Frustration mounts as blockade snarling access to U.S. border continues at Alberta port of entry

Frustration is mounting as motorists remain stranded at a Canada-U.S. border crossing in a southern Alberta village where traffic has been snarled by a protest against COVID-19 public health measures.

Meat suppliers seek government 'fix' to shipping delays as protest drags on

Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Frustration mounted Monday as motorists were stranded at a Canada-U.S. border crossing in a southern Alberta village, where traffic has been snarled and services disrupted by a protest against COVID-19 public health measures.

Since Saturday afternoon, motorists travelling to and from the United States have been caught in a large blockade of vehicles that choked off the highway from south of Lethbridge to the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Coutts.

The demonstration is tied to an ongoing nationwide protest over federal rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Canadian truckers entering Canada from the U.S., which took effect earlier this month.

It mandates that truckers who are not fully vaccinated must get a PCR test and quarantine.

The United States implemented a similar mandate on Jan. 22 requiring that all U.S.-bound travellers — including truckers — show proof they've had the required shots.

WATCH | Convoy blocks Canada-U.S. border in Alberta:

Anti-vaccine mandate convoy blocks Alberta border crossing

1 year ago
Duration 1:56
An anti-vaccine mandate convoy has blocked the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Coutts, Alta., for several days, saying they won’t budge until the government overturns a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truck drivers.

The blockade of vehicles has disrupted services and halted traffic at one of the busiest ports of entry in Canada.

Early Monday afternoon, RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters told CBC News that protest organizers allowed some vehicles to leave, although the border remained blocked.

However, RCMP tweeted later in the day that continued efforts to work with the protesters had been unsuccessful.

"In an effort to find a peaceful resolution, the Alberta RCMP had been negotiating with the protesters at the #Coutts border crossing throughout the day," the agency wrote in a social media post.

"While we thought we had a path to resolve this, the protesters chose not to comply."

'You've gone beyond protest'

Canadian trucker John Schwarz was caught up in the blockade for 40 hours while coming back from Idaho. 

"These guys are basically holding us hostage, and nobody's doing anything about it," Schwarz told CBC News on Monday morning, and while stuck in the gridlock.

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett told The Canadian Press on Monday that he's angry and frustrated because about 100 trucks lined up on Highway 4 were preventing a mail truck from entering Coutts and a school bus from leaving the village for the nearest school.

Willett also said the roughly 250 residents of Coutts hadn't been able to use the blocked road to get to the nearest grocery store, gas station and pharmacy.

"I'm disappointed, I think is the main thing," Willett said on the Monday edition of the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Not impressed, I guess, with the fact that they blocked off the highway."

A long line of semi trucks lineup down a highway.
Since Saturday afternoon, motorists travelling to and from the United States have been caught in a large blockade of vehicles that choked off Highway 4 near the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta. (Submitted by Jake Zacharias)

The standstill came after organizers of the protest convoy reached out to Willett last week to let his office know the convoy would not block entrances to the village.

The original plan relayed by the protestors involved delaying traffic by travelling in one lane and making a loop when they were refused at the border, Willett said.

It would slow things down but still allow access.

"That didn't last very long," Willett said.

"And once they blocked off commerce and blocked off the highway, they lost some of my sympathy because now you've gone beyond protest."

Mayor Jim Willett is frustrated with anti-mandate demonstrators as a truck convoy blocked the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Jan. 31, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

'This event is unlawful'

Earlier on Monday, the RCMP's Cpl. Peters told The Canadian Press that officers were attempting to come to a resolution with protesters with the least amount of intervention.

RCMP said officers were telling people trying to travel into the U.S. to use a different port of entry. Mounties were turning away truckers and other motorists about 15 kilometres from Coutts.

The message was the same on the other side.

"Officials in Montana are stopping and advising motorists, commercial vehicles, passenger vehicles to find [an alternative] route as they won't be able to get through once they cross into Canada," Peters said.

The lineup of trucks stretching up highway 4 from the U.S. border in Coutts, Alta. based on drone footage taken at the scene on Sunday. (Rob Easton / CBC)

Willett told the Calgary Eyeopener that he would like to see RCMP  take action that would allow traffic to go back to normal.

For its part, RCMP said Sunday night in a statement on Facebook that the event is "unlawful."

"When an event becomes unlawful, we utilize a measured approach, which ultimately includes enforcement," the statement said in part.

"This event is unlawful and we are asking those who are involved to clear the area."

On Sunday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also called for the blockade to end, saying it is causing "significant inconvenience for lawful motorists."

He said the blockade violates the Alberta Traffic Safety Act, and he cited the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act as being among the tools available to the police and prosecutors.

But Kenney has said it's up to local authorities to enforce provincial legislation, which allows for additional penalties against protesters blockading highways and other infrastructure.

UCP minister disappointed colleague attended border protest

An Alberta cabinet minister says he's disappointed that a fellow United Conservative MLA went to a protest where truckers have blockaded the highway.

Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer says he wants answers from Grant Hunter about his reasons for going to the Alberta-Montana crossing at Coutts this weekend.

The Taber-Warner MLA shot back in an emailed statement.

"This past weekend, I purposefully traveled with some of my family members to the Coutts border to support a peaceful protest of truckers and farmers, as is my constitutional right," Hunter said.

It's time to get back to normal, he added.

"That being said, a peaceful protest is not a blockade that stops people from moving freely and so I ask those who are blocking the Coutts border crossing to let people through. I empathize deeply with the frustration truckers and many Albertans have faced over the past two years, but ask they not break the law while protesting."

Loads of beef 'stuck at the border'

Meanwhile, many people are keeping a close eye on what impact the backup of truck traffic at the border is having on industry and consumers.

The Canadian Meat Council, which represents the country's federally inspected meat packers and processors, warned Monday that an ongoing closure would impact production.

"There are over 150 loads of Canadian Beef stuck at the #coutts border," the organization said on Twitter. 

"Our members are going to have to slow down production if this keeps up. What is the government's approach to fix this?"

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, noted that early in the pandemic, food production and the food supply chain were labelled essential services and critical infrastructure in Canada.

"Transportation delays can severely impact the beef supply chain on everything from animal feed through to the transport of cattle," Lowe said in a statement to CBC News.

"We continue to monitor the impacts of transportation delays and are working with the Government of Canada and other stakeholders to keep the beef supply chain moving."

Delay, expense

Two customs brokers, who handle the customs process for cross-border shipments at Coutts, told CBC News on Monday that things are still clogged.

The border crossing is an entry point for a wide variety of goods, from produce to farm equipment. Both said it's their understanding trucks that can be rerouted are being rerouted.

"For the most part, trucks can cross at other ports," said Carrie Barrows, who manages one of the brokerages. "It might be a bit of a delay and an additional expense to get there, but it is something that they can do."

The store manager at the Family Foods grocery store in northeast Calgary said most of the product destined for her store shelves today would have already arrived at warehouses by the weekend and would be at the store today.

She said the impact of the border closure, if any, might not be known until the middle of the week. So far, she said, she hasn't noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Trade expert Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation, a public policy think tank based in Calgary, said the broader supply chain faces much bigger challenges than the closure of a single border crossing in Alberta.

However, Dade said that for those industries and businesses that depend on shipments moving across the border at Coutts, a prolonged blockade would have an impact.

At the consumer level, he said the blockade isn't the kind of thing to affect an entire grocery store, but could impact certain shelves.

"You'll have some specific products — so fresh fruits and vegetables — that tend to come by truck, those that don't come by plane, may be impacted," Dade said.

He said other goods at grocery stores are still facing global supply and logistics problems, which are "going to persist a long time after this has gone."

With files from Joel Dryden, Tony Seskus, Hannah Kost, Helen Pike and The Canadian Press


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