‘Disorganized protest’: Defence questions if anyone was in charge at Coutts protest

Click to play video: 'Testimony begins for Coutts border blockade trial in Lethbridge'
Testimony begins for Coutts border blockade trial in Lethbridge
It was day two of the trial for three men charged with mischief in the Coutts border blockade of 2022. Sarah Jones was at the Lethbridge Court House and talks about the evidence the jurors are now weighing – Apr 3, 2024

The trial of a trio accused of masterminding the COVID-era border blockade at Coutts, Alta., saw the defence pursue a contrary narrative Thursday of a mishmash protest where no one had the power to call the shots.

“You couldn’t tell us who actually was responsible for the (blockading) trucks coming down on the 29th (of January),” defence lawyer Michael Johnston put to former Coutts mayor Jim Willett during cross-examination.

“I could not,” Willett replied.

“It seems like a rather disorganized protest, still, on February 2nd. Is that fair?” said Johnston.

“Probably, yeah,” Willett said.

Johnston is the lawyer for Alex Van Herk.

Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos, and Gerhard Janzen are on trial before a jury after pleading not guilty to mischief over $5,000.

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Click to play video: 'Jury selected for trial of 3 men charged in Coutts border blockade'
Jury selected for trial of 3 men charged in Coutts border blockade

Crown prosecutors have told jurors they intend to prove that the trio spearheaded the protest that tied up cross-border traffic between Alberta and Montana for two weeks in early 2022 in a protest of COVID-era rules and restrictions.

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The Crown noted that after 15 days, a video message the men posted online asking protesters to go home accomplished what Mounties could not.

The Crown stressed the case is not about COVID-19 or free speech but simply that people cannot decide on their own to shut down a major transportation portal.

Willett has testified that when the blockade began forming, he was concerned about the well-being of the 200 people in his village and the chance they could be cut off from medical help and groceries.

Willett identified Van Herk as one of protest leaders, but was challenged on that point by Johnston.

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Willett was asked about meeting with Van Herk and his impressions of how things were going.

“You were trying to figure out who you might be able to talk to? Who was the big cheese?” said Johnston, adding, “(Van Herk) looked like one of the most haggard people you’d ever seen. Is that fair?”

“He looked fairly frustrated,” said Willett.

Johnston asked if it was Willett’s impression that Van Herk was trying to direct some “order in the chaos” and get protesters to leave.

“That’s what he implied,” said Willett.

Johnston played video from the protesters’ gathering spot, Smuggler’s Saloon, where Van Herk is seen asking for a vote to try and get everyone to leave but is met with vocal opposition.

“Who’s in favour that we all start our trucks and we leave as one group so they can never pin it on nobody. We leave altogether and we drive away,” Van Herk is seen telling the raucous crowd.

“We’re doing an illegal blockade. (Police) don’t need to negotiate.”

Several men on the video argue back.

“I don’t care, let ’em come,” said one man.

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“The only way I’m leaving is in a (police) cruiser,” said another.

Click to play video: 'Convoy marks two years since Coutts border blockade'
Convoy marks two years since Coutts border blockade

Johnston asked Willett if there was any one group that was in charge at the protest.

“It was a bunch of people I didn’t know driving a bunch of vehicles who were upset. That was the impression I got,” Willett replied.

“So,” said Johnston, “Sounds like there’s a bunch of different groups that are at this protest … not just one kind of cohesive group.”

“That was the impression that I got,” said Willett.

The trial is scheduled to run until April 19.

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