Border protests in Coutts, Alta., a 'concrete manifestation' of risk to Canada: Rouleau
Commissioner cited events at border town as central to determination there was threat
Events that transpired during a 17-day protest near the border town of Coutts, Alta., were central to Justice Paul Rouleau's determination that the federal government had met the threshold to invoke the Emergencies Act.
"The situation in [Coutts was] a concrete manifestation of the very risk that had been identified to Cabinet: a highly disruptive, but mainly peaceful protest that included a smaller group of actors who allegedly intended to effect serious violence for a political purpose," Rouleau wrote in his executive summary, which was tabled Friday in the House of Commons.
Rouleau wrote that the blockade at the Coutts port of entry was notable for its duration, complexity and volatility, and for the dramatic way it was resolved.
Coutts is a town of just over 200 people about 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, on the border with Montana.
Though Rouleau wrote that many of the protests across Canada, including in Coutts, may have been intended to have been peaceful, the situation "escaped their control."
Uncovering weapons at the site
According to Rouleau's report, the RCMP had grown concerned about the possible presence of firearms within the group near the border town as early as Jan. 31, 2022. They investigated, without success, reports of a protester with a gun, and obtained new information about a possible cache of weapons on Feb. 9.
Rouleau's report goes on to say a wiretap authorization was granted on Feb. 11, and on Feb. 13, they obtained a search warrant and searched a motorhome and two trailers, as well as Smuggler's Saloon, where protesters had been gathering.
During the inquiry, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the head of the RCMP shared with him sensitive police information on Feb. 13, the day before the act was invoked.
"She underlined, for me, that the situation in Coutts involved a hardened cell of individuals armed to the teeth with lethal firearms, who possessed a willingness to go down with the cause," Mendicino said of his conversation with Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
WATCH: Lucki warned Mendicino that Alberta border blockade could turn violent:
RCMP uncovered a cache of weapons, body armour and ammunition. Allegations of a conspiracy to murder police officers followed. On Feb. 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government would be invoking the act, saying that the measures would be "reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address."
"The fact that this situation was discovered and disrupted is a credit to law enforcement," wrote Rouleau. "It was, nevertheless, clearly a situation that could reasonably be viewed as meeting the definition [of a threat to the security of Canada under CSIS], but that CSIS had not identified as such."
Cabinet could "reasonably consider" that the risk of similar groups of politically or ideologically motivated violent actors could have been present at other protests, Rouleau wrote.
'Most troubling connection': Diagolon
Rouleau found "the most troubling connection between protest locations" was the presence of Diagolon members in both Ottawa and Coutts.
RCMP described Diagolon as a "militia-like network with members who are armed and prepared for violence" while the Ontario Provincial Police called it an extremist group.
Founder Jeremy MacKenzie downplayed the characterizations of Diagolon during his testimony at the hearing in November, but Rouleau rejected that evidence.
"I am satisfied that law enforcement's concern about Diagolon is genuine and well founded," wrote the commissioner.
While MacKenzie recruited members in Ottawa, the commissioner noted that a Diagolon member was in Coutts. That individual was one of the protesters arrested and charged with conspiring to murder RCMP members.
Besides this person's arrest at the border blockade, further evidence of Diagolon's presence included a ballistic vest seized by police which bore a Diagolon patch.
The Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) heard evidence law enforcement agencies were concerned that people and groups "intent on violence" were present at the protests.
"The discovery of the Diagolon insignia among the material seized at Coutts, coupled with the presence of Diagolon leader Jeremy Mackenzie in Ottawa, heightened this concern," wrote Rouleau.
A further connection between Diagolon and the two main protest sites included evidence gathered by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Diagolon supporter Alex Vriend collected donations to pay transportation costs for protesters to Ottawa and Coutts.
Though Rouleau said the connections were "troubling," he added there was little evidence of significant or widespread coordination between supporters of Diagolon in Coutts and in Ottawa.
"To the contrary, in a report on the arrests in Coutts, the RCMP noted that 'there has been no information uncovered to suggest that there is an organized effort between the individuals charged in Alberta and individuals involved in the Ottawa protest,'" he wrote.
'I do not come to this conclusion easily'
In his report, the commissioner also wrote that the protest near the border posed dangers to bystanders, specifically highlighting residents of Coutts who were unable to travel to Milk River, Alta. to access essentials like medical services and grocery stores, while others suffered negative impacts to their psychological health.
That was something raised by Coutts Mayor Jim Willett when he testified during the Emergencies Act inquiry in November, telling the story of a Coutts resident who is an Afghanistan veteran, who left town during the protests because they triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Coutts council members recently passed a resolution that they would not longer talk about the blockade publicly, citing a desire to heal a divide among residents that persists.
As a part of his summary, Rouleau wrote that the threshold for invocation is the point at which order breaks down and freedom cannot be secured, or is seriously threatened.
"In my view, that threshold was reached here," he wrote.
"I do not come to this conclusion easily, as I do not consider the factual basis for it to be overwhelming and I acknowledge that there is significant strength to the arguments against reaching it. It may well be that serious violence might have been avoided, even without the declaration of emergency.
"That it might have been avoided does not, however, make the decision wrong."
'A dangerous precedent': Shandro
Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams said she believes Coutts became something of a flashpoint during the protests given the high-profile events that occurred there.
"Obviously, there are going to be people who supported the reason for the protests, but not the tactics, or the activities that were used," Williams said.
"There are some who are just very worried — even if they did think that the actions of some of the participants were completely unjustified — that the powers taken by the government went enough beyond what was justified, that they're very concerned about the implications for the future. And those questions will continue to circulate."
Geoffrey Hale, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said he thought the report had been delivered in a measured way, delivering recommendations for both the provincial and federal governments.
"It attempts to take a balanced view of issues, whether or not you agree or not with its final conclusion, and tries to parse the multiple factors that went into the protests, as opposed to engaging in cliched or one-dimensional thinking," he said.
In a written statement issued Friday afternoon, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the federal government "unnecessarily" invoked the act, which he says "set a dangerous precedent."
"The decision to invoke the act violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Albertans and gave the federal government the ability to seize property without due process of law," Shandro said.
"The conclusion reached by the inquiry does not affect Alberta's decision to participate in legal challenges initiated against the federal government by the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association last year."
Marco Van Huigenbos, 32, from Fort Macleod, Alta., was one of the organizers of the demonstration at Coutts. He has been charged with mischief over $5,000.
The day after the raids, he told CBC News the protest was "infiltrated by an extreme element" and said the remaining protesters had decided to "peacefully leave Coutts and return to [their] families."
In an interview Friday, he said that statement still stands, but added that he felt what took place near the border was "way bigger" than what took place with the weapons and related arrests.
"I feel like Coutts was an event that, was first and foremost, [about] the people, Albertans, that came out to express their frustrations," he said. "It was just unfortunate how it ended."