Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre faced pointed criticism from MPs Monday during a House of Commons debate on proposed cryptocurrency legislation — with Liberal, NDP and Bloc deputies all accusing the Tory leader of bankrupting some seniors by promoting products like bitcoin.
MPs used the debate on Bill C-249 — a private member's bill first introduced by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner — to read Poilievre's past statements praising cryptocurrency into the record and blast him for promoting what some called a "Ponzi scheme" that lost money for scores of investors.
With crypto prices in the basement after a series of recent scandals, Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux said he's surprised the Conservative Party would push now for legislation designed to encourage the sector's growth in Canada.
"How many seniors on fixed income used part of their life savings to invest in something that was recommended by the leader of Canada's Official Opposition party?" said Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to the House leader.
"The leader said one of the best ways to fight inflation here in Canada is to invest in cryptocurrency. Imagine all those Conservative delegates and possibly others who might have been listening to the Conservative leader?"
"Imagine all the seniors who listened to the Conservative leader?" added another Liberal MP, Stéphane Lauzon. "What position would they be in now?"
Polievre was not in the Commons for the debate.
Bitcoin is trading at roughly $16,000 US — 75 per cent lower than its value in November 2021.
That means if you invested $10,000 in bitcoin at this time last year, you'd have just $2,500 left of that initial investment — an eye-popping loss of value for any financial product.
According to a federal ethics commissioner filing, Poilievre held an investment in bitcoin as of May 4.
He declared an ownership stake in the Purpose bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF), an investment that closely tracks the price of bitcoin. If Poilievre still owns a piece of that ETF, his investment would be worth 60 per cent less than what it traded for in May, when he first disclosed the holding.
"The leader is showing a lack of good judgment by not coming forward and saying to Canadians, 'I made a mistake,' that it wasn't appropriate for people to be investing, speculating," Lamoureux said.
Lamoureux asked the Conservative MPs assembled to raise their hands if they invested in crypto after Poilievre pitched bitcoin during his leadership campaign. No one appeared to raise their hands.
Liberal MPs bought crypto as well
But Poilievre isn't the only MP to declare an ownership stake in crypto.
If Lamoureux had asked the same question of MPs on the Liberal benches, he might have seen more raised hands.
Liberal MPs Joël Lightbound, Taleeb Farouk Noormohamed, Terry Beech, Tony Van Bynen and Chandra Arya have all reported some crypto-related investments to the ethics commissioner. Conservative MP Ben Lobb has also declared a stake in bitcoin.
While Liberal MPs raised the possibility of seniors losing money on bitcoin and other crypto products, research from the Bank of Canada suggests the demographic group that likely lost the most in the recent crypto crash was younger men.
According to the Bank of Canada's bitcoin omnibus surveys, roughly 13 per cent of Canadians owned some sort of bitcoin investment in 2021 — an increase from 5 per cent the previous year.
Bitcoin owners were more likely to be male, aged 18 to 34 years old, with a university degree or a high income, the survey found.
The survey found 25.6 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 to 34 owned some bitcoin last year. Just 2.8 per cent of people over the age of 55 had a stake in bitcoin.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said Poilievre has pursued "whack-job economics" by backing a product that has "vaporized" invested dollars in recent months.
Beyond its poor price performance, Angus said cryptocurrencies are a "dark money system" that can be used for money laundering, to fund terrorist organizations and to support gang activity.
"Who else would want a system where there's no checks and balances and where you can't trace where the money goes?" Angus said.
As criminal elements turn to crypto to launder money, some countries, including Mexico, have passed laws that force trading platforms to track certain large dollar amount transactions.
A 2022 report by blockchain data company Chainalysis found criminals laundered some $8.6 billion US of cryptocurrency last year, a number that is likely a low-ball figure because it doesn't include money from offline crime such as cash from drug trafficking.
Angus picked up on Poilievre's campaign slogan — the then-leadership hopeful said he wanted to make Canada the "freest country on earth" — to say the Conservative leader has encouraged "the freedom to swindle, the freedom to hustle and the freedom to rob people of their savings."
Angus said it was "highly irresponsible" for Poilievre to push crypto when he owned bitcoin assets himself. "He fed on the fear and uncertainty of people by pushing a Ponzi scheme," Angus said.
The bill's sponsor, Rempel Garner, said crypto's recent struggles are exactly why MPs need to develop a federal regulatory framework for this asset class.
The bill, if passed, would compel Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to consult with the industry and "develop a national framework to encourage the growth of the cryptoasset sector."
If Canada doesn't act, Rempel Garner said, crypto companies will take their business elsewhere, which could cost jobs and investment dollars.
"I want you to understand what investors hear when they listen to this debate," she said. "They say, 'Don't invest in Canada because politicians in Parliament are willing to take cheap political points.'"
Rempel Garner pointed to Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-born Canadian who co-developed ethereum, the second largest crypto platform.
Much of ethereum's early development took place in Canada, she said, but its operations have since moved to Switzerland because that country has a regulatory framework in place.
"All those jobs, all that capital — it's gone," she said.
Rempel Garner said she doesn't want Canada to lose out on a chance to normalize cryptocurrency because of "partisanship."
Conservative MP Larry Maguire made a similar point, arguing the legislation will help the federal government "protect investors" and establish "guardrails" and "stability" for a multi-billion dollar industry.
"There is no better time for Parliament to start this conversation. We cannot let this issue get so polarized that it gets to the point that it's too toxic to discuss it," he said, adding that it would be "short-sighted" and "thoughtless."