Dichter and two other men who use the monikers Nobody Cariboo and BTC Sessions. The organizers didn’t respond to requests for comment. Money is also coming in through other digital avenues.

In addition to cryptocurrencies, the fundraising effort includes artwork being peddled to support the protest. On NFT marketplace OpenSea alone, hundreds of “newly-minted projects” displaying animated or motionless pictures of trucks are being sold for up to 0.1 Ether coins at a time. (0.1 Ether, as of Wednesday, was worth US$313.28.)

On blockchain explorer XChain, even more NFTs are listed, bearing a resemblance to digital collectibles from card games, but with the label “#FREEDOMCONVOY22″ and internet meme Pepe the Frog on them.

The use of cryptocurrency for fundraising during the Ottawa protest, which is aimed at government-imposed vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions, is a natural fit with the cause because some cryptocurrency proponents espouse anti-establishment views and push for a financial system detached from governments and central banks, according to cryptocurrency experts.

“The anti-government mentality is intrinsic to the crypto movement in a very ideological way,” said Erica Pimentel, a professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University who has focused her academic research on cryptocurrency, bitcoin and NFTs in recent years.

“They like that they’re the alternative to the status quo. And so, this is just one big way of showing that to the world, during an occupation that keeps getting co-opted from one cause to the next.”

Prof. Pimentel said this type of fundraising is likely to be used in other demonstrations – in Canada and around the world.

“Why would anyone want to go back to GoFundMe anymore when they know a decentralized space won’t give them the same type of regulation, oversight or monitoring headaches for the funding to their cause?” she said.

“The questions we should be asking is whether the Canadian government has the capacity to figure out what to do about this. And right now, I don’t think they do. I don’t think so at all, because they just don’t understand this space well enough,” she said.

“More importantly, what we absolutely cannot get into is government getting in the way of private citizens funding social movements. That is very dangerous, authoritarian territory. And conversations about it should give us all pause, even if we all do agree that this occupation in Ottawa is a problem.”

From “early planning stages to our road trip here, to us being able to stay in Ottawa right now, crypto was, like, always there,” Colin Valentim, a convoy organizer, said in an interview.

Mr. Valentim drove to Ottawa from British Columbia, picking up dozens of other truckers on the way. “This is what happens when you cut us off,” he said.

The “wider shift” to cryptocurrency donations through platforms such as Tallycoin instead of using other, more traditional funding platforms occurred after GoFundMe disallowed its service for the Ottawa protest, Mr. Valentim said.

More than $800,000 has been raised through Tallycoin. Another US$7-million has been raised through a non-crypto collection of funds on the self-described “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site” GiveSendGo.

Since Jan. 28, the demonstrations in Ottawa have forced businesses to close and halted traffic, and the city declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

Demands from the protesters – who began as a core convoy of truckers unwilling to be vaccinated after cross-border vaccine mandates took effect in Canada and the U.S. in January – now vary from person to person. Many say they are simply tired of pandemic restrictions disrupting their freedom of liberty and movement. Some protesters say they want to overthrow the Liberal government. Others believe the COVID-19 virus is not real and that the media is propagating a lie.

The protest has found support among a coterie of crypto enthusiasts outside Canada, including Elon Musk, head of electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc., who tweeted in support of the convoy.

Some supporters of Donald Trump, who once told Fox News that crypto is “very dangerous,” have taken the former U.S. president’s recent statements against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to mean they should donate toward the Ottawa protests – through cryptocurrencies or otherwise. Mr. Trump said in a statement last week that “insane COVID mandates” are “destroying” Canada.

Texas Attorney-General Ken Paxton and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have tweeted that their governments are planning to investigate GoFundMe’s cancellation of U.S. donor funds for the protests.

On this side of the border, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Monday that the federal government is ready to probe what he called “foreign financial contributions” through investigative agencies.

Lawyers who follow the crypto industry say financial contributions to the Ottawa protest could potentially expose donors to legal liability.

Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly said Monday that 20 criminal arrests have been made, charges have been laid and another 500 tickets or citations have been issued so far in response to the continuing protests. Police have also towed several trucks, Mr. Sloly told reporters.

Stephen Aylward, who practises criminal law and focuses on complex litigation cases at Stockwoods LLP Barristers in Toronto, said charges in Ottawa could theoretically be tied to donors.

“It’s a big if – a pretty big one – of course,” Mr. Aylward said. “But if it can be proven that donors had knowledge or their intention in making their contribution was to incite violence, or cause a certain criminal act, or perhaps be party to a conspiracy, these are all ways in which you could be held liable.”

“I think what we have to understand about crypto is that it really isn’t completely anonymous, even if that is one goal it wants to or was set out to accomplish,” said Aaron Grinhaus, a business lawyer who focuses on blockchain technologies at Toronto-based Grinhaus Law Firm.

“Unless you’re working peer-to-peer with somebody who wants to take your coin, almost everyone will need your personal information to verify things,” he added. “Nowadays, yes, maybe you can hold onto your crypto for a while without getting on the radar somewhere. But eventually, if you want to buy things [with] that coin, like a car or what have you, they’ll want to know who you actually are.”

The protesters’ funding, by numbers
Funds already collected
  • GoFundMe - before cancellation - $10-million
  • Tallycoin - $800,000
  • GiveSendGo - US$7-million
Funding up for grabs
  • Hundreds of NFTs - on OpenSea - worth 0.1 Ether or US$313.28.
  • At least 2,022 NFTs - on XChain - up for bidding
Unverifiable figures from convoy organizers
  • $300,000 in Bitcoin alone
  • US$500,000, when factoring in Dogecoin, Ethereum and Tether donations

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