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The Freedom Convoy, a radical protest fueled by Covid-19 vaccination mandates for Canadian truck drivers, saw authorities work outside established laws to quell demonstrations and block financial support. Amidst the chaos, bitcoin proved to be a sovereign financial riel as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of btc poured into protesters despite government efforts to block donations.
Reading: Bitcoin for truckers
on january 22, a convoy of long-haul canadian trucks left the port city of prince rupert, british columbia, and arrived in nearby prince george. the next day, another group of trucks traveled from delta, british columbia, to a section of the transcanada highway. By the end of the month, some 3,000 trucks and other vehicles, accompanied by more than 15,000 protesters, had converged on the nation’s capital, Ottawa, blocking its streets and calling themselves the Freedom Convoy.
The city police immediately launched a criminal investigation into their assembly.
Protesters were initially motivated by Covid-19 vaccination mandates for cross-border truck drivers implemented by the Canadian government on January 15. On February 7 and for several days afterward, protesters intermittently blocked the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest international crossing in the North. America, which sees $323 million worth of merchandise crossing daily. Ottawa businesses were damaged and unable to operate, and Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan later estimated that local workers suffered $208 million in lost wages.
Protesters were almost immediately successful in disrupting business as usual and attracting media attention, and on February 11, Premier Doug Ford of Ontario declared a state of emergency. On February 14, the Canadian government took unprecedented extralegal action by invoking the emergency law for the first time since it was enacted more than 30 years ago, giving authorities the temporary power to go beyond the scope of existing law to quell the protest. Later that month, similar protests were organized in more than 30 other countries, including the United States, Argentina, and New Zealand.
and through it all, the freedom convoy quickly became one of the most high-profile test cases for bitcoin’s use as a permissionless, censorship-resistant way to transact value for anyone , wherever and whenever.
“This will be a historic moment for bitcoin,” explained b.j. Dichter, a Torontonian born and raised in Canada, who was also a long-haul trucker before becoming a spokesperson for the Freedom Convoy. “Because we always talk about this hypothetical government tyranny of blocking your bank accounts, stealing your money and whatever… well, now they just did it. so he showed it all. everything that people were saying about bitcoin like, ‘oh, that’s hyperbolic. That will never happen. well, guess what? yesterday’s conspiracy is today’s reality. And I think in the future, people will see that that was the moment when ordinary people and everyone understood that the government can’t track it, can’t block it, and shouldn’t be able to.”
driven to protest
In 2018, Canada’s trucking industry raised around $31.5 billion and moved more than 63 million shipments, according to statista. from 2009 to 2018, it generated $277.1 billion in total. For many Canadians in recent years, working as a long-haul truck driver was seen as an opportunity to earn a flexible and reliable income.
“I got my license before the regulations changed in Canada that made it very restrictive to get a trucking license,” Dichter explained. “my brother thought it would be nice when he retires that maybe we start a business together and he wanted to go into trucking…so i got my license and was getting a little bit of experience, part time when i had days off.. … trucking became a side hustle.”
dichter recalled his role in the freedom convoy while sitting in the halls of the miami beach convention center during the bitcoin 2022 conference in april, where he had been invited to speak about the role bitcoin played in sustaining protest. he described himself as a “serial entrepreneur”, having worked as a geologist and diamond classifier, in the motorcycle industry, as a podcast producer and more. his own interest in bitcoin was piqued in 2015 and he first invested in bitcoin the following year.
said that the strict regulations imposed on Canadian truckers had been a long-standing point of contention between drivers and regulators since long before the freedom convoy was organized. In 2019, for example, 150 truckers from Alberta traveled in a four-day convoy to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, calling themselves the United We Roll Convoy. according to local news coverage at the time, the truckers were protesting against a series of government impositions, including taxes on oil and gasoline.
dichter called this year’s vaccination mandates “the last straw” for Canadian truckers.
“Most of us are vaccinated,” he explained. “It was the mandates, the lack of choice. that was the problem.”
dichter described a personal experience that took place a few days before the occupation of the ottawa convoy; Border agents had tracked the status of his vaccine by monitoring his phone within a certain US neighborhood. uu. border while he was driving home. To him and many other Canadians, this level of government surveillance was indicative of a growing willingness by government officials to track personal details of their citizens without permission.
“if that’s the case, then we have a completely tracked and surveilled society, like it’s crazy where we’re going, we need to stop this now, and we all saw it,” he said. “It was these final ‘papers please’ restrictions to cross the border into your own country that was enough.”
About a week before the protesters left for Ottawa, Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich contacted Dichter, an old friend who has organized numerous protest movements in her native Canada. she was arrested on february 17 for her role in the freedom convoy and, at the time of this writing, she is legally barred from returning to ontario except for court-related reasons. lich asked dichter for help with media relations.
“I love these truckers, I’m friends with them, but none of them have any media experience or media training,” Lich told Ditcher, as he recalls. “Can you be the spokesperson, help with press releases, all that kind of stuff?”
Freedom Convoy organizers launched a fundraiser on the centralized donation processor gofundme in January 2022, hoping to raise around $20,000 for fuel and other basic supplies needed to sustain their protest. To their surprise, by the end of January they had raised about $4 million from over 100,000 donors, and gofundme had distributed about $800,000 to the organizers.
but in early February, gofundme halted distributions due to concerns that the fundraiser did not comply with its terms of service, which include bans on “user content that reflects or promotes behavior that supports violence.”
“recent events in ottawa, canada sparked widespread discussion about the freedom convoy 2022 fundraiser on gofundme,” according to a February 2 company statement. “As part of our information collection process, we also request further information from the organizer regarding the use of the funds to ensure that the fundraiser continues to comply with our terms of service. when we don’t receive the required information, we can put a pause on donations like we did in this case.”
That’s when the Canadian government began to get directly involved in passing on funds from donors to protesters.
on february 3, a canadian house of commons committee asked gofundme officials to testify about security concerns about the origin and destination of donated funds. Members of Parliament also asked the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Canada (FINTRAC) to testify. the next day, gofundme removed the campaign.
Several other centralized fundraising platforms began collecting funds for the Freedom Convoy, but it was clear that the Canadian government had drawn a line in the sand. Fundraisers on the Christian giving platform GiveendGo had raised more than $8.5 million for the protesters, but the Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted an injunction freezing the funds. At the end of February, Canada invoked the emergency law and froze more than 75 bank accounts linked to the protests.
“three years ago, if you had asked me what the probability is that canada would freeze people’s bank accounts…I would find it very hard to believe it was 20%,” said greg foss, an outspoken bitcoin advocate and fifth-generation Canadian. “And three years later, it’s 100%… it wasn’t a good thing for freedom.”
an avenue without permission
while dichter and others organizing the freedom convoy struggled with centralized fundraisers, bitcoiners who had been supporting the movement took it upon themselves to collect btc donations via tallycoin, a bitcoin-based fundraising platform .
“The bitcoin community was amazing,” said dichter. “Of all the things that I had to deal with, these little groups that were fighting internally and people, you know, trying to do their own press conferences, the only community that I could depend on was the bitcoin community, because they had all his ducks lined up. . They were great, they just kept me up to date.”
tallycoin allows donations directly to a fundraiser’s bitcoin wallet and offers the option to enumerate an extended public key so that each individual bitcoin payment generates a unique address. this is a critical privacy best practice that makes it more difficult for observers to associate these payments. the platform also offers lightning network donations for fundraisers using bitcoin payment processors or by directly connecting their own lightning nodes.
using tallycoin, a bitcoiner named nicholas st. Louis, who used the pseudonym Bodycaribou, launched a fundraising campaign called “Honkhonk Hodl” and received the first donation from him on February 1. when freedom convoy fiat fundraisers were shut down and frozen, this bitcoin-based campaign announced that it had surpassed its goal of 5 btc, worth about $213,000 at the time, on the same day the canadian government invoked the emergency law.
But getting bitcoin from honkhonk hodl tallycoin addresses into the hands of protesting truckers, many of whom knew little about the technology, would be a challenge. st. louis teamed up with j.w. weatherman, a developer and donor of bitcoin, to lay out a plan and published a lengthy google public document called “step by step guide to distributing bitcoin”.
The guide described a process of creating packages of envelopes to be delivered to protesting truckers directly through a “phone wallet that is properly backed by paper.” As of this writing, the google doc appears to have been abandoned, with several items unfinished, but it did describe a process where the organizers used the security-focused tails operating system, then the electrum bitcoin wallet to generate private keys. , which would be handwritten in ballpoint pen on two separate sheets of paper. these documents would then be sealed in an envelope, labeled “trucker 1 – seed 1”, for example, then sealed inside another envelope, along with written instructions on how to import the seed into a secure phone wallet, and ultimately , spend the donated money. bitcoins.
February 15 via twitter, st. louis informed donors that he planned to distribute the bitcoin to 200 protesting truckers in a “verifiable manner” by handing out paper bitcoin wallets containing seed words preloaded with 10,000,021 satoshis, along with instructions on how they could secure and use the funds. .
February 17, st. louis tweeted an update that he and a partner had distributed 14.6 btc to about 90 truckers in a span of 24 hours, walking from cab to cab and delivering them personally.
“there are big eight in bitcoin there”, st. Louis tells a trucker in a video posted to Twitter on February 18, as he hands the trucker an envelope covered in bright stickers. “Basically, open it, there are instructions. all you do is a recovery code, it will tell you to download bluewallet, that’s what the recovery code is for… start it, it’s yours, thanks for your service.”
the video then shows the driver and st. louis shake hands through truck cab window before st. Luis keeps walking.
“I just met this guy a couple, I don’t know, a week ago, and he had a bit of bitcoin,” the driver explained after turning to the camera. “I said, ‘what’s up with that?’ he said, ‘actually, if you don’t mind…’ so I let him sit in the truck or whatever, and we unloaded his wallet or whatever and he said there’s some massive freedom loving people who love bitcoin and stuff like that so he said we’re probably going to get some big donors in the future so whatever and apparently there’s eight big bitcoin here .. I guarantee you it’s legit…it’s definitely one of the craziest things that’s happened in the last couple of weeks.”
a short documentary posted by reason’s zach weissmueller stated that the honkhonk hodl fundraiser raised over a million dollars in bitcoin before st. louis, and who handed over $600,000 into the hands of protesters.
a central point of failure
On February 16, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) issued an order to all fintrac-regulated entities, requiring them to stop trading with a list of 29 bitcoin addresses that it had associated with the protest.
February 17, the same day as st. louis announced that he and a partner had personally distributed more than 14 btc to protesting truckers, a private class action lawsuit targeting freedom convoy participants received a court order, known as a “mareva interdicto”. granted a freeze on affiliated cryptocurrency to a group of listed defendants and prevented them from moving that cryptocurrency to bank accounts and wallet addresses named in the lawsuit.
Defendants in the lawsuit included Lich, Dichter, and St. Luis ordered tallycoin and other digital asset platforms to freeze any transactions related to the identified wallets. The lawsuit was brought by a group of Ottawa residents who claimed they were forced to close their businesses or lost their jobs as a result of the protest. This was the first time in Canadian history that such a court order had been used to freeze cryptocurrency, and the attorney representing the plaintiffs reportedly hired a private investigator to track down the organizers of the freedom convoy. .
“The speed with which the Canadian government was able to target and freeze the flow of money speaks volumes about how much power lies in the freedom to transact,” said econoalchemist, a pseudonymous bitcoin privacy expert who publishes online guides focused on on how to accumulate and protect btc while obscuring your identity in the real world. “This is where bitcoin shines, a peer-to-peer decentralized electronic cash system. Without a central authority to deny transactions based on some floating moral standard, peers within the bitcoin network can transact without anyone’s permission. no government blacklist or class action lawsuit can stop a bitcoin transaction from taking place.”
As evidence of bitcoin’s ability to allow transactions despite government regulations, honkhonkwallets.github.io, a website run by convoy fundraisers to automatically scan the bitcoin block chain, indicates that 59 of 100 wallets distributed to truckers had been claimed and that 29 of those had seen at least one additional transaction, starting at block 732,726. much of this activity occurred long after the mareva injunction was granted.
But bitcoin is pseudonymous, rather than anonymous, and all transactions are recorded on bitcoin’s public, immutable ledger, meaning every transaction is subject to scrutiny in perpetuity. bitcoin may have proven to be a powerful method of bypassing centralized fundraisers for the freedom convoy, but it also demonstrated its current limitations.
“The limitations of making transactions with bitcoin are mainly due to the connection of external information to the activity on the chain”, explained econoalchemist. “For example, using entrance/exit ramps that require kyc information. this is where permission and censorship creep into the bitcoin ecosystem.”
By March 18, Canadian police managed to freeze nearly 6 BTC raised by protesting truckers.
“although the rcmp will not comment on the case, it issued a statement to cbc news saying it has the ability to seize and recover digital currency assets, pointing to previous cases where the crown successfully prosecuted crypto criminals,” according to a cbc news report from March 21.
perhaps brought there by chain surveillance methods, police raided st. louis’ home in late february and according to him seized 0.28 bitcoin stored in a wallet he controlled along with convoy organizer lich and freedom chris barber.
“officers forcibly removed me from my apartment and took me to an unmarked police vehicle”, st. Louis told the Financial Post, according to an article published in March. “The police wanted the seed phrases for my crypto wallets. under police duress, I provided my opening sentences.”
when bitcoin magazine hit st. Louis in mid-April, declined to comment for this article, explaining that he was still subject to the Mareva injunction and that he was concerned further legal issues could put an additional 7.5 BTC at risk of seizure by the government.
“I would have used a bitcoin donation tool that generates a new address for each donor,” econoalchemist said of how the Liberty Convoy fundraiser might have operated differently in hindsight, while acknowledging that these privacy measures would disrupt transparency about how donations were doled out. “would have been sending all donations to [bitcoin mixing service] whirlpool at regular intervals during the fundraising campaign…would have asked truckers for their deposit address instead of creating the wallets on their behalf.. .then he would have sent them his whirlpool post-mix balance bitcoin.”
a beacon of freedom
on february 17, the day the mareva injunction was granted, ottawa police built a 12-foot-high fence around the parliament building and established more than 100 checkpoints throughout the protest area . barber and lich, among others, were arrested. The next day, a police operation by officers on horseback, followed by colleagues on foot wearing high-visibility vests, camouflaged tactical gear, and armored vehicles, arrested at least 100 more people and towed 21 vehicles.