Border protests in Coutts, Alta., a “concrete manifestation” of risk to Canada: Rouleau
Events that occurred during a 17-day protest near the border town of Coutts, Alta, were central to Judge Paul Rouleau’s finding that the federal government had reached the threshold to invoke the emergency law.
“The situation in [Coutts was] a concrete manifestation of the very risk that had been identified to the cabinet: a highly disruptive but mainly peaceful protest attended by a smaller group of actors allegedly intent on using serious violence for a political purpose,” Rouleau wrote in his summary was tabled in the House of Commons on Friday.
Rouleau wrote that the blockade at Coutts port of entry was remarkable for its duration, complexity and volatility, and for the dramatic manner in which it was resolved.
Coutts is a town of just over 200 people about 100 kilometers southeast of Lethbridge on the Montana border.
Although Rouleau wrote that many of the protests across Canada, including in Coutts, may have been peaceful, the situation was “out of their control”.
Detection of weapons on site
According to Rouleau’s report, as early as January 31, 2022, the RCMP was concerned about the possible presence of firearms within the group near the border town. They unsuccessfully investigated reports of a protester with a gun and received new information about a possible arms cache on February 9.
A wiretapping permit was granted on February 11, and on February 13 they received a search warrant and searched a mobile home and two trailers, as well as the Smuggler’s Saloon where protesters had gathered.
During the investigation, Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino said the head of the RCMP gave him confidential police information on February 13, the day before the crime was appealed.
“She emphasized to me that the situation at Coutts included a hardened cell of individuals armed to the teeth with deadly firearms and a willingness to go down with it,” Mendicino said of his conversation with Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
WATCH: Lucki warned Mendicino that Alberta border blockade could turn violent:
RCMP uncovered a hideout containing weapons, body armor and ammunition. Allegations of conspiracy to kill police officers followed. On February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government would invoke the law, saying the measures would be “appropriate and proportionate to the threats they are designed to address”.
“The fact that this situation was discovered and disrupted is a credit to law enforcement,” Rouleau wrote. “It was nonetheless clearly a situation that could reasonably be considered to fit the definition [of a threat to the security of Canada under CSIS]but the CSIS had not identified itself as such.”
The cabinet could “reasonably consider” that the risk of similar groups of politically or ideologically motivated violent actors may have been present at other protests, Rouleau wrote.
“Most Disturbing Connection”: Diagolon
Rouleau noted that “the most troubling connection between protest sites” was the presence of Diagolon members in both Ottawa and Coutts.
RCMP described Diagolon as a “militia-like network with members armed and prepared for violence,” while Ontario Provincial Police described it as an extremist group.
Founder Jeremy MacKenzie downplayed Diagolon’s characterizations during his testimony at the November hearing, but Rouleau dismissed that evidence.
“I am satisfied that law enforcement’s concerns about Diagolon are genuine and justified,” the commissioner wrote.
While MacKenzie was recruiting members in Ottawa, the Commissioner discovered that a Diagolon member was staying in Coutts. This person was one of the protesters who were arrested and charged with conspiring to murder RCMP members.
In addition to the arrest of this individual at the border blockade, other evidence of Diagolon’s presence included a ballistic vest confiscated by police that bore a Diagolon patch.
The Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) heard evidence that law enforcement officials were concerned that individuals and groups “prone to violence” were present at the protests.
“The discovery of the Diagolon insignia among the material seized at Coutts, coupled with the presence in Ottawa of Diagolon leader Jeremy Mackenzie, heightened this concern,” Rouleau wrote.
Another link between Diagolon and the two main protest sites was evidence collected by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Diagolon supporter Alex Vriend was raising funds to pay for the cost of transporting protesters to Ottawa and Coutts.
Although Rouleau said the links were “disturbing,” he added that there was little evidence of significant or widespread coordination between Diagolon supporters in Coutts and in Ottawa.
“On the contrary, in a report on the arrests in Coutts, the RCMP noted that ‘no information has been uncovered to suggest there is an organized effort between those charged in Alberta and those involved in the Ottawa protests.’ “, he wrote.
“I don’t come to this conclusion so easily”
In his report, the commissioner also wrote that the protest near the border posed dangers to bystanders, and particularly highlighted Coutts residents who were unable to travel to Milk River, Alta. Access to basic necessities such as medical services and grocery stores, while others suffered negative mental health effects.
That was something Coutts Mayor Jim Willett addressed when he testified during the November Emergencies Act inquest, telling the story of a Coutts resident who is an Afghanistan veteran and left the city during the protests because they triggered their post-traumatic stress disorder.
Coutts councilors recently passed a resolution that they would no longer speak publicly about the blockade, citing a desire to heal a lingering rift between residents.
As part of his summary, Rouleau wrote that the threshold of invocation is the point where order collapses and liberty cannot be secured or is seriously threatened.
“In my view, that threshold has been reached here,” he wrote.
“I do not come to this conclusion lightly, as I do not find the factual basis for it overwhelming and I recognize that the arguments against it have considerable strength. It may well be that serious violence could have been avoided even without a declaration of emergency.
“But the fact that it could have been avoided doesn’t make the decision wrong.”
“A Dangerous Precedent”: Shandro
Lori Williams, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said she believes Coutts became a focal point during the protests given the high-profile events that unfolded there.
“Obviously there will be people who supported the cause of the protests but not the tactics or the activities used,” Williams said.
“There are some who are just very concerned – even if they thought the actions of some of the participants were totally unjustified – that the powers taken by the government went so far beyond what was warranted that they were very concerned about the make an impact for the future. And these questions will continue to circulate.”
Geoffrey Hale, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said he thought the report was presented in a measured manner and provided recommendations for both provincial and federal governments.
“It tries to take a balanced view of the issues, whether or not you agree with its ultimate conclusion, and tries to analyze the multiple factors that went into the protests rather than engaging in cliche or one-dimensional thinking.” , he called.
In a written statement released Friday afternoon, Alberta Attorney General Tyler Shandro said the federal government had “unnecessarily” invoked the law, which he said had “set a dangerous precedent.”
“The decision to invoke the statute violated the constitutional rights of Albertans and gave the federal government the ability to seize property without due process of law,” Shandro said.
“The conclusion of the investigation does not affect Alberta’s decision to engage in legal challenges launched against the federal government last year by the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.”
Marco Van Huigenbos, 32, of Fort Macleod, Alta., was one of the organizers of the Coutts demonstration. He was charged with mischief over $5,000.
The day after the raids, he told CBC News the protest had been “infiltrated by an extreme element” and said the remaining protesters had decided “to leave and return to Coutts peacefully.” [their] Familys.”
In an interview on Friday, he said that statement still stands, but added that he felt what happened near the border was “much bigger” than what happened with the guns and related ones arrests had happened.
“I feel like Coutts was an event, first and foremost [about] the people, Albertans, who came out to express their frustration,” he said. “It was just unfortunate how it ended.”