A covert operation conducted by an Edmonton security firm determined some protesters occupying the Coutts border had become so emboldened by the blockade’s success they discussed blocking cargo terminals at airports across the country in an ongoing attempt to force a change of government in Ottawa.
“This protest has been wildly successful, far beyond the protesters’ imaginations,” said Neil LeMay, a senior consultant with Global Enterprise Security Risk Management.
“I think we can see this group looking to repeat their successes at different locations,” LeMay said.
“We do have some intelligence that we believe is reliable, that suggests they’re considering targeting international airports where cargo and shipping supplied to routes are vulnerable.”
A retired RCMP member with nearly 30 years of policing experience, LeMay most recently was the deputy chief in charge of protection services for the Alberta government, responsible for the safety of 75,000 employees in more than 300 locations. His firm conducts threat assessments and sells them to various levels of government and private corporations.
LeMay said a private investigator, working covertly, spent about 10 hours on Saturday among the Coutts organizers and their families.
“They are absolutely amazed that the police haven’t taken more enforcement action against them, particularly at the border in Coutts,” LeMay said in an interview Sunday before many protesters with the blockade began leaving Monday evening and the blockade was dismantled Tuesday morning.
His firm’s threat assessment, obtained exclusively by Global News, found the Coutts blockade was spiritually motivated by far-right Christian ideology and was highly organized, with what appeared to be a leader — unidentified in the assessment — who delegated tasks, and directed its finances and security.
It was well supported and funded both by local people and by wealthy farmers, ranchers and by trucking and construction-company owners from across the province who were participating in a “proxy protest” by providing farm equipment, trucks and heavy equipment to block Highway 4, a key trade route between the U.S. and Alberta, the assessment stated.
At a news conference Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government has invoked never-before-used emergency powers to support provinces in ending the blockades in Ottawa, Coutts, and elsewhere.
Under the Emergencies Act, he said, the government will “designate, secure, and protect” places and infrastructure that are critical to Canada’s economy, including airports and border crossings.
Goods and supplies delivered along coulee trails
LeMay said there were two distinct groups blocking the border at Coutts and further north along Highway 4 at Milk River, and very few of the protesters were truckers affected by the federal government’s cross-border vaccine mandate.
As has been reported, the protest group at Milk River was much larger, as many 1,500 people at one point. LeMay said the group, which was almost exclusively white, included many protesters in their late teens or early 20s but also people of all ages.
They weren’t involved in blockade planning.
“They are just there for support. A lot of them are there just to have a big party and thumb their nose at the police and the government,” LeMay said.
At Coutts, there was a core group of about 30 to 35 people, and their families, including small children.
The security firm’s investigation concluded some protesters, particularly within the Coutts group, viewed the presence of children as a potential “shield” from law enforcement tactics but kept the children there despite the risk of harm should police move in.
“We know that there have been discussions around the table at the headquarters of the (protest at the) Smuggler’s Saloon in Coutts where mothers have openly questioned how their children will react to the tear gas when it comes and what effect it will have on them,” LeMay said.
LeMay said goods and supplies, including water, food, fuel, even diapers, were brought to the group on foot or by all-terrain vehicles through a myriad of coulee trails.
“There is so much food there that they’re running out of places to store it,” LeMay said Sunday.
Supplies suggest ‘protest by proxy’ element
There were also many expensive tractors, trucks and heavy construction equipment parked at the blockade by farmers, ranchers and private-company owners, many of whom were not at the site.
“There is an element of this protest by proxy where this relatively small group of Christian right-wing protesters are being used by people with maybe similar agendas to disrupt the supply chain,” LeMay said.
He said the blockade had been labelled a trucker protest about COVID-19 border restrictions but “that is just the cover.”
Some of Alberta’s largest trucking and construction companies supported the blockade, both financially and morally.
“So there is a lot more going on here than just a handful of truckers who aren’t able to cross the border to make a living,” LeMay said Sunday.
On Monday morning, Alberta RCMP announced they had detained 11 people after seizing more than a dozen long guns, handguns, ammunition, a machete, and body armour while executing a search warrant on three trailers following an investigation at the Coutts crossing.
In a news release, police said the seizure was part of an investigation into what they allege was a small organized criminal organization within the largest protest, which was “said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade.”
RCMP later said they had arrested two more people: one whom police stopped on the highway heading back to the protest and who was allegedly found with two guns, and another who allegedly drove a semi-truck towards police near the Milk River check stop.
Far-right Christian ideology
LeMay said the Coutts group has close ties to Christian libertarian factions in both Canada and the United States.
His firm’s investigator observed American protesters and supporters within the Coutts group, “suggesting they are crossing the border at will while it is blockaded,” the threat assessment stated.
Critically, the assessment concluded that the blockade, which began under the auspices of protesting COVID-19 public health measures, had become more concerned with “replacing our current democratic system of government with a government that is based upon the principles of the Christian right.
“The rule of law would be replaced with the word of God, as interpreted through right-libertarian ideologies, specifically: civil liberties, natural law, and a major reversal of the modern welfare state,” it said.
Galvanizing the Coutts group, LeMay said, was Calgary pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church. Stephens and his church have repeatedly flouted COVID-19 public health orders.
In May 2021, Calgary police arrested Stephens for allegedly violating a court injunction by holding church services that did not comply with COVID-19 public health orders, including rules related to masking, physical distancing, and attendance limits.
That charge was later dropped after AHS admitted a case of “mistaken identity” meant it had not properly served Stephens with the injunction.
Less than a month later, police arrested Stephens again for allegedly holding an illegal outdoor service that ignored physical distancing requirements and capacity limits. His trial on one charge of disobeying a court order is scheduled to take place in early May.
In a 12-minute video taken by the security firm’s investigator, and reviewed by Global News, Stephens tells the Coutts blockaders that the “Bible likens the state, when it is acting in an ungodly manner, to a beast.
“And that beast is seeking to devour everything,” Stephens said, exhorting them not to give in to the state or rely upon it for welfare, jobs, and education.
“We have all forgotten, as a country, that freedoms are founded upon the supremacy of God, and the rule of law. And not just the rule of any law, but the rule of the law — the word of God,” Stephens says.
He tells protesters they should remain peaceful but stand firm and abide by the law of God “that is higher than our government.”
There is no evidence that Stephens had any involvement in the planning or operation of the blockade.
But in an email reply to Global News on Tuesday, Stephens said he has long been opposed to COVID-19 government mandates.
“We all have differences of opinion on the method of protest or non-compliance (I have my own thoughts on what is best), but we should all recognize that the cause is just,” Stephens wrote, adding later that all of the people he met in Coutts “were people of honour, integrity, and character.”