Just over a month ago, a protest gripping a sleepy village just north of the U.S. border ended in sudden confusion.
After more than two weeks of swallowing up Coutts, Alta., the blockade of trucks and tractors headed home or down the road. News media filed their concluding reports and the remaining protesters say they found themselves trying to understand how weapons ended up in their midst.
To an outsider, it might look as though things had returned to normal.
But inside the village, so much has changed.
At a population of just over 200, Coutts is unique among rural communities. It’s small enough where staff at the lone café know the names of nearly everyone who comes in, and new faces are greeted with inquiries about what sort of business brings them to the area.
But given its proximity to the U.S. border, Coutts is also frequently awash with new faces passing to and from, a mishmash of travellers, labourers and snowbirds.
William Harty has seen it all. For 21 years he’s been a port in the storm, owner and operator of a motel called the Double Tree Inn.
“You meet lots of interesting people at the border here, all the way from Alaska to South America,” Harty said, wearing a shirt that he points out sports the colours of the American flag.
Though it was good business for his motel, which was booked solid, the blockades were like nothing Harty, nor other residents of the village, had ever seen.
There is still a contingent of vehicles parked nearly 20 kilometres north of Coutts, near the town of Milk River, Alta., — and their drivers say they’re staying put.
But the lasting impact of the massive blockade on this village, which disrupted tens of millions of dollars in daily commerce and was dubbed illegal by officials, depends on who you talk to on the street.
There’s obvious support among many residents living here about what the protest first stood for.
Many living here are skeptical about vaccines and view public health and government mandates as an infringement on personal choice.
At the same time, the protest sowed division and disagreements among community members, which have lingered and left stinging wounds. Some residents felt unsafe when the convoy surrounded the town, while others are struggling with the trauma it left behind.
The larger protest may have started with a focus on lifting vaccine mandates, but what’s revealed in Coutts is that the disquiet bubbling under the surface extends beyond that — and it isn’t going away any time soon.
A quick drive through Coutts and the surrounding area quickly brings into focus the distinctions between rural Alberta and its urban neighbours in Calgary and Edmonton.
There are lawn signs for the Maverick Party, formerly known as Wexit Canada, a federal political party seeking independence for Western Canada — or constitutional changes to benefit it.
There are plenty of Canadian flags, Alberta flags and some curious bumper stickers, like a Palin 2012 logo, apparently referring to a rumoured 2012 U.S. presidential run by former vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, that never came true.
Serving as an oil refinery town in the 1930s, Coutts has seen its population shrink over the decades, losing 10 per cent of it in the last five years. With a demographic that skews older, it’s a place where many have spent their whole life — and where many voice resistance to change of any kind.
“To have something like this happen was just a total shock to the system,” said Coutts Mayor Jim Willett, whose deep, gravelly voice brings to mind actor Sam Elliott.
“What happened here was the polarization that has happened on so many things lately, where suddenly people decide [they] have to have a side,” he said. “‘If you’re not with me, you’re against me,’ that kind of thing.”
Living in a small village like Coutts can sometimes feel like you’re part of one big family. If you lose your wallet on the street, as one resident put it, you can be assured that someone will knock on your door to return it personally.
There are people who live in the village who don’t have internet and who don’t watch television. There was a running joke here when the pandemic first began: People are going to have to isolate, but they can’t get much more isolated than they already are.
But the pandemic changed things, Willett said, and put real strain on some friendships.
“And, because of that taking sides thing, [well] you can have your views, I’ve got my views, [but] we should be able to talk about it,” he said.
The protest never ended
The protesters still holding out can be found at a camp in a field off the side of the highway. On an afternoon when the weather has quickly turned cold and snow pelts the camp, the group gathers in tents for warmth.
The members there are quick to stress that they don’t trust mass news media, believing it to be biased against the protest.
To these protesters, the camp is a place where they can visit, sing, pray and socialize, and to “give people hope” about the direction the world has been going in lately.
“The heart of our movement is peace, peaceful protest,” said Daniel Jacyszyn. “We’re not violent, we’re not a violent group. We’re not aggressive protesters ... we’re patriots.”
The day before protesters departed Coutts, residents peering out their living-room windows watched as armed police seized guns and body armour and arrested 13 people. Four were later charged with conspiring to murder RCMP officers.
“Honestly, when everyone saw that, everyone was shocked,” Jacyszyn said. “It was disbelief. And we’re like, ‘There’s no way that these guns could have been anything to do with our group, with our protests.’”
Ex-military and ex-police members participated in the protest.
“I talked to people from both backgrounds myself down there,” said RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters.
On the day of the raid, RCMP’s emergency response team staged behind the local fire hall, with officers trained specifically for emergency medical intervention available in case things went sideways — normal procedure for an operation like that, but shocking to those living nearby.
Mention the guns seized to some residents living in Coutts and a common, and unproven, refrain can emerge: The guns were “planted” by police as part of a conspiracy.
Some of that seems to have come from a February article from the British tabloid The Daily Mail, which featured an interview with 62-year-old Joanne Person about the raid on her property.
Person, who was charged with possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose and mischief over $5,000, was described by The Daily Mail as a “grandmother with a heart condition” who had been “manhandled” by police. She was also charged this week in connection with a confrontation between police and a vehicle.
She told the tabloid she had been hosting protesters at her home, including in two trailers parked on her property. That’s where police say they found a cache of firearms and ammunition, an assertion she disputes in the article.
Reached at her home in Coutts early last week, Person declined to comment on the claims made in the article, citing her upcoming court case.
The RCMP have also heard the claims about “planted guns.”
But Cpl. Deanna Fontaine says obtaining a search warrant and collecting evidence is part of a strict and controlled process.
Anything that was seized from the property was taken after obtaining that search warrant, the RCMP spokesperson said.
“All of that will be provided in court to authenticate all these items ... as evidence,” Fontaine said. “There are checks and balances in our justice process.”
‘Are we safe now?’
On Feb. 14, police said they had become aware of a small organized group within the larger protest — and Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the organizers, said that protesters had decided to leave Coutts.
“We were infiltrated by an extreme element .… Our objective was to be here peacefully,” Van Huigenbos said at the time. “To keep that message going, we want to peacefully leave Coutts and return to our families.”
A few weeks later, on March 8, the village council gathered at the local community centre to conduct a debrief with officers and the area’s local MP, Conservative Glen Motz, about what had happened and to discuss public safety.
At the meeting, the mayor recalled a recent conversation he’d had with a resident who had asked if things were safe in Coutts again.
“I said yes,” Willett said, pausing to catch himself, his voice shaken.
It had been Willett’s stated goal to remain impartial throughout the blockade, saying his concerns were only about the safety and well-being of the people who live in the village.
But his communication with media outlets drew scorn from supporters of the convoy. He had said he was in support of people’s right to protest, but only so long as it remained legal.
After that, Willett received a death threat that RCMP took seriously. “RIP you’re f***ing done!” the message read. “You will hang high! Tall tree. Knock knock.”
The mayor also received a couple of anonymous phone calls. In other cases, people would stop in the street, take photos and videos of him and then drive away.
The connection of those arrested in the raid to the Diagolon movement — a group described as an American-style militia with the motto “gun or rope” — didn’t provide much relief to the mayor.
At that debrief on March 8, there was a long silence as the mayor composed himself.
“I never thought that when I moved here that I’d be scared to stand in my front window. And there was a time during that two weeks where I made sure the drapes were pulled closed,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry about this.”
An officer jumps in, telling the mayor that the RCMP is still investigating the protests and would respond to any future incidents.
“I know. I have put all that behind me, you can tell,” the mayor says, managing to joke and steadying himself. “But it was quite a shock.”
Though Alberta lifted nearly all pandemic public health measures on March 1, members at the new protest site said they’ll remain there until all mandates across Canada are lifted, fighting against what they view as “evil.”
“That’s the control against the people, the government controlling the people, the overreach, the mandates,” Jacyszyn said.
In Coutts, at a local café and bed and breakfast, children’s crayon messages in support of truckers are posted on the wall next to a sign that reads: “Vax or no vax, we respect your right to choose.”
That sign is posted alongside taped articles about the pandemic from The Gateway Pundit and LifeSiteNews, two websites with long histories of publishing conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
The café‘s owner and a local preacher, Keith Dangerfield, rented rooms to and made sandwiches for the protesters.
“Personally, I like the idea of Alberta separating from the rest of Canada,” Dangerfield said. “I love the idea, primarily because I mean, I’m a Canadian, I love the rest of Canada, but I’m tired of being ruled by Ontario and Quebec.”
Some residents in Coutts in favour of the protests who declined to speak to CBC News said they were worried about their accounts being frozen, and said they were distrustful of how they would be treated by media, political officials and police.
Meanwhile, several of those opposed to the protests said they wouldn’t speak publicly, citing hard feelings amongst neighbours.
And at least for some residents, the protest wasn’t about freedom. It was, for them, the opposite.
‘A country in distress’
Coutts resident Shelley Woodhouse-Gordon was visiting her daughter out of town when her husband Bob gave her a call and said he wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it home.
Woodhouse-Gordon, an Afghanistan veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was triggered by what was going on — the checkpoints, the blockades and, for her, what seemed to be a lack of safety.
“I knew that this kind of protest attracts the type of people that have nothing better to do than to cause problems,” she said. “I knew, even before they said, that there was a cache of weapons.”
What was distressing to Woodhouse-Gordon were the claims that Canada had lost its freedom. In her view, the Afghan people were suffering from a true lack of freedom.
But what broke her heart was when, through her front window, she saw protesters displaying upside-down Canadian flags.
“I don’t know if people understand what that means. It means distress, it means the country is in trouble. Wearing a mask does not mean you’re in trouble,” she said. “And it’s changed my view of the Canadian flag.”
'Live free or die'
In this part of the world, the rural part of Alberta that hugs the U.S. border, Willett likes to say he lives in northern Montana.
It’s “Live free or die” — the motto of New Hampshire — where personal rights and freedoms and less government trump all.
Protesters stressed that what the blockade represented was the first time they felt the country was going in the right direction since pandemic measures were introduced.
Reached over Zoom in his vehicle on March 15, Jacyszyn at the Milk River protest said it had been a cold and snowy week. But the last few days had brought with it warm weather and high spirits as to what comes next.
Halfway through the month of March, most provinces have lifted almost all of their COVID-19 restrictions, but protests have gone on. It’s led to confusion among those opposed to the protests, as tension has grown between protesters and counter-protesters.
For Jacyszyn, the protests will continue until all mandates are gone.
“Canada’s all about equality. And right now, the people aren’t equal, and the people are divided,” Jacyszyn said. “Our goal is to unite the people as much as we possibly can.”
But concerns, and fear, still linger.
“We don’t want to cause anyone harm,” Jacyszyn said. “And we’re sorry, if anyone has been inconvenienced in any way or been upset. We’re not going out of our way to upset anyone or piss anyone off.”
The effects of the protest were different for different people. For some, there might be no going back.
On their arrival back in the community after leaving for much of the protests, Woodhouse-Gordon and her husband were dismayed that none of their neighbours reached out to check in to see how she was doing given her PTSD.
With a sense of unwelcome lingering, the couple is thinking of leaving the community for good.
“We’re in a predicament. We’re in a community where a lot of people disagree with us,” Woodhouse-Gordon said. “And I don’t know what will happen.”
This week, protesters contacted village administration to tell staff that they planned to hold a barbecue on March 16 in the village’s truck parking lot for lunch, with a stated goal of showing appreciation.
Two days later, a convoy of around 50 trucks from Ottawa planned to do a slow loop in the area, with RCMP scheduled to follow them from town to town. Village administration told them not to stop in the village, as there was no room to host them.
Willett doubts Coutts has seen the end of the protests. If nothing else, the protests revealed just how easy it was for people to block highways and cause major disruptions.
In his village, people have started to look at each other a little differently. It’s a small place, and when people choose sides, it ends up getting a lot smaller.
He hopes, however, that the community can mend its fences, if given time.
“Time heals all wounds,” the mayor said. “That’s what it will take, is time — and no recurrence of something like this happening again.”