Dispatch from the Coutts Front: God, guns, Jenga and Bob Seger
The RCMP officer was clear: he could not guarantee my safety beyond his checkpoint. He wanted me back in one hour.
By: Jen Gerson
It's difficult to describe how remote a place Coutts, Alberta really is. To those of us who live in the province, the vast expanse of dun-coloured land and grass, the pump jacks and cattle and dust, the subtle shift of blue and gray sky, the rolling foothills and distant mountains all become so normal after time. And if you don't live here, what do you know of distance, anyway?
Coutts is located more than three hours from Calgary by car; Lethbridge is the nearest major city. It is a border crossing largely considered commercial in nature, and is a particular transit point for cattle ranchers — all of whom will be looking at the dry February fields and too-little snow on those mountains and getting worried for another drought-ridden summer.
Coutts is also located in one of the most intransigent regions of Alberta. It is a part of the province long settled by religious minorities escaping persecution, Americans, cattle ranchers and rural folk who have more time for their neighbours than far-off governments. This has always been a hot-bed for distrust in official narratives and public-health guidelines: Whooping Cough is now endemic to the region and doctors fear the return of rubella thanks to lagging vaccination rates — and all of this was well before COVID came along.
Now to drive to Coutts is to see many spray painted signs advocating for "freedom," and a conspicuous abundance of Canadian flags that have taken on a double meaning.
It isn't a surprise, then, that Coutts would be the site of the first border blockade of the "freedom convoy" or "trucker rally" or "occupiers" — however you want to define the populist mass movement now sweeping across the country. The crossing has been opened and closed periodically. On Sunday evening and Monday morning, the RCMP arrived, raided trailers at the impromptu camp, arrested 11 people and seized body armour and guns. The police said in a press release that "The group was said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade." Further, the RCMP also claimed that a large farm tractor and a semi-truck attempted to ram a police vehicle. Two more people were arrested on Monday; additional guns were seized.
I drove down to see the site on Monday morning.
The first thing to understand is that the protest has been split into two distinct blockades; one located just south of Milk River, and the other at the border crossing at Coutts, about a 10-minute drive further down the road. Temporary signs have been set up along Highway 4 warning of a police emergency ahead, and the speed limit has been reduced to 50 km/h before reaching the first police checkpoint outside the Milk River encampment. There I was asked to show my driver's license, and I can only presume police stationed along the highway at numerous points also ran my plates.
Anyone can drive in and join the Milk River blockade, and indeed, this first site is reminiscent of the rag-tag street party reported by my colleague Matt Gurney in Ottawa. I saw a sauna, protesters perched on lawn chairs, or milling about on hay bales and listening to music. Women and children were running around the site. There was even a food truck.
However, a line of police and police vehicles block the road, preventing anyone from joining the blockade at the entrance to the town of Coutts, located several kilometres south. Getting past this point proved to be a challenge.
I pulled my car up next to this police line and asked the officer to let me pass as I was a member of the media. I was asked to produce some kind of credential. There is no official journalist credential in this country, although media outlets will often produce official-looking plastic passes for their employees. As The Line is a two-man outfit running on can-do attitude and duct tape, this is not an expense we had heretofore considered. I convinced the poor RCMP officer in charge to let me try to convince the staff sergeant and with the help of Google, a reasonably high profile, and a government-issued ID, I was able to convince him that I was a legitimate journalist — not some wayward protester trying to sneak through on dubious credentials, as others had apparently tried to do in the past.
My legitimacy established, it was clear that the sergeant was still reluctant to let me pass. I was a woman travelling alone and the protesters had been riled up from the raid the night before. He was concerned for my safety and said plainly that he couldn't assure it beyond the Milk River checkpoint.
Fortunately, I have some talent for persuasion. I assured him that I was sane, possessed some experience reporting in dodgy situations and, most importantly, had every intention of returning home to my kids that night. He checked my trunk for pilfered gas and, finding only kids' car seats, agreed to let me pass on the condition that I be back at the Milk River checkpoint by 1:30 p.m. and that I check in to let him know that I had returned safely. This would give me a little more than an hour to drive into the Coutts blockade, look around, chat, and then come back.
I agreed and drove past.
The vibe at the Coutts crossing was entirely different from what I saw at Milk River. At first, I could see nobody. A line of tractor trailers blocked the highway in both directions. Semi-trucks and RVs were lined along the side of the road, but I could see no people.
I parked on the far side of the highway, facing north, and got out of the car.
I often forget how quiet the deep prairie is in winter. You'd imagine with all the wide open space that you'd be able to hear everything, but it's quite the opposite. Aside from the odd passing truck or the sound of wind through frozen grass, there is an incredible silence.
Here, all I could hear was the buzz of a generator keeping an RV lit. There was no visible police presence at the camp.
All I could see was a log cabin situated on the south-bound side of the highway with a lit sign indicating it was open. And so there I went. In ordinary times, this building, the Smuggler's Saloon, would serve hot dogs, wings and pizza to hungry travellers. As there were no border crossers, the restaurant has been repurposed into a protester headquarters.
When I entered, roughly 100 people were gathered around the bar listening to a man that I later discovered was the group's lawyer. They were discussing the previous night's raid, and the lawyer was telling the assembled to take his firm's card in case trouble was coming.
The room was warm and well-stocked with what appeared to be donated food: cans of soda, muffins, cinnamon buns, Valentine's Day cookies, and homemade baggies filled with snacks. There were also tables set up with crayons, markers, and games like Jenga for the protesters' kids. I counted at least six children among the crowd.
There were some women present — including one dressed as if she had come from one of the local Hutterite communities — but the majority of the assembled were medium-to-large-built men who seemed to be no strangers to physical labour or hard work. Some of them wore black-and-white T-Shirts that read "Fringe Minority."
The group's lawyer, Martin Rejman, spoke to me. He said that around 8 p.m. the night before, approximately 40 police officers, many of whom wore full SWAT gear, entered the camp, their fingers hovering over the triggers of their guns. He seemed to dispute the idea that any officers had been threatened during this operation, noting that protesters had volunteered the keys to two vehicles that had been seized.
Rejman also warned me that few others at the camp would consider talking to a journalist, and this proved to be mostly accurate.
I openly introduced myself as a journalist to whomever I approached, and I was soon the subject of wary looks. One of the other protesters began to watch my movements and follow me around, listening to my conversations and warning anyone whom I approached that no one was to speak to journalists.
However, if you stand around and act friendly long enough, sooner or later, people generally open up. I went outside and stood near one of two fire pits where the blockaders congregated.
A blonde woman confessed that she was horrified by the police raid the night before, calling the operation "ridiculous." It was complete overkill, she said, and destroyed any respect she ever had for authority. The police "shouldn't even call themselves Canadian."
A few minutes later, a group of protesters waving flags approached the fire pit. One, a bearded man in a red baseball cap that read "Canada," encouraged the camp to hold the line.
"If this goes, Ottawa goes, and if Ottawa goes, the world goes," he said.
One of the protesters offered me coffee. No one threatened me, but I was clearly a subject of wary disapproval. Eventually, even the man who had been watching me for much of the hour came up and began to chat; he talked about the levels of bureaucratic inefficiency at the Alberta Health Services, which is an entirely legitimate and perennial grievance. He also noted that the health service had been shedding hospital beds since the 1990s, leaving our health-care system in its current state of under-capacity, which has no doubt contributed to our nation's over-reliance on lockdowns. This is a point that even our federal Chief Public Health officer Theresa Tam has recently conceded.
My time was almost up, and I had one more question.
I went to one of the protesters identified to me as an organizer; a slender, bearded man who had initially refused to speak to me.
Why Coutts, I asked? Why was this the first border crossing to be blockaded?
"Because God initiated it," he said, although another standing nearby acknowledged that it was also a major commercial crossing.
"What does winning look like to you?" I asked.
"Winning looks like getting our current failed government system out of power."
The organizer, who would only give his name as Peter, did not seem to be clear about whether the current government was the problem, or rather the entire parliamentary system.
He said he would be content with a government by "any party that is currently in place that is not attached to the World Economic Forum. And there are other attachments as well."
He would accept the PPC, however, as Maxime Bernier’s populist party was not attached to the WEF.
"If it were the PPC as a government under our current system of parliament, that would be winning because they're against the current mandates. They are pro-life, pro-gun, pro-everything that this government needs. And pro-freedoms, pro-Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Peter didn't know if I was a Christian, but he said that there was a battle between the righteous and the unrighteous, and the current government is on the side of the unrighteous.
"They are taking the freedoms of the people away. God is about having people free. God is about love and peace. And the current government system is all about coercion and forcing people into something that they don't really want."
It wasn't just about vaccines and mandates, see. And the blockaders would clear the border "once this whole system is changed over," Peter said. But what of the fact that the PPC had managed to put no elected members in parliament?
"We know for a fact that this last election was rigged. It's that simple. But I'm done with my comments now," he said.
On this note, I decided to head back north to Milk River, where the crowd was listening to “Like a Rock,” by Bob Seger. A young man wearing oversized rollerblades and sitting on a hay bale next to a sign that read "Mainstream Media is the Enemy'' bragged about heckling a CTV truck that had recently come through.
I didn't stay for BBQ.
During my drive home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he would invoke the Emergencies Act to manage the trucker protests across the country. He has done this over the objection of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who said he feared it would only inflame the situation.
By the time I got home, the protesters had announced via Rebel Media that they planned to pack up the Coutts blockade by Tuesday morning, citing the recent police raid. Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers, told the CBC that the group had been infiltrated by an extreme element. “Our objective was to be here peacefully,” he said. The Globe’s Carrie Tait reported early Tuesday that many of the trucks had indeed begun to depart.
We will see what the day ahead brings.
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Its great to read something from the front lines. Good work.
Thank you for reporting on this as fairly as possible. Please stay safe.