Alberta mayor felt then-premier Jason Kenney was ignoring 'domestic terrorists,' texts show

The mayor of a southern Alberta village where a protest against COVID-19 restrictions closed lanes to the U.S. last winter believed then-premier Jason Kenney was ignoring the severity of the situation, according to texts obtained by the Emergencies Act inquiry.

Jim Willett is testifying today before the Emergencies Act inquiry

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett exchanged texts with an Alberta provincial cabinet minister in which he accused then-premier Jason Kenney of 'ignoring the province being held hostage by domestic terrorists.' (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The mayor of a southern Alberta village where a protest against COVID-19 restrictions closed traffic lanes to the United States last winter believed then-premier Jason Kenney was ignoring the severity of the situation, according to texts obtained by the Emergencies Act inquiry.

A text chain between Coutts Mayor Jim Willett and Alberta's transportation minister at the time, Rajan Sawhney, was entered into evidence as part of the Public Order Emergency Commission.

The commission is investigating the federal government's decision last winter to invoke the Emergencies Act to deter protesters at border crossings and clear crowds in Ottawa — where protesters gridlocked the downtown for weeks.

"If you get a chance could you find out why the premier is ignoring the province being held hostage by domestic terrorists? And why has he not labelled it such? My rant for the day," Willett texted Sawhney on Feb. 12, referring to Kenney.

Under cross-examination Wednesday, Willett said the protesters were blocking a trade route.

A line of semi trucks stretches down one side of a highway while R-C-M-P observe.
Protesters from the blockade at the border crossing near Coutts, Alta., pass through the Milk River blockade site on Highway 4 on Feb. 15, 2022, as police officers look on. (CBC)

"When I looked for the definition of a domestic terrorist, these people seemed to fit that bill and yet no one ever labelled them that," he said.

"They were causing harm to the country."

Prior to Feb. 12, Kenney had publicly denounced the blockade near Coutts, Alta. — a village of about 224 people  —  where large trucks and other vehicles blocked commercial traffic to and from the U.S. between Jan. 29 and Feb. 14. On Feb. 11, Kenney said it would be up to the RCMP to enforce the law at the blockade.

Willett said he believes Sawhney was willing to speak to protesters but she told him the "boss won't clear it."

The mayor told the commission during a September interview that he had one call with Kenney, on Feb 4.

He also said he had one call with the federal government — a virtual meeting with federal Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault on Feb. 2 on an unrelated topic.

"Overall, Mayor Willett says he did not receive the type of support he expected from provincial and federal governments," a summary of that interview said.

Willett says RCMP caught off-guard 

Willett said he believes the RCMP, which is the provincial police force in Alberta, had planned for a slow-roll protest but did not fully appreciate the threats that were circulating online to block the highway.

On Jan. 29, a convoy of trucks moved to block the road accessing the border - the only 24-hour crossing in the province.

"When the trucks drove into the median and across both lanes of traffic going both directions, it became obvious that no one was in control," he said.

"Nothing happened other than flashing lights and talking to the guys, and it came to a standstill and that was it."

WATCH | 'Nobody was in control,' says mayor of Coutts, Alta., about blockade

'Nobody was in control,' says mayor of Coutts, Alta., about blockade

7 months ago
Duration 0:45
Jim Willet, the mayor of Coutts, Alta., gave his testimony in the inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act. He says RCMP were caught off guard by the blockade in his town.

In an interview with the commission back in September, Willett said it was his view that the advance notice of a blockade attempt should have been enough to convince the RCMP to present a stronger show of force at the outset. 

The Mounties attended a town council meeting on Feb. 8 to address residents' concerns and explain their traffic plan.

Willett said town council was told by the RCMP said that its response amounted to "building the airplane while you're flying it."

The mayor testified that he's since learned more about what was happening behind the scenes and is less critical of the Mounties.

"The RCMP handled themselves very well and I'm glad its over," he said.

'Fooled around and found out'

On Feb. 14, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, allowing for temporary powers to handle the ongoing blockades and protests against pandemic restrictions.

Early that same day, the RCMP executed search warrants in Coutts, arresting more than a dozen protesters and seizing a cache of weapons, body armour and ammunition.

A collection of weapons that RCMP said they seized in the Coutts raid. (RCMP)

"Local lady arrested was very vocal at council meeting Tuesday night telling everyone how these are all good people and they can handle their own problems," Willett wrote in a text to Sawhney on Feb. 14.

"Fooled around and found out, I believe the phrase is ... !"

Four men arrested in the Coutts raid — Jerry Morin, Chris Lysak, Chris Carbert and Anthony Olienick — are accused of the most serious charge to come out of the protests: conspiracy to murder RCMP officers. The four men also face weapons and mischief charges.

Unsealed court documents show that when the charges were filed, the RCMP believed Olienick, Carbert and Morin were part of a sub-group of protesters who "were arming themselves for a standoff against police."

During his testimony, Willett said the Emergencies Act didn't have much impact in Coutts and it was the RCMP that brought the situation to an end.

When the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, it cited the threat posed by blockades at Coutts and elsewhere.

WATCH | Freeland on Emergencies Act inquiry

Freeland says she's 'glad to have the opportunity' to testify at Emergencies Act inquiry

7 months ago
Duration 1:14
Following the news that Ontario Premier Doug Ford can use parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying before the inquiry, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says the right thing to do is to participate so that Canadians can understand what happened during the convoy protests.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland defended that decision during an unrelated news conference Wednesday.

"What Canada faced at the beginning of this year was a very serious challenge and threat to our national security and our economic security," she said.

"It was a very big deal. I hope and believe it is the kind of thing that happens only once in a generation, if that. I'm glad we brought it to an end. That was important for Canada."

In their opening day submissions to the Public Order Emergency Commission, lawyers for the Alberta government argued that the situation in Coutts was under control by the time Ottawa deployed the Emergencies Act.

Protester says they wanted to meet with government 

Two Diagolon patches were found on body armour seized during the execution of RCMP search warrants in Coutts on Feb. 14.

Some believe the Diagolon online community is an American-style militia movement with white supremacist beliefs. 

Diagolon founder Jeremy MacKenzie, who testified before the commission last week, has pushed back on those claims, arguing the movement is an online joke set up to troll the media.

Marco Van Huigenbos, a town councillor in Fort MacLeod, Alta., told the commission on Tuesday that he believes the discovery of weapons tainted the movement. 

"For me, it became very clear that every objective we were looking to achieve was no longer possible and our message had been lost," he said.

Van Huigenbos, who called Chris Lysak "the biggest, friendliest giant," said he felt the remaining protesters had to distance themselves and leave the area. 

WATCH | Coutts mayor emotional while speaking of blockade's impact on Alberta community

Coutts mayor emotional while speaking of blockade's impact on Alberta community

7 months ago
Duration 1:41
Jim Willett, the mayor of Coutts, Alta., was brought to tears while recounting the effects the blockade had on local residents, including heightened anxiety and feeling intimidated.

The councillor, who was charged with mischief for his role in the Alberta blockade, also testified he believed the blockades could have been resolved had Kenney's government met with them.

"We were willing to sacrifice our own livelihoods and more for the sake of getting in contact with our governing body, " he said.

Coutts remains divided: Willett

Willett became emotional Wednesday as he described the impact of the blockade on his community.

He said most of Coutts's population is elderly and some residents found it intimidating to have to go through the protest area to travel to Milk River, a town 18 kilometres away, to access essential services.

He broke down before the commission as he described how one older woman would curl up in a ball in the passenger's seat when she was driven past the blockade to get to doctor's appointments.

Willett, who was the target of a death threat during the protest, said his village remains divided. He estimates about 70 per cent supported the blockade and 30 per cent disagreed.

"We still have neighbours who won't talk to each other."


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Peter Zimonjic

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