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'Threat was very serious': RCMP provide update on Coutts arrests after blockade ends

Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki says the RCMP weapons seizure and arrests on Monday speak to "serious criminal activity" that was "real and organized" amid the now disassembled Coutts border blockade.

Investigation remains ongoing into armed group, say police

Protesters from the blockade at the border crossing near Coutts, Alta., pass through the Milk River blockade site on Tuesday as police officers look on. (CBC)

Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki says the RCMP weapons seizure and arrests on Monday speak to "serious criminal activity" that was "real and organized" amid the now disassembled border blockade at Coutts, Alta.

Threats became known to the RCMP days into the protest. Through investigations and intelligence, a "heavily armed group" was revealed. 

RCMP reiterated that conspiracy is a serious charge based on evidence that there is a commitment to follow through with murder. 

The investigation remains ongoing into the extent to which those arrested are connected with broader insurrectionist groups across the province and country.

Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers of the protest, told CBC News on Tuesday that organizers were not aware of the element involved in the charges.

Chief Supt. Trevor Daroux said parsing out groups that infiltrate protests and demonstrations from the larger group can be complex.

"It's difficult to determine. That split that you talk about isn't always as clear as you might think it is," he said.

RCMP also said they were aware of a video circulating on social media of officers hugging and high-fiving protesters.

"We do encourage our members to engage with the public and develop respectful, professional relationships with all Albertans," Zablocki said. "We'll be looking further into this matter and taking any necessary steps."

Truckers from the blockade at the U.S. border left voluntarily on Tuesday and passed through Milk River, Alta. RCMP had designated a legal protest site there and were monitoring traffic. (CBC)

The international border crossing at Coutts, which had been blocked since Jan. 29 by protesters opposed to Canada's vaccine mandates, opened Tuesday morning as demonstrators left voluntarily, the RCMP said.

RCMP spokesperson Gina Slaney said the protest had cleared out significantly and traffic was able to cross the border in both directions. 

The Canada Border Services Agency also confirmed to CBC News around 11 a.m. that the port of entry had reopened.

Premier Jason Kenney said Monday that the Mounties informed him they would begin to clear the blockade after an early morning raid saw police make arrests and seize weapons, ammunition and body armour.

The potential for escalating violence should serve as a wake-up call to protesters to go home immediately, he said.

"Glad to see that almost all protesters at the Coutts border crossing and nearby checkpoints have now gone home. This is great news for the hundreds of truckers who cross the border every day," the premier said on social media Tuesday.

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett told CBC News on Tuesday that the discovery of the weaponry was "disturbing" and said it was the catalyst that ended the protest.

"[The protesters have] been here for longer than I believe that they thought they would be. It didn't really start out with much of a plan for a blockade," Willett said.

"Once that undesirable element moved into town and [protesters] heard about that, well, it was enough, I think, to provide an impetus to call an end to this."

'Some huge wins,' protest organizer says

The protest by people opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates had impeded or outright blocked access to the normally busy border crossing for more than two weeks.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said $48 million in trade was lost each day that the Coutts border was closed.

Van Huigenbos said protesters would have "loved to stay" until more of their goals were met but felt it was in their best interests to leave peacefully.

"We're not walking away with everything we came for, but there was definitely some huge wins," Van Huigenbos said about the lifting of most COVID-19 public health restrictions in Alberta.

Kenney announced the end of measures that included Alberta's vaccine passport program on Feb. 8, but he has denied it was due to pressure from the protest.

"Our careful plan to get life back to normal is not based on anybody protesting, it's just based on the fact that restrictions are not needed now to protect the health-care system," Kenney said during a news conference Monday.

13 people facing charges

Police have now arrested 13 people — 11 in an initial pre-dawn raid on Monday on three trailers, plus two more later that day.

One man was arrested on the highway as he was en route to the protest site. Police said they seized two weapons from his vehicle. He remains in custody. 

In a second incident, around 12:45 p.m., a semi truck approached an RCMP check stop north of Milk River, Alta. RCMP said the driver sped up and drove toward police but swerved at the last moment and hit some traffic cones that were on the roadway.

Most of the accused face charges of mischief to property over $5,000 and possession of a weapon. Four also face an additional charge of conspiracy to murder, with one man also charged with uttering threats.

Alberta RCMP submitted this photo of what they say is a cache of firearms and ammunition found in three trailers near the blockade of the Canada-U.S. border. (Submitted by Alberta RCMP)

Two tactical vests seized by the RCMP had badges on them, which the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said are associated with troubling movements.

One vest appears to have a "Diagolon" patch on it, a white diagonal line across a black rectangle, which is linked to an often conspiratorial and antisemitic group, explained Peter Smith from the network. He said this group often talks about a soon-approaching civil war.

"[Their] rhetoric is very violent," said Smith. "One of the, kind of, common phrases used within the community is 'a gun or rope?"'

The other patch said "Infidel" in both English and Arabic in yellow. Smith said this patch doesn't indicate membership to a specific network but is known among Islamophobic militias and biker-style hate groups.

He said the biggest worry is having these niche extremist networks linked to what was supposed to be a peaceful protest that could work to inflame supporters.

'We were not aware of this element'

Van Huigenbos said the protest was intended to be peaceful, and the accused weren't well-known to most of its participants.

"I mingled with them, right? They introduced themselves," Van Huigenbos said.

"They sat [at] our tables, ate our food. We did have our eye on them a bit. There was ... activity that was concerning. But we were not aware to this element."

Van Huigenbos said other protesters were shocked when reports and photos of weaponry emerged.

"There would have never been any violence on our part," he said.

Trudeau invokes Emergencies Act

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he was invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canada's history to give the federal government temporary powers to handle ongoing blockades and protests against pandemic restrictions.

The unprecedented deployment of the act gives police more tools to restore order in places where public assemblies constitute illegal and dangerous activities, such as blockades and occupations, he said. 

Trudeau said the act also would enable the RCMP to enforce municipal bylaws and provincial offences where required.

Kenney said Monday he doesn't believe invoking the act is necessary in Alberta.

"We have the legal powers that we need. We have the operational resources that we need to enforce, and I think at this point for the federal government to reach in over top of us without offering anything in particular would frankly be unhelpful," said Kenney.

With files from Erin Collins, Meghan Grant, The Canadian Press and Reuters

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