Sunday, October 2, 2022

Protesters ignore RCMP warnings as blockade at Coutts border crossing stretches into third day

Mounties told demonstrators to clear the area on Sunday night, warning that enforcement may be necessary

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With RCMP warnings unheeded, more than 100 vehicles remained lined up on a southern Alberta highway blocking access to the US border and a small village for the third day in a row Monday.

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Semi-trucks, cars and farm equipment started filling Highway 4 south of Lethbridge on Saturday, in support of a national convoy to Ottawa with a stated goal of repeating a federal mandate requiring unvaccinated Canadian truckers re-entering Canada from the United States to get tested for COVID-19 and to quarantine. Some participating in both protests have expanded that goal, demonstrating against health orders and the federal government as a whole.

On Sunday night, Mounties told demonstrators to clear the area, warning that enforcement may be necessary. Media relations officer Cpl. Curtis Peters said that notice had been spurned by the crowd, with the situation largely unchanged by Monday morning.

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“Protesters have not been receptive to our attempts to bring this back into the realm of a lawful protest and they’re continuing to block the roads,” he said.

The border crossing and the 250-person village of Coutts remain inaccessible from the north and traffic coming from south of the border can’t get past either, Peters said. At the blockade, vehicles displayed US flags and upside-down Canadian flags on Monday. A banner reading “End Mandates Now” was strung across one empty parked truck. RCMP said officers were telling people trying to travel into the US to use a different port of entry. Mounties were turning away truckers and other motorists about 15 kilometers north of Coutts.

Protesters ignore RCMP warnings as blockade at Coutts border crossing stretches into third day

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett said the scene out his window has been similar over the past few days. He said there will be no mail and some students have not gone to school due to the blockade. The road also leads to the nearest grocery store, gas station and pharmacy.

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“There’s a row of trucks that can’t go north and a lot of them are refrigerated trucks. You can imagine their frustration,” he said. “I’m not really happy about it and I don’t believe a lot of the residents are.”

The village has seen a lot more foot traffic than usual, typically being a pass-through on the way to or from the border. The mayor said he advised people to lock their doors and be extra vigilant on Friday, because “strangers were going to be in town.” Organizers of the event told him they were going to cross the border and return only once to slow down traffic, he said.

With the small number of amenities in Coutts, the main being the single local restaurant, Willett said he’s seen the frequent wandering the streets. He hopes the incoming cold weather chases out the demonstration and lets his residents get back to their lives.

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Coutts Mayor Jim Willett is frustrated with anti-mandate demonstrators as a truck convoy blocks the highway at the busy US border crossing.
Coutts Mayor Jim Willett is frustrated with anti-mandate demonstrators as a truck convoy blocks the highway at the busy US border crossing. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

“I hope everybody goes home pretty quick,” he said.

“Open up that highway and get commerce flowing again. It’s doing a big disservice to the people that make their livings that way and to the province in general.”

Willett said he understands freedom to protest, but he added that the Alberta government needs to act to allow the movement of goods and services near the border, where only foot traffic has been able to get through.

Premier Jason Kenney called for the blockade to end on Sunday, saying it is in violation of the Alberta Traffic Safety Act. He said the demonstration is causing inconveniences for motorists and could impede emergency service access in the area.

“If participants in this convoy cross the line and break the law, I expect police to take appropriate action,” Kenny said in a statement posted to Twitter.

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While Kenny condemned the blockade, he hasn’t publicly touched on UCP MLA Grant Hunter’s presence at the protest. Hunter posted to his Facebook on Saturday, saying “I brought the grandkids down to the Coutts border today to show them the importance of standing up for freedom and liberty.”

Hunter released a statement confirming his participation in the protest, saying he and his family were there to support the “peaceful protest of truckers and farmers, as is my constitutional right.” However, he said the protest is barring people from moving freely and asked those blocking the border crossing to let traffic pass.

Independent MLA Drew Barnes also sent out a media release outlining his support for the protest.

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During separate press conferences unrelated to the blockade on Monday, Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer and Health Minister Jason Copping were asked questions about Hunter’s participation. Schweitzer wouldn’t say whether Hunter’s actions merit a removal from caucus, saying “That’s a decision that caucus needs to make but I’m looking forward to hearing Grant Hunter’s reasons for being there.” Copping, whose ministry is responsible for some of the measures being contended at the demonstration, said he didn’t agree with Hunter’s decision to attend the protest.

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Questions have been raised about the UCP’s Critical Infrastructure Defense Act , a piece of legislation it brought in, in 2020, to combat Indigenous-led protests impeding the construction of pipelines. It allows additional penalties against people who block critical infrastructure, including highways. Schweitzer, who was the justice minister when the bill was passed, said situations like the Coutts blockade are “110 per cent” what the act was designed for, but responsibility for its enforcement lies with the RCMP, in this case.

“We’ve seen rail blockades, we’ve seen highways be blocked. That’s exactly what the intention of the bill was, to provide law enforcement with greater tools to deal with illegal blockades in Alberta. , , It’s up to law enforcement on the ground to make decisions as to how they implement the law,” said Schweitzer.

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Alberta Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney said she heard up to 100 Alberta truckers have been stranded on the US side of the border since Saturday, some without food and others with medical issues.

“Everyone has the right to protest peacefully, but our supply chain and the livelihoods of those trying to cross the border should not suffer because of that,” said Sawhney.

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In a statement emailed to Postmedia, the Canadian Border Services Agency said the Coutts port of entry remains open but is inaccessible due to the blockade immediately to the north. The federal agency suggests travelers use other border crossings for the time being. US Customs and Border Protection also issued a similar statement, advising drivers south of the border to find another route.

“Officials in Montana are stopping and advising motorists, commercial vehicles, passenger vehicles to find (an alternate) route as they won’t be able to get through once they cross into Canada,” Cpl. Peters said.

Kenney spent the weekend in Washington, DC, appealing to American governors about the mandate that prompted the protests. He has said that restrictions by both Canada and the US to bar entry by truckers not vaccinated against COVID-19 further aggravate the supply-chain bottleneck.

— With files from The Canadian Press

[email protected]

Twitter: @michaelrdrguez

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