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Alberta premier looks to RCMP to carry out enforcement at Coutts border blockade

Premier Jason Kenney said it's up to the RCMP to enforce the law at a blockade near Coutts, Alta., where large trucks and other vehicles have blocked traffic to and from the United States.

The Canada Border Services Agency says services are now suspended at the Coutts port of entry

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pointed to the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act and the Highway Safety Act as some of the tools RCMP can use as grounds to move protesters who remain near Coutts, Alta. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

Premier Jason Kenney said it's up to the RCMP to enforce the law at a blockade near Coutts, Alta., where large trucks and other vehicles have blocked traffic to and from the United States.

Protesters have taken up residence on Highway 4 since Jan. 29, calling on the provincial and federal governments to immediately end all COVID-19 health mandates and restrictions, among other things.

On Saturday, the Canada Border Services Agency said services are now suspended at the Coutts port of entry. 

There's also a second blockade up the highway near Milk River, Alta. Traffic has been allowed to pass intermittently since the protests started, but for the past few days, the road has been closed in both directions. 

"I've made it very clear on behalf of the government, and I believe the vast majority of the people of Alberta, that we expect law and order to be restored," Kenney said on CBC's Power and Politics.

"I do understand, that at the beginning of protests of this nature, the police have good reasons to often to seek to avoid conflict and to de-escalate. That's understandable. And we respect those tactical and prudential judgments. But this has been going on for nearly two weeks."

RCMP have been trying to encourage protesters to move to a nearby field and open up the road, but so far that hasn't happened.

The premier pointed to Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, as "a very useful tool" that police could use, as well as the Highway Safety Act.

"So there is that and a number of other legal instruments they have at their disposal," he said. "Many other laws, penalties that are available and we expect our police service to enforce the law."

WATCH | 'I get the frustration, but we can never accept lawlessness as a response': Premier Kenney on protests:

'I get the frustration, but we can never accept lawlessness as a response': Premier Kenney on protests

4 months ago
Duration 13:29
"If they in any way justify these kinds of protests, then how in the world can they oppose extremists camping out in front of pipelines or creating barriers on railways," said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on some members of the Conservative caucus posing with protesters.

RCMP have been issuing tickets to protesters illegally blockading the border.

However, Kenney said there has only been one ticket issued under the Critical Infrastructure Act. That's something Alberta's largest public sector union, AUPE, has also pointed out.

AUPE said Friday it will seek leave from Canada's top court to continue its constitutional challenge of the bill.

"Alberta government leaders have spoken at length about using Bill 1 against environmental protests and have a track record of attacking unions and workers," AUPE president Guy Smith said in a statement Friday. 

"The fact that the government and police waited so long to charge anyone under Bill 1 during the border protests at Coutts and aren't using the act to shut down the protests entirely suggests that this will be a law that is imposed only on those with whom the government does not agree."

While Kenney said it's up to police to take action, in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford signed a state of emergency order on Friday in response to convoy protests against public health measures which have caused major disruptions in multiple areas of the province.

Ford said he will convene cabinet and "urgently enact orders that will make crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and services along critical infrastructure."

A court injunction has also been granted by Ontario's top court against protesters at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor.

On Saturday morning, police moved in to try and break up the days-long protest.

A complex situation, says RCMP

RCMP Supt. Roberta McKale said police haven't made more arrests because the situation is "very complex."

"The equipment that's used to blockade this isn't small. It's not like you can grab a regular tow truck and go there," McKale told CBC Calgary News at 6 host Rob Brown.

Despite protesters carrying on for two weeks now, McKale said the RCMP still needs more evidence before it can arrest individuals taking part.

Protester and Fort Macleod Coun. Marco Van Huigenbos told CBC News on Thursday that if police made arrests, he and other protestors would not resist.

"This is a peaceful protest and that has been our narrative here the whole time. We are keeping things peaceful," he said.

Some protesters have told CBC News they will not leave the blockade.

RCMP said this week that public safety for all is a concern, adding protesters have set up fire pits in ditches, posing a fire risk with high winds.

The County of Warner issued a fire ban that came into effect Friday morning, banning the use of incinerators, fire pits and burning barrels.

Economic impact

Kenney said that even though there are 40 semi-truck operators blocking the crossing, there are 60,000 licensed truck drivers in Alberta and 300,000 licensed commercial vehicles travelling between Montana and Alberta through other crossings.

"All these folks are doing is inconveniencing those professional, law abiding truckers who simply want to make a living and they're not stopping the border. They've made their point," he said.

"I'm actually sympathetic with some of the points they've made, but that does not justify in any way shape or form this activity."

Meanwhile, businesses have continued to warn about the impact of prolonged interruptions at border crossings into the U.S.

David MacLean, Alberta vice-president for Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said that with the impact of the blockades at Coutts and elsewhere, the province is "days, not weeks" from seeing real impacts to manufacturing production.

"Manufacturers have equipment and parts essential to their processes that are stranded in the United States or significantly delayed," MacLean said. 

"So we're going to see significant losses and eventually, if this continues, we're going to see slowdowns and shutdowns in Alberta."

Mounties at the scene of a blockade near Coutts, Alta., on Wednesday, Feb 9, 2022. (Nassima Way/Radio-Canada)

MacLean said about $44 million per day in goods cross the border every day at Coutts, or $15.9 billion per year. He said the blockades at Coutts and elsewhere are a "real hit" to Canada's reputation as a trading nation, adding small businesses can't afford to lose a single customer.

"This is costing money for Alberta businesses and also for consumers – prices are going up for everything," MacLean said in an interview Friday.

"I have members who have freight that is trapped on the U.S. side of the border as we speak. That's just going to translate into higher prices at the end of the day."

Alberta retailers are also feeling the effects of the border problems.

"The lack of reliability over the past two weeks of on and off blockades and safety concerns has been extremely disruptive," said John Graham, director of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada, in an interview Friday.

"In addition to delays of perishable products and other critical items that are needed for consumers, it's the issue of ensuring safety of drivers and taking alternative routes that add cost and time to the supply chain."

Graham said its members are "extremely frustrated" with a perceived lack of action from all levels of government and law enforcement that allows the situation to continue.

"We're looking for action from government and from law enforcement to ensure that the retail community and frankly, the broader business community, can rely on dependable border crossings across Canada, including Coutts," he said.

with files from CBC's Power and Politics, CBC Calgary News at 6 and Tony Seskus

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