Alberta embraced the cryptocurrency sector. Months later, crypto crashed
Jason Kenney still touting blockchain jobs and investment, even as sector collapses
"Great news," Alberta's jobs minister tweeted last Dec. 9, when the price of bitcoin was just over $47,000 US — off the prior month's record high of $68,789, but still strong.
A company from the "disruptive crypto world" was moving to Calgary, Doug Schweitzer wrote, and would create 100 jobs.
On Feb. 3, when a bitcoin was worth $37,154 US, he pitched what he called a big opportunity to business network BNN Bloomberg.
"There's a big battle in the United States — you've got New York, Miami, you've got Wyoming, Arizona," he said. "It doesn't seem like any jurisdiction in Canada actually wants to own this opportunity."
The opportunity? That Alberta could stake its claim as leader of Canadian Cryptoland, to carve out a piece of a flashy new industry and all the jobs and dollars that come with it.
The government would turn that bullish sentiment into action. Over the spring, while the price of bitcoin was relatively stable, it passed a bill that temporarily lets cryptocurrency and other financial technology companies be exempt from some financial laws as they test products in Alberta.
Months later, the price of bitcoin was just more than $20,000 US. If you had bought $5,000 in the digital currency the day Schweitzer appeared on BNN, you'd have $2,691.28 left this Monday.
When talking about the amount of money wiped out of the industry, it's an eye-popping stat: the global crypto industry went from $3 trillion in November 2021 to less than $1 trillion US as of this week.
The Alberta government has consistently touted crypto enterprises as part of its diversification strategy as a way to cushion the province from the boom-and-bust oil and gas industry. And if you think an industry that recently saw two-thirds of its paper value wiped out in a little more than two fiscal quarters seems like a strange hedge against volatility, you aren't alone.
It hasn't all been downhill, locally at least. On Friday, the giant Bahamian cryptocurrency exchange known as FTX Exchange announced it would launch its first Canadian location in Alberta after acquiring the Calgary-based Bitvo Inc.
And Alberta Premier Jason Kenney remains bullish, at least for now, tweeting on Sunday that the FTX news signified that Alberta "is open for business."
But it's not just investors that are losing amid the sell-off. Newly-created jobs are now being lost. All aboard a whole new roller-coaster ride?
It's the decentralized economy, stupid
The Kenney government has argued that the day-to-day volatility of individual cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum are immaterial when it comes to the larger decentralized finance space — those technologies that allow users to lend, borrow and trade without going through a bank.
Schweitzer is directly promoting the businesses and technologies that support cryptocurrencies, not the cryptocurrencies themselves, in contrast to Conservative leadership contender Pierre Poilievre's full-throated support of bitcoin. To be clear, Alberta's public pension manager AIMCo says it does not have any exposure or direct investment in cryptocurrency (unlike its counterpart in Québec).
"This area's not going away. We know it's going to be here long-term. The blockchain technologies on top of that have long-term applications," Schweitzer told BNN in February. His office declined to comment for this story.
Believers in the sector buy that argument. And they would caution against reading too much into the recent plunge. It's happened on several occasions before over crypto's lifespan — bitcoin lost nearly half its value in mid-2021, only to rebound to new highs.
Alberta is also attractive to what are known as cryptocurrency miners, computers with powerful processors that earn bitcoins by solving complex mathematical problems. That highly energy-intensive process can access this province's natural gas supply and relatively affordable electricity system, though it gets criticized for its environmental impact.
The government's moves have successfully drawn investment to the sector so far. Julian Kymochko, CEO at Accelerate, a Calgary-based company that caters to crypto and alternative investors, said Alberta was "the perfect place" to be.
"I'd say the regulators are quite friendly for innovators," he said.
Others are more skeptical — of the strategy and the technology.
Paris Marx, host of the Tech Won't Save Us podcast, finds it worrying to hear governments talk about cryptocurrency rosily without taking a critical look at it.
"That can include the environmental impacts, that could include questions about whether cryptocurrencies and the various projects around them are pyramid schemes or Ponzi schemes, or related in the sense that they're not actually producing anything of value," said the Newfoundland-based Marx.
As for the government's claims that they are promoting the underlying technology, and not cryptocurrencies themselves? Marx views that as a "cop-out."
"Naturally, people who listen to the government would be more likely to look into cryptocurrencies or to consider putting money into them."
Crypto-mania seemed to reach its peak around six to eight months ago, around the time when Matt Damon urged boldness to buy crypto in a Super Bowl commercial and when LeBron James hit the court at the Los Angeles Lakers' newly renamed Crypto.com Arena.
There's a markedly different mood now. Last month, one of the top ten largest cryptocurrencies in the world, Luna, was almost completely wiped out over the course of a week, to the tune of nearly $45 billion.
This month, major crypto exchange Celsius halted withdrawals. The collapse in crypto prices also led to layoffs among blockchain technology companies — crypto exchange Coinbase and BlockFi laid off 18 per cent and 20 per cent of their workforces, respectively.
Even the Canada-based Wealthsimple, which in a recent ad campaign for its crypto exchange platform compared crypto skeptics to cavemen who doubted the invention of the wheel, laid off 13 per cent of its staff, citing "market volatility."
Beyond the blockchain
And to be clear, Alberta's venture into financial technology, and Bill 13, isn't solely about blockchain.
Ryan Clements, a Canadian financial technology scholar who teaches at the University of Calgary, said work being done could yield economic prosperity beyond the blockchain.
He views the government's recent moves as a broader "ecosystem play" in financial technology.
"I see crypto and the blockchain community as (only) one factor in that," he said.
It's also a chance, according to Clements, for the market to figure out what blockchain's true utility might be, aside from the purpose of just speculative trading.
That could involve use cases in insurance, real estate or on the supply chain, among other possibilities.
And though the province will contend its focus is on all sorts of financial technologies, cryptocurrency will likely continue to draw nearly all the attention from public and businesses alike.
Critics will hold fast to the implications to both the environment and people, as layoffs continue to be likely in the sector and as average people risk watching their investments vanish.
For now, wild swings are part and parcel of the cryptocurrency space. At least in that way, bitcoin feels like a natural part of the Alberta economy.