Defence disputes accused was leader at Coutts border blockade: ‘He was a messenger’

The lawyer for one of three men on trial for their roles in the border blockade at Coutts, Alta, argued Thursday his client was nothing more than a messenger. Drivers work to move a gravel truck at a protest blockade at the Canada-United States border at Coutts, Alta., Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

A lawyer for one of three men on trial for their roles in the border blockade at Coutts, Alta., argued Thursday his client was nothing more than a messenger.

Crown prosecutors have told jurors they intend to prove the trio spearheaded the protest that tied up traffic at the Canada-United States border crossing for two weeks in early 2022 to protest COVID-19 pandemic rules and restrictions.

Alex Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos and Gerhard Janzen have each pleaded not guilty to a charge of mischief over $5,000.

RCMP Sgt. Greg Tulloch has testified he worked to establish a dialogue with the protesters and identified Van Huigenbos as the main contact.

During his cross-examination of Tulloch, a lawyer for Van Huigenbos questioned whether his client really was a leader or if, like the officer, he was simply a conduit delivering messages to those in charge.

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“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger?’ I’m going to suggest that’s really what Marco was here. He was a messenger, a communicator, a spokesperson for the group — not a leader,” lawyer Ryan Durran told the jury trial.

Tulloch replied: “That’s far too simplified from the impression I was left with, because when things were happening, they happened immediately after Marco said he would do something or transmit a message.”

Click to play video: 'Coutts mischief trial continues in Lethbridge'
Coutts mischief trial continues in Lethbridge

Durran said Van Huigenbos was not considered an “agitator” and did not have a semi-trailer truck parked at the protest.

He said his client and others wanted the protest to leave Coutts and move up to Edmonton. The attempt failed.

Tulloch maintained that he considered Van Huigenbos to be at the top of the inner circle of the protest, followed by Janzen and, to a lesser degree, Van Herk.

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The officer said Van Huigenbos appeared to be a leader, citing the accused’s “ability to make things happen in the way that he did, the way he spoke about it and the way he told us what his role was … That, to me, does not signify messenger,” Tulloch said.

“We continued to talk to him because he could make decisions, because he seemed to want to also deal with us.”

Under further examination by the Crown, Tulloch said his job was to continue to communicate with the protesters, and finding a leader is the best way to go.

“The continuous meeting and speaking with other people was really just an opportunity to show us as being approachable and not the Gestapo we were being made out to be,” said the officer, referring to police in Nazi Germany.

He said Van Huigenbos grew into the role of leader.

“I’m not sure that in the beginning that he orchestrated anything or that he caused all of this to start up,” Tulloch said. “But certainly he assumed the role of leader when there was nobody else to do so.”

The final prosecution witness, RCMP Supt. Gordon Corbett, described arriving at Coutts on Jan. 31. With the exception of one day, he was there until the protest ended.

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Corbett said the initial plan was to tow the protest vehicles, but police weren’t able to obtain enough trucks to make that happen.

He said the tone began to change the second week.

“The public safety risk had increased. There was new information that there was a threat to public safety, a threat to police, just based on the presence of firearms at the site,” Corbett said.

He said the weapons had nothing to do with the three accused. But the fact that there were weapons at the blockade delayed plans to begin enforcement against those at the protests, including tickets or arrests.

Corbett became emotional when discussing two different events.

In one instance, the driver of large tractor with an attached blade advanced toward a police officer at a checkpoint. The tractor driver demanded the officer depart.

A second instance occurred on Feb. 13, when a large farm tractor and a semi truck, both involved in the blockade, attempted to ram a police vehicle.

“It was an escalation in my mind. It was different. There’s no reason to do it and now you’re driving large vehicles at police officers that may or may not have any idea of what the vehicle could do to a smaller vehicle,” Corbett said.

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“It was just more activity that was suggesting to me this protest needed to resolve.”

The protesters left two days later after RCMP seized a cache of weapons and made a series of arrests.

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