Organizers of Coutts blockade quickly change course, say border protest will continue

Protestors impeding access to the main United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., have reversed course about their plans to vacate an ongoing border protest.

RCMP previously said they had heard protestors intended to pull out

RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said Thursday that traffic was crossing the border into Montana. Protestors impeding access to the main United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., said a blockade protest would continue despite an earlier deal to vacate. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Protestors impeding access to the main United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., have reversed course about their plans to vacate an ongoing border protest.

"There was a decision made that has since been reversed," Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers of the convoy, told CBC News.

RCMP said earlier Thursday that they had heard that protestors intended to pull out of the area soon. Some truckers said they intended to pull out before heading north to Edmonton.

Earlier Thursday, RCMP said traffic continues to move through to the border — albeit slowly — after a second blockade on the highway had briefly choked it off.

Protesters agreed Wednesday to open a lane on each side of the highway at the crossing, where there has been a blockade since Saturday. But for a time, there was no stream of vehicles crossing the border.

A second blockade about 18 kilometres north of Coutts briefly disrupted traffic and, although numbers have decreased since Wednesday night, there was still a large presence Thursday morning with semi-trailers, heavy equipment and trucks blocking access.

Vehicles flying Canadian flags and signs saying "We Want Freedom" moved up and down the highway north of the blockade with horns blaring.

Around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, RCMP tweeted that border and local traffic on Highway 4 continued to flow through the blockade.

In spite of the progress, RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said at a 2:30 p.m. news conference near Milk River that the situation is in a constant state of flux, and the force is encouraging the public to avoid the area.

"Through ongoing conversations that we've been having with protest organizers and people involved here, restoration was made to get traffic flowing again. But as you can see, it's significantly reduced," Peters said.

"We're still advising motorists not to attend this location because of the volume of traffic, and there's still a risk to public safety."

Vehicles now crossing into Montana at Coutts

Peters said earlier on Thursday that vehicles had resumed crossing the border into Montana. 

Jason Givens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Port of Sweetgrass, Mont., said there had not been any southbound traffic from Coutts since Saturday until early Thursday.

The agreement with the protesters for a partial pull back Wednesday has allowed traffic to resume, although it has been limited.

Demonstrators began parking their trucks and other vehicles near the Coutts crossing Saturday in solidarity with similar events in Ottawa and countrywide to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and broader public health measures.

The impasse has stranded travellers and cross-border truckers, compromised millions of dollars in trade and impeded access to basic goods and medical services for area residents.

The southbound lanes of the Coutts, Alta., blockade are pictured open in this photo taken Thursday. (Nassima Way/CBC)

On Thursday, a number of United Conservative Party MLAs also expressed their support for lifting COVID restrictions — including the restrictions exemption program, or REP, which was brought in last fall. It requires anyone who wants to enter specific events or businesses to show they are fully vaccinated or proof of a negative test. 

"The efficacy of the REP program, in light of Omicron and its transmissibility, has long past its purpose," wrote Michaela Frey, UCP MLA for Brooks-Medicine Hat, on Facebook. 

"I have advocated for a swift end, within days, to end the REP, proof of vaccination, program."

MLA Jason Nixon, who is the UCP's minister of environment and parks, said in an emailed statement that although he is not a doctor, "it is clear now that mandates like the [REP] are not as effective against the current COVID-19 situation as much as health officials expected."

"You'll note the premier said [vaccine mandates will] be gone imminently, and I'll hold him to it," wrote Nixon, who represents the riding of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.

Other UCP caucus members who spoke out Thursday on social media against health measures included Miranda Rosin, Dan Williams, Peter Guthrie, Jordan Walker and Tany Yao.

With files from Erin Collins and CBC News