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Bitcoin in Canada, Part I: Introducing the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada

Op-ed - Bitcoin in Canada

Canada has been relatively quiet for most of Bitcoin’s history. The United States has been onboard the Bitcoin train almost from day one, with over half the core development team from the country, and in 2011 and 2012 Europe too started to pick up steam. We saw Bitcoin Central become the first exchange to secure an agreement with a licensed payment services provider in France, announcing a very similar deal in Germany, conferences in London and Amsterdam, and Bitcoin interest is even growing in China. Meanwhile, Canada only had its first Bitcoin meetup groups outside of a small pocket of interest in Vancouver from late last year, and even today the Bitcoin restaurant fever has only hit the western part of the country with businesses in Vancouver and Edmonton.

Beneath the surface, however, Bitcoin in Canada has grown rapidly over the past twelve months. The Toronto Bitcoin meetup has gone from being nonexistent to having over twenty people show up every time, a year after the first Bitcoin meetup in Montreal the city now has its own permanent Bitcoin Embassy, and other Bitcoin communities are springing up in cities from sea to sea. In fact, Bitcoin Alliance of Canada founder Anthony Di Iorio believes, the level of organization of the Bitcoin community in Canada may be more advanced than in any other country aside from the United States itself. At the conference in Amsterdam, I had a chance to sit down with Anthony Di Iorio, the founder of the Toronto Bitcoin meetup group and the recently announced Executive Director of the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada, and talk with him about the developments that have been going on with regard to formal Bitcoin organizational development both in Canada and abroad.

But what is the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada? As Di Iorio describes it, “the Alliance is a non-profit national organization dedicated to raising awareness and adoption of bitcoin in Canada, to promoting Canadian participation in international bitcoin efforts and furthering study and research in bitcoin and other virtual currencies” – in short, a sort of miniaturized Bitcoin Foundation focused on the specific needs of Canadian Bitcoin users. The organization first started in April 2013, when Di Iorio came up with the idea for the Alliance and put out press releases inviting anyone from around the country to join. The results were impressive. “Over the next two to three months,” Di Iorio writes, “I had hundreds of people contact me from across Canada, I put out a couple more press releases to let people know what’s going on, I put out one final press release as a last call, and then I sent out a group email letting those who responded know that we’re going to start the process now to select the board of directors.”

Democracy in Canada

What is unique about the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada, and the reason why Di Iorio is so confident in the organization’s merits, is this: it is the only large-scale Bitcoin organization so far whose board of directors was democratically elected right from the start. Di Iorio invited anyone from the country to apply as a board member or join the selection panel (one could not be part of both), and gave ample opportunity for replies with multiple press releases over a three-month period. Di Iorio himself applied for the position of board member just like anyone else. No other country has done this; even in the Bitcoin Foundation itself, the original members selected themselves in a top-down manner, and only recently did the first actual election took place, bringing in Elizabeth Ploshay as a new individual member and Meyer Micky Malka as a business member representing the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Ribbit Capital. Even then, however, the two new members were both from the United States, and Di Iorio believes that this is essentially the result of a feedback loop. Because the original board of directors was from the United States, the group positioned itself to be more attractive to American Bitcoin users, which in turn led to American board members being elected. “In my opinion,” Di Iorio summarizes, “they were structurally flawed from the start, and in turn this skewed the membership very early on”.

The basic structure of the Alliance is as follows. The Board of Directors contains seven directors, including Di Iorio himself, all of whom, at this point, were chosen by the selection panel in June. The number seven was chosen arbitrarily, and is flexible; the organization’s charter allows for five to nine directors at any time. Currently, five provinces are represented in the board: Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta. There are also nine committees, each one charged with a different aspect of the organization: membership and fundraising, accounting and audit policy, legal and regulatory matters, organizational bylaws, media relations, the website, merchant and commercial relations, conventions and technical matters. Each committee is led by a board member, with some board members leading two committees to make up for the fact that there are more committees than there are board members. The organization also has a legal counsel, Stuart Hoegner, a gaming, tax and virtual currencies attorney practicing in Toronto who has spoken about Bitcoin regulatory matters at a number of conferences. Within each committee, the committee leader is tasked with identifying the specific purpose and strategy of the committee, and seeking out advisors and other volunteers to participate in the committee with them. The board of directors meet once a month, with Di Iorio himself coordinating efforts between committee leaders and committee leaders presenting reports on a monthly basis.

The coordination between Di Iorio and the committee leaders between the board meetings is crucial, Di Iorio explains. At the end of every board meeting, the board members decide who they will be in communication with and what their goals are for the next meeting. Between the meetings, the committee leaders go off to do their own work, but Di Iorio nevertheless maintains constant contact with each and every one of them. “We have a combined commitment of 80-90 hours per week,” Di Iorio states, “[We are] physically meeting, [we have] communication on Skype, we are meeting in Google Hangouts all the time, frequently … it’s so much easier to talk to people directly and get their agreement and get consent for what’s going on with the board.” Originally, the Alliance simply relied on a forum for communication between members, but the system quickly proved inadequate for managing an organization of any size; now, Di Iorio finds that through constant personal interaction they are “able to get much more done than over a forum system where we relied on people responding days apart.”

Aside with the structural flaws of the Bitcoin Foundation, there are also other concerns about how the Bitcoin Foundation is handling itself, particularly with regard to its effort to become a more international organization. Some in the Foundation see its efforts at trying to get organizations in other countries to sign on as national chapters as a genuine attempt at diversification, but the opinion in other parts of the world is different; in fact, what many Bitcoin users see is what is essentially an American organization expanding out into the world much like a megacorporation, or even a neo-colonial empire. During the conference in Amsterdam, a group of prominent national Bitcoin leaders discussed the issue in depth, and all agreed on what they saw was an inescapable conclusion: that the Bitcoin Foundation is a hopelessly American-dominated organization that is inherently structurally flawed, and any serious effort to change that reality must start from the outside.

Anthony Di Iorio is very conscious of both of these concerns. “Internationally,” he says, “one of our goals was to give a blueprint for other countries to start up an organization independently, saying ‘look at what we’ve done, if you like the way we’ve done it, take our model, and go at it. The people I’ve spoken to here in Europe hadn’t considered the whole option of separating voting and board of directors, and I think that’s key, because the main thing I learned from the foundation was that you can’t just dictate who are are off the bat; you have to get some type of group involvement, some type of callout, and I hope that people in Europe and in other regions take that back and consider it, because with what what I’ve seen with some of them they want to duplicate what the Foundation has done but in Europe, whereas I think you need a global system of representation, and not just a European one.” Ultimately, Di Iorio envisions, a charter for Bitcoin organization should be developed, similar to how Green Party organizations around the world are organized under the Global Greens. “A charter,” Di Iorio writes, “a very loose-fitting international charter that any organization can agree with.” Within Canada itself, Di Iorio points out, there are burgeoning Bitcoin movements in Vancouver and Montreal – ones that could even be considered larger than that in Toronto. “As we’re building up the Alliance,” Di Iorio says, “we’ve got to take into consideration other organizations that are starting up or other people that want to get involved. You can’t dictate, you have to leave room for other strong organizations, and you have to work together.”

What’s Around the Corner

The next step for the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada will be the organization’s official public launch next month. During the launch, Di Iorio intends to unveil the organization’s new website, based on the NationBuilder platform popular among political campaigns and community organizations in North America and abroad. Second, and more importantly, the launch will be the time when the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada formally announces its membership structure. Details are still very much open to discussion, but the general consensus is around a tiered membership system, with a free level of membership open to everyone and a paid tier with special privileges such as access to an exclusive forum, voting rights and conference discounts. The free tier too will have its perks, including likely some discount to conferences and an internal forum, although they will not be as impressive as those provided to paying members. “Our goal is to get numbers,” Di Iorio explains. “When we are dealing with government regulators or banks we want to be able to represent a large number of people that are involved with digital currencies. We also want people to feel that they can get involved without breaking the bank.”

All throughout the organization’s development, transparency has been, and will continue to be, key. The Bitcoin Foundation was announced to the Bitcoin community fully formed, with the full structure already in place. The Bitcoin Alliance of Canada, on the other hand, has taken great care to make every step as open and accessible to public input as possible; here, Di Iorio is literally announcing that the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada is going to be announcing its membership structure. This is all with good reason; by putting out many press releases and explaining what the progress of the Alliance is at every step, Di Iorio hopes that he can avoid the mistakes that he sees in some other Bitcoin organizations and create an organization that all Canadian Bitcoin users can feel is truly theirs.

From there, the organization’s medium-term aims are simple; get more people participating. “We are volunteer Bitcoin enthusiasts that want to see this succeed,’ Di Iorio explains. “Whether you are a graphic designer or web developer, we are looking for all types of people. We could have ten people in each committee. We have an accountant who is good with non-profits, but we could also have an accountant who is good at something else.” Aside from building up the committees and filling in the various advisory roles, Di Iorio also has a number of specific interests. A particular focus is charities; Bitcoin charities, he believes, are under-represented in Canada given the potential benefit that the charity sector can receive from Bitcoin. “I have a keen interest in charity strategy,” Di Iorio says, “the best way to advance Bitcoin is to get charities onboard.” Aside from that, Di Iorio would also like to get into closer contact with the various Bitcoin meetup groups around the country, continue to maintain personal contact with organizational Bitcoin leaders, and help ensure that all of Canada is represented in the Alliance. In any of these areas, Di Iorio is always glad to receive help; anyone interested in participating should feel free to email Di Iorio himself.

In terms of the Bitcoin community in Canada as a whole, there are a number of interesting developments in store. There are now an increasing number of Canadian Bitcoin businesses out there; Coinkite, a company coming out with a Bitcoin debit card, merchant terminal and online wallet, is based in Canada, as are the Bitcoin meta-exchange, the more traditional Bitcoin exchange and now merchant processor CaVirtex and the “Bitcoin gift card” seller Cointap. The Canadian Bitcoin community also has its own increasingly popular forum, One group that has received a substantial amount of media attention has purchased five Robocoin Bitcoin ATMs and intends to place them in five cities across Canada; the first will soon appear in a coffee shop in Vancouver, followed by another in Toronto.

Another city that particularly stands out in the Canadian Bitcoin scene is Montreal. The city was the first in the world to announce a Bitcoin embassy, a 1400-square-meter space that will be used as a central hub for Bitcoin activity in the city. People curious about Bitcoin and merchants interested in accepting it will be able to go there and find help, and Bitcoin developers are already using the space as a workplace. There are plans to create similar embassies in other areas.

In Toronto itself, merchant adoption has been slow. Although the local Bitcoin community is certainly growing, with roughly 20-30 people attending every twice-monthly meetup and a record of 60, there are still no grocery stores or restaurants accepting Bitcoin in the city. However, that does not at all mean that the progress is not there. CoWorkingSpace, a large 1400-square-metre workspace where anyone can rent a desk, cubicle or office and work and interact with people from different companies during breaks, has been accepting Bitcoin for six months. There are also many individuals who accept Bitcoin in Toronto, including accountants, lawyers, an army surplus sellers, and plenty of online retailers accept Bitcoin as well; they may not have publicly accessible storefronts that Bitcoin users can point to on a map, but they are part of the Bitcoin community nonetheless.

And even brick and mortar stores and restaurants will soon come as well. CaVirtex, the leading Canadian Bitcoin exchange, has recently unveiled its own BitPay-style merchant services platform and the company has now also hired salespeople with the sole objective of signing up merchants to accept Bitcoin. With a growing startup culture in Toronto and the nearby town of Waterloo, both known for having the two best university computer-science programs in Canada, and the surprisingly strong communities in Montreal and Vancouver, Canada may be well on the path to being a Germany-scale Bitcoin hotspot in its own right.

See also: part 2 and part 3 of this series.