1 year after disrupting Alberta's border with the U.S., protesters return to Coutts — where wounds remain

During a one-year anniversary of the border blockade, in Coutts, Alta., protesters stopped at the Lethbridge Correctional Centre. (Joshua Mclean/CBC - image credit)
During a one-year anniversary of the border blockade, in Coutts, Alta., protesters stopped at the Lethbridge Correctional Centre. (Joshua Mclean/CBC - image credit)

As vehicles pulled into a meeting spot on the side of the highway south of Lethbridge, Alta., it was clear that this year's convoy protest gathering would be different. As people gathered to mark its one-year anniversary, they were greeted by two RCMP vehicles at the side of the road.

There was no missing the police vehicles scattered along the highway and the helicopter in the air, or the message: The event would be permitted, a large-scale disruption would not.

One year ago today, Alberta RCMP had sent out a fairly innocuous media advisory warning of heavy congestion and slow-moving traffic near the border crossing at Coutts, Alta.

"This is expected to continue for an unknown period of time," it read.

From there, what started would develop into a 17-day blockade that officials called illegal.

That protest is still viewed differently depending on who's doing the talking. Those who participated in it say they found a community for their beliefs, which involve distrust around government and public health regulation, and distrust in the media.

Many residents of Coutts — a town of just over 200 people about 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, on the border with Montana — share those points of view. Others — especially seniors who live in the village — don't. They feared how the massive protest engulfed their once-sleepy village

What's clear, one year later, is that Coutts has yet to divorce itself from the event that it became notorious for even as many feel ready to move on.

Submitted by Jake Zacharias
Submitted by Jake Zacharias

"I think people just want to forget about it," said Kevin White, a local resident.

Back to Coutts

On this cold but clear Saturday, hundreds gather at the meeting point in what is obviously a sort of reunion; many recognize one another from the protests. Many honk their horns in support, while another individual knocks on windows and hands out stickers: "Protect free speech! No more government overreach."

Twin brothers Russ and Rick Traber, who live in the area, spent a couple of days at the protest last year.

"We did go out to the blockade a couple times, just to show support," said Russ. "Yeah, wow, what a phenomenal event. Unfortunately, it ended on a real sour note."

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Chris Carbert, Chris Lysak, Anthony Olienick and Jerry Morin were charged after RCMP found guns, body armour and ammunition in trailers at the protest. Each is accused of conspiring to murder RCMP officers; they are scheduled for trial in June.

Soon after the discovery of the guns, the protesters disbanded and left the site.

Many of the people who turned out Saturday were there to protest those arrests. "Free the Coutts boys" is a bumper sticker frequently spotted on local vehicles.

Closer to Coutts, most emergency vehicle access lanes and crossroads are blocked by police, who turn motorists back toward Lethbridge.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Things have changed

On Saturday, there was no word from the members of Coutts's village council.

At a recent meeting, its members had passed a resolution: There would be no more talking about the blockade publicly. The reason? A desire to heal the divide among residents that still persisted, a year later.

Before going silent, Mayor Jim Willett was apprehensive to hear he had been summoned to Ottawa to testify during the Emergencies Act inquiry in November.

He had made attempts to remain measured throughout the blockade, and supported the right to protest as long as it remained legal. But his media appearances and interviews had drawn anger from protesters, and he received a death threat considered serious by RCMP.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

In Ottawa, Willett told the story of a Coutts resident who is an Afghanistan veteran, who left town during the protests because they triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Older people, [we] had one lady who, somebody drove her out for a doctor's appointment or something, she would curl up in a ball," Willett told the inquiry, growing emotional as he spoke.

"But it just depends on the person. How they grew up. What their situations are. Some people, it really bothered."

And though council had stated its desire to remove itself from public debate, it has been difficult to disassociate the community from the story. New developments, legal and otherwise, continue to surface in the media.

Geoffrey Hale, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said feelings are still raw in many communities such as Coutts — something that will take time to mend.

"It takes making room for the other person, and it takes both showing and reciprocating the normal civilities of day to day life, normal kindnesses of day to day life in a small community," he said. "The longer you keep a chip on your shoulder, the more you invite other people to do the same."

Where to from here?

Inside Coutts, opinion on the convoy is divided.

Blanche Rutherford, who was visiting the local post office, says the protests gave her "an awful lot of hope and optimism."

"A year after that, I think that the feeling is that it's not over, and we feel like we will win this," she said.

Kevin White, meanwhile, says he usually only talks to a few of his neighbours, but doesn't talk about the protests any more. He found that period of time frustrating.

"The worst thing was trying to get out of town," he said. "We really did feel like we were kind of trapped here."

Stephanie Rousseau/Radio-Canada
Stephanie Rousseau/Radio-Canada

Keith Dangerfield, the owner of the community's cafe, is a vocal supporter of the protest. He rented rooms to protesters and made them sandwiches.

"I think there's some people who are on the other side of the convoy as far as politically, and I don't know if they're boycotting us or … because we've haven't got quite the business we used to have," he said.

Back in Lethbridge, at a local trucking company, the protesters have completed their loop back from Coutts. They made a detour on the way back in, parking and honking at a local jail in support of the accused.

Now, they've gathered inside for a barbecue and a silent auction. Marco Van Huigenbos, 32, a town councillor from nearby Fort Macleod who was one of the spokespeople for the protests, takes the stage.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

He also faces a charge of mischief over $5,000. On stage, he asks for those gathered to open their wallets for the accused.

"Many things have come to light. Our message down there hasn't changed," he said in an interview prior to Saturday. "We were there to hold government accountable. Whether we were successful, will be determined in the long run."