Alberta premier says massive blockade preventing access to U.S. border 'must end'
Large protest started Saturday; RCMP says traffic still blocked in both directions
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is calling for a massive vehicle blockade preventing access to the Canada-U.S. border crossing to end, saying it is causing "significant inconvenience for lawful motorists."
"[It] could dangerously impede the movement of emergency service vehicles," Kenney said in a statement on Sunday afternoon. "This blockade must end immediately."
Truckers and motorists travelling to and from the United States from southern Alberta have been caught up in gridlock as an extremely large blockade of vehicles tied to an ongoing nationwide protest over COVID-19 public health measures continues to jam border traffic.
Vehicles have been blockading the highway from south of Lethbridge, Alta., to the Canada-U.S. border crossing in the village of Coutts since Saturday afternoon.
That means that traffic to and from the border crossing has largely come to a standstill.
In a statement on Sunday, RCMP said they are working with truck drivers who are attempting to leave the area, but traffic is immobilized.
It's been frustrating for professional long-haul trucker David May, who's been driving for 15 years and is fully vaccinated.
May picked up a load of meat in Brooks, Alta., to deliver to Portland, Ore., before running up against the blockade on Saturday. He's been stuck in Milk River, Alta., since then.
"The protest makes no sense at all," he said. "Came back here and parked with a lot of other truckers who are all vaccinated and ready to head south and do our jobs. It's really frustrating."
Concerns about emergency vehicles
The RCMP previously had concerns about emergency access to the village of Coutts, but earlier Sunday, an ambulance arrived to ensure it was able to access the area. The vehicle is able to get into the community on a dirt road.
"They are able to get into town, but it's certainly not ideal," RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said.
What is of concern to the RCMP at this time is the fact that Coutts has a volunteer fire department, which is also supposed to service the community of Sweet Grass, Mont., on the U.S. side. With the highway blocked, firefighters are unable to respond to an emergency or fire were one to occur.
The protest is being held in support of a convoy of trucks from across the country that arrived in Ottawa on Friday, with a stated goal of demonstrating against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truckers and other public health measures issued by the federal government.
Jake Zacharias previously told CBC News that he attended the protest at the border on Saturday to support his friends who are truck drivers. He said many plan to stay near the border "until the mandates are lifted."
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told CBC News shortly after 11:30 a.m. on Sunday that it was monitoring the situation.
"[The CBSA] is ready to respond, with police of local jurisdiction if necessary, to any events impeding operations at ports of entry," a spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson said that "no traffic is being blocked from coming into Canada," adding it was an offence under the Customs Act to hinder a border services officer from doing their work.
The blockade is taking place on the highway, north of the ports of entry.
Critical trade route in North America
The Coutts border crossing is the only 24/7 commercial crossing between Alberta and Montana, and it's a crucial trade route between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, established in 2020, allows the province to enact punishments for trespassing, interfering with operations and construction or causing damage to essential infrastructure, which includes highways.
Individuals found guilty under the legislation can be fined up to $10,000 for a first offence and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, and sentenced to six months in jail, or both.
In his statement, Kenney said the current blockade violates the Alberta Traffic Safety Act, and he cited the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act as being among the tools available to police and prosecutors.
"I urge those involved in this truck convoy protest to do so as safely as possible, and not to create road hazards which could lead to accidents or unsafe conditions for other drivers," he said.
"If participants in this convoy cross the line and break the law, I expect police to take appropriate action."
One member of Kenney's United Conservative Party, Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter, posted a photo of himself and his family on Facebook at the protest near the border.
CBC News reached out to Hunter for further comment, but did not receive a response by time of publication.
In response to a request for comment on Hunter's attendance, a spokesperson for the premier referred CBC News to a series of tweets made by Kenney about the protests in Ottawa.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said debate over invoking the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act law will be fascinating to watch in the coming days.
"You've passed this law, you've talked about it, and now it's being violated by groups that you like," he said.
Prior to the release of the premier's statement, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said her party "unequivocally condemns the blockade of the border near Coutts as well as the many examples of hateful symbols and vandalism seen across Canada this weekend."
"We are calling on Premier Jason Kenney to denounce this blockade of Alberta's only international border crossing and work to restore full access to Coutts for emergency vehicles and transportation," Notley said in a statement.
On Saturday, the RCMP said it was engaged in conversations with those involved in blocking the road.
The delays are frustrating for other travellers, such as U.S. citizen Michael Coronado, who was travelling from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., to Colorado, where he lives.
He said he supports everyone's rights to voice their opinion but finds this form of protest "problematic."
"As a U.S. citizen trying to enter my country and having civilians inhibit my right to do that, is a real issue for me," he said. "Even though I support their right to voice their opinion."
Earlier this month, federal rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Canadian truckers entering Canada from the U.S. took effect.
Truckers who are not fully vaccinated must get a PCR test and quarantine.
With files from Emily Fitzpatrick