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Border operations resume after Coutts blockade dismantled in southern Alberta

Click to play video: 'Alberta border protest blockade clears after police seize weapons'
Alberta border protest blockade clears after police seize weapons
WATCH: After 18 days of disrupting a Canada-U.S. border crossing, anti-COVID mandate protesters have dispersed their blockade near Coutts, Alberta. As Heather Yourex-West reports, the sudden end comes after charges were laid by police, over a seized cache of deadly weapons linked to the demonstrations – Feb 15, 2022

A blockade that paralyzed a United States border crossing for more than two weeks ended Tuesday as trucks and other vehicles with horns blaring rolled away from a southern Alberta community.

“The border is fully open, traffic is moving smoothly, and all protesters have moved from the area,” Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said Tuesday evening.

He said RCMP would maintain a presence in the area to ensure it remains clear.

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Protesters had been restricting access to the busy crossing near Coutts since Jan. 29 to rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truckers and broader pandemic health restrictions.

Canada Border Services Agency said operations had resumed at the crossing.

The exodus of vehicles came one day after RCMP arrested 13 people and seized a cache of firearms and ammunition.

Southern Alberta Chief Supt. Trevor Daroux said four charges of conspiracy to commit murder were laid, in addition to 14 charges of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, one charge of uttering threats and 14 charges of mischief over $5,000.

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Daroux said the conspiracy to commit murder charges were laid in connection to RCMP members being targeted.

He said RCMP became aware of the serious threat — a “heavily armed group among the protesters” — a few days into the protest.

Daroux said the investigations into this file continue. RCMP and Crown prosecutors will consider different angles and avenues, including charges of terrorism, he said.

Zablocki said the RCMP always aimed to resolve the protests and blockade peacefully and safety for all involved was a key aspect of managing this event.

The seizure of weapons and arrests Monday speaks to serious criminal activity occurring inside the group of larger protesters, Zablocki said.

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Zablocki said Alberta RCMP used resources from outside the province — including sheriffs, federal and U.S. agencies — and redeployed resources from across province.

Prosecutor Steven Johnston told a court in Lethbridge, Alta., that those who have been charged can’t contact one another or be within a 200-metre radius of any protest.

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Mounties said an early-morning raid Monday uncovered 13 long guns, handguns, a machete, a large quantity of ammunition and body armour. Two additional weapons were seized later in the day.

RCMP also said a semi-truck and farm tractor had attempted to ram a police cruiser on Sunday.

“We expect more charges to follow,” Zablocki said.

Click to play video: 'Weapons and ammunition seized at border blockade in Coutts, Alberta'
Weapons and ammunition seized at border blockade in Coutts, Alberta

“The development with weapons and the personal armour was not associated with us, and to keep that distance we decided to leave peacefully,” Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the protest organizers, said as a long line of trucks began to leave. “We made the decision yesterday to leave peacefully on our terms after the events that came to light with some of the members, participants of this protest having firearms and protective equipment,” he said Tuesday morning.

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“Our message has been one of peace, peaceful protest and to keep that message strong, we felt the best decision was to move out.”

He said he has no regrets about participating in the blockade.

“I think we’ve started a movement where people are going to get more involved… at the municipal level, provincial possibly, but also more involvement in politics in general.”

Fellow protester Martina Vanhierden said it was too bad they had to leave.

“We don’t want to have violence. We’re not here with guns, absolutely not. Had nothing to do with us.”

RCMP said Tuesday evening that they were in communication with protesters before they even arrived at the border. The goal was to maintain public safety and to “facilitate lawful protest,” Daroux said, which, in this case, meant keeping the border open.

He said the group indicated early on that its intent was to have a peaceful and lawful protest, but Daroux said it very rapidly became unlawful.

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Two tactical vests seized by the RCMP had badges on them, which the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said have links to troubling movements.

One vest had a “Diagolon” patch on it, a white diagonal line across a black rectangle, that is linked to an often conspiratorial and antisemitic group, said Peter Smith from the network. He said the group often talks about a soon-approaching civil war.

“(Their) rhetoric is very violent,” said Smith. “One of the, kind of, common phrases used within the community is ‘A gun or rope?”’

The other patch said “Infidel” in both English and Arabic in yellow. Smith said the patch doesn’t indicate membership to a specific network but is known among Islamophobic militias and biker-style hate groups.

He said the biggest worry is having niche extremist networks that could work to inflame supporters linked to what was supposed to be a peaceful protest.

“Yesterday’s strong enforcement action sent a clear message,” Premier Jason Kenney said on social media Tuesday.

“Glad to see that almost all protesters at the Coutts border crossing and nearby checkpoints have now gone home. This is great news for the hundreds of truckers who cross the border every day.”

Click to play video: '‘Broader enforcement measures will commence’: Alberta premier responds to arrests at Coutts blockade'
‘Broader enforcement measures will commence’: Alberta premier responds to arrests at Coutts blockade

There was celebrating when the protest started winding down late Monday. A video posted to social media showed RCMP members shaking hands with and hugging protesters. People holding hats or hands to their chests or with arms draped across each other’s shoulders sang O Canada.

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Cpl. Gina Slaney confirmed the scene was from Monday night in Coutts. Zablocki said Tuesday the RCMP is aware of the video and looking into it.

Jim Willett, mayor of the village of 250 people, said it had been a while since he had seen anything but semi-trailers on Highway 4.

“I can see all the way to Regina,” he said with a laugh..

“I’m optimistic now and we’re on to the next phase, whatever that may be. We had no problems with anyone in town. It was just like having a population three times normal.”

Willett said he doesn’t blame the blockade leaders for the cache of weapons.

“They were a well-behaved bunch of people… and I think the organizers were taken aback as much as we were by what the RCMP discovered.”

The number of protesters at a police checkpoint, north of Coutts, had also dwindled and work was underway to start clearing away a first-aid trailer, a sauna and electric generators.

“Last night, emotions were high… I think a lot of people felt that we were giving up, but we’re not giving up,” said John Vanreeuwyk, a feedlot operator from Coaldale, Alta., also a protest organizer.

“Is it a victory? No. A victory means we’re done,” he said. “We started waking people up… and that’s what got the country going. That’s what got the world going.”

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The blockade was one of several demonstrations in Canadian cities and border points that stalled trade, stranded travellers and disrupted lives of area residents, particularly in Ottawa.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said $48 million in trade was lost each day that the Coutts border was closed.

–With files from Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press, and files from Caley Gibson and Emily Mertz, Global News

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