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'Turn off and on the blockade': Mischief trial begins for men at border protest

Anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators leave in a truck convoy after blocking the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

LETHBRIDGE, ALBERTA — A Crown prosecutor said Wednesday that the trial for three men charged over their roles in an Alberta border blockade two years ago has nothing to do with their beliefs or right to protest. 

Marco Van Huigenbos, Alex Van Herk and Gerhard Janzen have each pleaded not guilty to mischief over $5,000. 

Prosecutor Steven Johnston told the jury in his opening statement that the three played a "key role" in blocking the highway at Canada-U.S. border at Coutts, Alta., in 2022. 

The protest over COVID-19 pandemic health restrictions ground traffic to a halt at Alberta’s main border crossing with Montana. 

"Many people were affected by COVID-19 and responses to it. This prosecution is not about that," Johnston said. 

"This trial is not about people's personal feelings about COVID. This is not a trial about the right to protest." 

Johnston said a person cannot obstruct the use of a highway in order to achieve a goal. 

"The Crown does not allege that these three men before you committed a single act of violence," he said. 

"What the Crown alleges is that they, as part of a larger group, interfered with the use of a large highway in southern Alberta for approximately two weeks. Effectively, they had gained a control valve on Highway 4, the highway that belongs to the province." 

The prosecutor said evidence will show the three men were leaders of the blockade and had final say over what happened. After 15 days, a video message the men posted online accomplished what Mounties could not. 

In the video played in court, Van Huigenbos and Van Herk reference other blockade arrests, along with the seizure of several weapons, and urge an end to the protest.

"We, as the Coutts convoy, have decided — as a peaceful protest and to maintain that narrative — we will be rolling out tomorrow morning," Van Huigenbos says in the video.

"We want to wrap this up in a peaceful way, and we thank everybody for all their support."

Johnston told court the protest ended a short time after.

"They were the group that had the ability to turn off and on the blockade," Johnston said.

Jim Willett, the former mayor of Coutts, was called as the first witness in the trial. 

Willett testified Coutts is the only 24-hour crossing to the U.S. from Alberta and a busy route for truckers and tourists. 

"There's literally hundreds of millions of dollars of commerce that pass through every year," Willett said. 

"This highway is a major commerce thoroughfare. If you shut that down, you shut down all the commerce." 

Willett said he contacted police when he started seeing posts that a convoy was coming through Coutts, a village of about 200. 

"There could be a lot of strangers, lock your doors and keep your kids off the street," he said he told residents. 

"At the start, it was a fairly rowdy situation and not a lot of strategy." 

Willett said he was concerned about the convoy affecting residents' access to grocery stores and medical clinics outside Coutts, since the village doesn't have those services. 

He said he met with one of the blockade organizers at Smugglers, a former bar used as a gathering point for the protesters. 

Willett wanted to find out what their plan was and how long they would be in his community. 

"There was little I could do. As a small town mayor, I don't have a lot of authority," he said. 

Justice Keith Yamauchi told the jury that the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

"You are the judges of the facts … not lawyers, not investigators," Yamauchi said. 

"It is important that you not form your opinions before you hear all the evidence." 

Willett was scheduled to answer questions from the defence during cross-examination Thursday.

The trial is scheduled to run until April 19. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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