Mounties seize guns and arrest 13 protesters at border blockade in Alberta

'Infiltrated by an extreme element,' organizers say they plan to leave Tuesday morning

CBC News · Posted: Feb 14, 2022 11:21 AM MT | Last Updated: February 14

Alberta RCMP submitted this photo of what they say is a cache of firearms and ammunition found in three trailers near an ongoing blockade of the Canada-U.S. border. (Submitted by Alberta RCMP)

Alberta RCMP have arrested at least 13 people in relation to a protest against pandemic restrictions near the main U.S. border crossing in southern Alberta.

Mounties said in a release early Monday that they became aware of a small organized group within the larger protest at Coutts, which led to 11 arrests. 

They say they had information that the group had access to a cache of firearms and ammunition in three trailers. Officers seized long guns, handguns, multiple sets of body armour, a machete, a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity firearm magazines. 

In light of the news, Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers of the protest, said a decision has been reached to roll out from Coutts on Tuesday morning.

"We were infiltrated by an extreme element.… Our objective was to be here peacefully," he said. "To keep that message going, we want to peacefully leave Coutts and return to our families."

Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers of the Alberta protest, says the individuals arrested were 'sole operatives, acting on their own behalf.' He says they did not represent the entire protest. (Mirna Djukic/Radio-Canada)

Supt. Roberta McKale of the RCMP told media around 2 p.m. Monday that while there haven't been many incidents involving violence, an investigation started after a period of time when the initial protesters arrived.

McKale said that RCMP began to receive information about potential threats, which took time to investigate, and led to arrests on Sunday night.

"We have since made another arrest involving this, the escalation of violence towards the members, including having someone break one of our checkpoints this afternoon and just about hit one of our members on the road," McKale said.

McKale also added that the different charges and different acts have created a situation where the Mounties are investigating conspiracy to attempt to commit murder.

In a second release Monday, RCMP said two more people had been arrested in connection to the border blockade. 

RCMP say they arrested one man on the highway who was on en route to the protest site. Police say they seized two weapons from his vehicle. He remains in custody. 

In a second incident, around 12:45 p.m., a semi truck approached an RCMP check stop north of Milk River. RCMP say the driver sped up and drove toward police but swerved at the last moment and hit some traffic cones that were on the roadway. The driver was arrested close to the scene for Criminal Code offences.

Protest has dragged on for two weeks

The protest by people opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates has impeded or outright blocked access to the normally busy border crossing for two weeks.

Speaking at an unrelated event Monday in Calgary, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the successful police operation now clears the way for authorities to proceed with further enforcement without fear of provoking violence.

"Now that the RCMP has successfully resolved this potential threat, they will proceed, I'm informed, with enforcement against others who are involved in the blockade," he said.

Kenney also said the provincial government has procured enough heavy equipment and people to operate it to assist the Mounties in removing commercial vehicles blocking the highway.

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to news that RCMP seized weapons, ammunition from protest site at Coutts:

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to news that RCMP seized weapons, ammunition from protest site at Coutts

1 day ago

Duration 2:13

The premier says the situation at the Coutts' border crossing will no longer be tolerated, and the provincial government now has heavy equipment in place to assist police in clearing Highway 4 of vehicles. 2:13

RCMP say a large farm tractor and a semi truck attempted to ram a police vehicle on Sunday evening, providing "an example of the militant mindset of a small segment of the protest," the release said.

Officers were able to get out of the way and avoid a collision.

The driver of the tractor was identified and officers are working to locate him and arrest him, RCMP said.

Small group had 'willingness to use force,' RCMP says

One of the organizers of the truck convoy blockade, Marco Van Huigenbos, says protesters at the border are being peaceful.

He denies there were any threatening comments or actions that would prompt the arrests. 

"Many, many videos were rolling. Many guys were standing around. I have not seen evidence that that is in fact correct. I feel like they have other motives," he said.

Police say a small organized group within the protest was said to have a "willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade."

On the weekend, Mounties disabled three excavators they believe were on their way to the border blockade.

Cpl. Troy Savinkoff says police intercepted the heavy equipment on the highway north of the protest, and he says officers told them to turn back.

He says they did. Savinkoff said the excavators then parked on the side of the road and police suspected they planned to continue on to the protest.

Savinkoff says he doesn't know what police did to disable the vehicles.

He says police issued dozens of tickets Sunday to vehicles involved in the protest, most of which he says were issued under the province's Traffic Safety Act and other laws relating to road safety.

'Great frustration'

The Canada Border Services Agency said Saturday that services at the busy crossing were suspended, and Savinkoff said the status was the same on Sunday.

A number of industry groups — including representatives for the manufacturing, retail and beef sectors — have expressed their frustration of ongoing disruptions at the Coutts border.

The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said last week that $44 million per day in goods typically cross the border every day at Coutts, or $15.9 billion per year. 

But Kenney said Monday that the impact to the agricultural economy has been "quite modest."

"I would say overall net-net — the impact to the economy has been quite modest, but the inconvenience has been very great," he said.

Kenney said the provincial government has been working with the police and sheriffs to ensure continued operation of Alberta's five other ports of entry to the U.S.

"I think that the export situation has been largely unaffected," Kenney said.

"Northbound has been a little more problematic because the CBSA only has [an] inspection operation at Coutts."

Speaking to media, Kenney was also asked about reports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told his caucus he will invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act to give the federal government extra powers to handle anti-vaccine mandate protests across the country.

"The view I have, which I conveyed to the prime minister during the forum of First Ministers this morning, is that this is not necessary, at least for an Alberta context," Kenney said.

"We have all of the necessary statutory powers and operational capacity for enforcement now that we've resolved, now that the RCMP has resolved, the militant cell, which could potentially resulted in violence.

"And so we have now obtained the necessary equipment and we have very strong laws in Alberta already."

He repeated that the province's "careful" plan to lift health mandates is about getting life back to normal and not a response to the protests.

Labour group to make police complaint

Kenney said protesters should celebrate, like everyone else, the fact that things are returning to normal.

However, he said he thinks protesters have an outstanding grievance with the federal government and its mandates. He also pointed a finger at the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

"You've got the NDP's Alberta Federation of Labour in court as we speak, trying to get a judge to force six-year-olds to wear masks indefinitely," he said.

"If you want to protest something, go down to the AFL headquarters and protest that — peacefully."

The AFL said Monday it has joined a group of parents of students with disabilities in filing an application for a court injunction to stop the implementation of the order to remove the province-wide mask mandate in Alberta schools.

In an interview, AFL's president Gil McGowan called the lifting of the mandate premature, reckless and irresponsible, adding they are asking for the mask mandate to stay in place until March 1, not indefinitely.

He also said he'd be making a formal police complaint about Kenney's comments to the RCMP and the Edmonton Police Service. He said staff at the AFL's office in Edmonton were sent home on Monday.

"What the premier has done is basically said go after the Alberta Federation of Labour — so we take that as a threat," said McGowan. "He crossed the line."

McGowan said Kenney's call for any protest to be done "peacefully" in his remarks was merely a "fig leaf."

"That is not behaviour befitting the premier of a Canadian province," he added.

With files from Canadian Press

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