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Coutts border protesters will be fined or charged, say province, RCMP


‘We’ve seen activities that are both dangerous and reckless and are having a very negative effect on Albertans who live in the area’

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Protesters at the Coutts border crossing will be fined or charged, according to the province and the RCMP.

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RCMP Deputy Chief Curtis Zablocki said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon that police are actively working to defuse the 11-day blockade of Alberta’s most important border crossing, but are trying to do so peacefully.

“Make no mistake, there are criminal activities taking place at these protest sites that violate both criminal code and provincial laws,” said Zablocki. “We’ve seen activities that are both dangerous and reckless, and are having a very negative effect on Albertans who live in the area.”

He pointed to dwindling numbers involved in the blockade, from a high of about 250 vehicles when it began to about 50 on Tuesday afternoon as a success of their efforts to this point.

Acting Justice Minister and Solicitor General Sonya Savage called the blockade “intolerable” and said those taking part in the demonstration can be charged under several different federal and provincial laws, including the federal Criminal Code, the provincial Traffic Safety Act and the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which allows for significant fines and jail time.

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She said actions could include forfeiture of property in the commission of a crime through the Civil Forfeiture Act.

Zablocki said charges will be coming for those taking part in the protest and could be as simple as the way they are illegally parked on a highway.

He did note the RCMP has attempted to hire local towing companies to move trucks and other equipment off the road but have been unable to do so, with the companies citing concern over damage to their business long term.

He also said there are concerns over safety and violence in response to more aggressive approaches to breaking up the blockade.

“We are always cognizant — particularly in protests, especially when they are illegal protests like this one is — of the potential for escalation, the escalation of emotions including the possibility of violence,” said Zablocki. “People are on this roadway because they feel they have a cause to bring forward, and if they are dug in on that cause that can often result in decisions that perhaps they might make that are concerning in the context of criminal law that we have seen, violations of other provincial statutes.”

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He added RCMP resources, including officers, have arrived from B.C. to help manage the situation.

The roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as protesters continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
The roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as protesters continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

The blockade has been in place since Jan. 29 and this is the first time either Zablocki or Savage has addressed the media on the subject. The protest began in support of Freedom Convoy 2022, in opposition to federal mandates that truckers be vaccinated to cross the U.S.-Canada border, which went into effect Jan. 15. It has since grown to include all health orders and mandates.

Premier Jason Kenney announced the end to most elements of the provincial Restrictions Exemption Program on Tuesday night, however, he said this was not because of the protest but driven by data. He pointed to other jurisdictions and countries that have already begun lifting restrictions, including Saskatchewan, which made a similar announcement Tuesday.

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“None of that has anything to do with a few trucks parked at the Coutts border crossing,” he said. “All of it has to do with the fact the disease is changing and so the approach we take to manage it should change as well.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd still said the premier was bending to the will of the protesters in an emailed statement, adding the changes were made without consultations with the municipalities.

“Public health mandates should not be set by individuals illegally blocking access to our border,” he said. “It should be made when we see clear evidence that it is safe to move away from those public health restrictions.”

Savage said it is at the discretion of the RCMP on how to uphold the law while calling on protesters to stand down.

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The roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as protesters continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
The roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as protesters continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

“They need to recognize this protest is not lawful,” Savage said. “It’s causing hardship and inconvenience for thousands of law-abiding Albertans, including the vast majority of truckers. To put this in context, there are approximately 300,000 truckers operating 60,000 commercial vehicles in the province, compared to only a few dozen vehicles involved in this blockade.”

Last Wednesday, RCMP negotiated opening up one lane of traffic each way to begin to move some of the backlog across the border on both sides.

Following Kenney’s announcement, at about 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, protesters once again shut down the north and southbound lanes of Highway 4. It was the second time in a 24-hour period they had choked off the flow of traffic.

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On Monday night, at about 11 p.m., a couple of tractors blocked Highway 4 completely for most of the night, but the road was reopened in the morning. RCMP encouraged drivers to use the Aden, Del Bonita and Carway border crossings instead.

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Coutts Mayor Jim Willett said the Monday night blockade was over frustrations with slow movement by the province to lift health orders.

He said the situation for Coutts has improved significantly since the early days of the protest when even school buses had trouble getting students to class. The RCMP has set up checkpoints to prevent outsiders from getting into town and disrupting life there, and are working on improving the points of entry.

“It’s much less tense on a daily basis; however, we know that at the drop of a hat someone can decide to pull a truck across the road and stop things again,” said the mayor.

Protesters listen to Premier Jason Kenney at the roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as they continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
Protesters listen to Premier Jason Kenney at the roadblock on Highway 4 outside of Milk River heading towards the Coutts border crossing as they continue to slow down traffic but still keep a lane open in both directions on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Earlier on Tuesday, Kenney tweeted a warning about the federal government’s intentions to bring in a mandate restricting interprovincial travel for unvaccinated truckers as early as Friday.

“That would make a bad situation worse with no compelling public health benefit,” he said. “If the federal government moves ahead with this policy, Alberta will fight it every step of the way, including challenging it in court.”

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jaldrich@postmedia.com

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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