Officials are calling for cooler heads to prevail after a trucker blockade — which began Saturday at the Canada-U.S. border in southern Alberta — grew violent Tuesday.
Premier Jason Kenney has called on protesters to end their demonstration after police said some protesters breached police barriers to join the demonstration. Later, a head-on collision occurred, resulting in an assault, police said.
"This kind of conduct is totally unacceptable," Kenney said during a news conference in Edmonton. "Without hesitation, I condemn those actions and I call for calm."
The protest of trucks lined up in front of the border checkpoint has halted all traffic at this point of Highway 4 since Saturday. The Coutts crossing is the primary conduit for an estimated $6 billion in exports from Alberta to the United States, according to the premier.
The demonstration is tied to an ongoing, nationwide protest over federal rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated truckers entering Canada from the U.S. The rules took effect Jan. 15.
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.
The latest events occurred after Mounties announced earlier Tuesday that they would be clearing the roadblock outside the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., a village about 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary.
Police then set up a checkpoint about 20 kilometres to the north of Coutts, in the town of Milk River, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Curtis Peters told reporters Tuesday evening.
As teams of officers approached truck cabs, a handful of drivers began slowly peeling off and driving away, Peters said.
At the same time, north of Coutts, other protesters breached an RCMP roadblock on Highway 4 and joined the blockade, driving through the ditch and south toward the border in the northbound lane at high speed, Peters said.
Meanwhile, several trucks driving north, away from the border, were also driving in the same lane in the opposite direction. A head-on crash happened at that time, which resulted in an assault, police said.
At that point, RCMP said they decided to pull back.
No arrests were made but the RCMP say they intend to "restore the movement of goods and vehicles on the road, but not at the risk of public safety," Peters said.
Police say the details of the collision and the assault are still under investigation.
Kenney called for people to stay away from the area while the RCMP carry out their action against the blockade.
He said the about 100 individuals are preventing thousands of truckers from doing their job of delivering food, goods and medicine to Albertans and Canadians, emphasizing that blocking a key piece of infrastructure is against the law.
Although it is unclear what that enforcement will entail, RCMP said in a press release that it is unlawful to wilfully obstruct the highway citing Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.
"Those participating in a blockade can also expect enforcement of any contraventions of the Criminal Code of Canada, the Traffic Safety Act and Use of Highway and Rules of the Road Regulations at this location and area roadways."
The RCMP said the blockade has impeded the ability for emergency agencies to provide full services to Coutts residents.
Peters told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday morning that the force had brought in additional resources in case arrests or the towing of vehicles became necessary.
"We'll use them if we need to," Peters said.
It has clogged the border crossing that is an entry point for a wide variety of goods, from foodstuffs to animal feed to farm equipment, and left some truckers stranded in the traffic gridlock.
On Monday, RCMP were able to free 40 or 50 vehicles that Peters described as "victims kind of caught in the mix of this."
"That was one of the objectives for yesterday, to get them freed," Peters said.
As the situation drags on, and at a standstill, Peters said that safety of persons — including police, those living in the community of Coutts and the media — is the first priority for RCMP.
Rebecca Purdy with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said in an emailed statement that travellers are being advised to use other crossings into the United States.
She said that no traffic is being blocked from coming into Canada at other ports of entry — and the CBSA "is ready to respond, with police of local jurisdiction if necessary, to any events impeding operations at ports of entry."
"It is an offence under the Customs Act to hinder the ability of a border services officer to conduct their work," Purdy said.
The blockade violates the Alberta Traffic Safety Act, Kenney said, and he also cited the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act as being among the tools available to the police and prosecutors.
Operational enforcement decisions are the responsibility of police services, and enforcement at the border crossing itself is in part a federal responsibility. <br><br>The same is also true for prosecutors in pursuing any charges, who also make their decisions independently. 2/3—@sonyasavage
However, 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.
In a statement posted to social media on Monday, the UCP's acting justice minister Sonya Savage wrote that questions about the Coutts border blockade are best answered by RCMP and local law enforcement.
"Operational enforcement decisions are the responsibility of police services, and enforcement at the border crossing itself is in part a federal responsibility," Savage's tweets read in part.
But Calgary Liberal MP George Chahal tweeted Tuesday that the federal government has ensured the border crossing remains open, while the protest is blocking a provincial highway.
"I'm calling on the Government of Alberta to immediately address the situation so Highway 4 at Coutts can reopen and trade can get moving again," Chahal tweeted.
At a press conference Tuesday, the province's Official Opposition, the NDP, also called on the UCP to act.
The NDP asked that the government seek an immediate court injunction to clear the blockade.
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With files from Erin Collins, David Rae, Dave White, Tony Seskus, and The Canadian Press