Violence broke out at an illegal blockade at the Coutts port of entry Tuesday after RCMP moved to begin enforcement action against participants, according to Premier Jason Kenney.

“I’ve received reports in the last hour of people aligned with the protesters assaulting RCMP officers, including one instance of trying to ram members of the RCMP, later leading to a collision with a civilian vehicle,” said Kenney.

“This kind of conduct is totally unacceptable . . . Without hesitation, I condemn those actions and I call for calm.”

RCMP were not immediately available to comment on the assaults.

The blockade, which has halted traffic through the busy U.S. border crossing in a protest of COVID-19 health measures, is in its fourth day.

Mounties moved to enforce the law Tuesday after negotiations broke down with protesters, who began the blockade Saturday. Some vehicles left the protest, but RCMP reported other protesters breached a police barrier to join the blockade, with two of those in tractors sporting Canadian flags racing down a ditch along the highway to join the demonstration.

“We (began) to remove some vehicles from the protest area. A few left. I didn’t get an exact count of how many went out. And then we received notification that additional protesters were arriving on the scene and came around our secured area,” RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters told The Canadian Press.

Peters said he didn’t know how many additional vehicles entered the blockade, or what would come next.

Semi-trucks, camper vans and farm equipment are among the vehicles dotting Highway 4 south of Lethbridge. RCMP said Monday night negotiations had broken down with protesters. They said those blocking the highway or aiding the blockade may be arrested or charged under Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.

violence reported as rcmp attempt to break up alberta trucker border blockade

“We have been engaged with protesters at the Coutts border crossing in an effort to find a peaceful and safe resolution for all involved. We thought we had a path to resolution, the protesters eventually chose not to comply,” RCMP said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

“What may have begun as a peaceful assembly quickly turned into an unlawful blockade . . . This event is not a peaceful assembly.”

Speaking at a Tuesday news conference, Kenney said many “very well-intentioned” protesters have opposed vaccine mandates in recent days, but he condemned what he characterized as “a small number” of people who took part in the Coutts border blockade.

He said those involved must stop “this unlawful conduct” and find alternative, legal forms of protest.

“I call for calm amongst anybody who feels sympathetic for those engaged in this blockade. Please stay away from the area. Please do not further intensify an already difficult situation,” Kenney said.

The premier said he would not meet with the protesters, particularly as enforcement is underway.

Many RCMP officers and provincial sheriffs are at the blockade, talking with demonstrators, and an RCMP helicopter is also flying overhead. Mounties said the blockade is impeding emergency vehicle access to the Village of Coutts, which has a population of approximately 250.

They said those participating in the blockade could also be subject to charges under the Criminal Code of Canada and the Traffic Safety Act. The Mounties added that while Albertans have the freedom of peaceful assembly, “the general public, local residents and businesses also have the right to a safe environment and freedom of movement.”

violence reported as rcmp attempt to break up alberta trucker border blockade

A convoy of trucks and other vehicles is blocking traffic on Highway 4 near the Coutts border crossing. PHOTO BY JAKE ZACHARIAS /supplied

Calgary lawyer Chad Williamson said he has been retained by a group of the protesters to provide legal support and assist with negotiation with RCMP. He said his goal is to de-escalate the situation and open up “lines of productive dialogue” with law enforcement.

“The protesters are demanding an end to the COVID lockdown mandates in their various forms, as they relate to the (chief medical officer of health) orders under the Public Health Act and the vaccine passport,” Williamson said.

“Our hope was to either establish a dialogue or reopen a dialogue in attempts to bring the parties closer together.”

The Opposition New Democrats called Tuesday for the province to immediately seek an emergency injunction through the Court of Queen’s Bench to put a stop to the blockade.

“I’m certainly not going to be telling police, nor should any other politician tell the police how to implement their enforcement actions,” NDP transportation critic Lorne Dach said. “What I’m asking for is the premier to apply for an injunction that will, if successful, allow the police to rely upon that injunction.”

Kenney said his government was prepared to seek an injunction but that it was not a necessary step for police to begin enforcement.

violence reported as rcmp attempt to break up alberta trucker border blockade

Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway near Coutts. PHOTO BY JEFF MCINTOSH

The border blockade is also drawing criticism from elected officials at the municipal and federal levels.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said Tuesday she’s “incredibly concerned” about the blockade.

“This is no longer a protest. This is disruption of the economy. It’s disruption of basic life,” Gondek said in an interview before RCMP announced enforcement action. “So I’m interested in why the parties that have the power to stop this and charge people aren’t doing so.”

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal party’s sole Calgary MP is calling on the UCP government to “immediately address” the blockade to reopen trade through the border crossing.

“This blockade must end before it does further damage to our economy,” Calgary-Skyview MP George Chahal said on Twitter. “Some of the hard-working truck drivers who are currently keeping our supply chains intact are stranded south of Coutts right now.”

violence reported as rcmp attempt to break up alberta trucker border blockade

The truck convoy has blocked the highway since Saturday. PHOTO BY JEFF MCINTOSH

Alberta trucker Sam Chahal was stuck in Sweetgrass, Mont. — the community on the other side of the U.S. border from Coutts — on Tuesday. He said truckers are being told to travel to other ports of entry, but that nearby crossings don’t allow for commercial vehicles, making a detour a time-consuming and costly endeavour.

“(We’ve) been working on the front lines since the very start of the pandemic. We’ve sacrificed a lot during this time,” Chahal said. “We’ve been burning our fuel. We’re wasting our time and we’re not getting our jobs done on time. Fully-loaded trucks are still not allowed to cross the Coutts border.”

Mark W. Hanson, the Sweetgrass port director, said anyone trying to enter Canada at the Coutts entry is currently unable to pass through.

He said the Sweetgrass port remains operational but that southbound traffic has been limited due to the blockade.

“We are suggesting utilizing a different port of entry, either to the east or the west of the Sweetgrass-Coutts crossing to avoid that situation,” Hanson told Postmedia on Tuesday.

The Sweetgrass crossing into the U.S. processed an average of about 371 trucks and 394 passenger vehicles per day in December 2021, Hansen said, adding traffic at the border is down during the pandemic.

The Alberta Motor Transport Association, the industry group representing the province’s commercial transportation industry, declined to comment Tuesday, saying the current situation is the responsibility of law enforcement, government and border officials.

The Coutts protest is in support of a convoy of trucks that arrived in Ottawa on Friday to demonstrate against requirements from both the Canadian and U.S. governments that truckers must get a PCR test and quarantine when crossing the border if they are not fully immunized against COVID-19. Kenney continued to advocate Tuesday for a quarantine exemption to be reinstated for unvaccinated truckers.

UCP backbencher Grant Hunter has faced heat after attending the Coutts protest with his family Saturday, with the NDP calling for his removal from caucus. In a statement to Postmedia on Monday, he confirmed his participation in the protest but asked those in the blockade to let traffic pass.

Kenney has yet to address Hunter’s attendance at the rally, but Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer said Monday the UCP caucus would need to make a decision about whether Hunter’s actions merit removal from caucus.

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