Coutts mayor meets truckers as border protest lingers

by Bill Graveland THE CANADIAN PRESS

The mayor of a village affected by protesters at Alberta’s main United States border crossing says he decided to cross the divide and meet with those who have been disrupting traffic there for nearly a week.

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett says he didn’t find anger. Just a sense of waiting.

“I wasn’t negotiating or anything else. I just was there to find out if they were as bad as some people have said, and they’re certainly not,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview Friday.

“They’re the same guys that I have for neighbours.”

“They’re the guy that owns the farm up on the hill, the guy that hauls for the local businesses.”

Trucks and other vehicles began parking on the highway near Coutts last Saturday in solidarity with similar protests in Ottawa and across the country over COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers and broader public health measures.

Two blockades

One blockade, which stranded travellers and truckers for days, became two when a second one appeared further up the highway. Protesters later agreed to open some lanes for traffic and so truckers could haul cargo across the border.

Willett said the protest has polarized his village. About half its 250 residents support the demonstrators and the other half just want them to go away.

Willett, who along with his wife has been harassed at home by protesters, said he was asked several times this week if he had met with any of them, and the answer was always no.

So he went Thursday to a former saloon space where protest leaders have been meeting. He went back Friday to talk to the group again.

Willett said he listened. He just doesn’t agree.

Held hostage

Some of the protesters told him they want their freedom. But Willett said they’re actually taking away the freedom of people in his village and are costing the economy millions of dollars in cross-border goods.

“It’s almost like you’re being held hostage.”

Demonstrators have made their point and it’s time for them to go, so people who live in Coutts can start to mend their own fences, he said.

“It’s really polarizing and … friendships have been torn up.

“There’s people that think I’m a traitor. It may be years before we recover from this.”

Several other protests involving truck and vehicle convoys are planned across the country this weekend.

Willett said anyone thinking about heading to Coutts should reconsider.

“It won’t be a good place to be.”

No resolution

About 80 rigs remained Friday along the highway. The number appeared to be growing farther north near the town of Milk River, where dozens of trucks, farm equipment and SUVs sporting Canadian flags lined the pavement.

Wood was piled near a burning barrel, several portable toilets were lined up, and a generator was providing electricity.

RCMP said traffic was continuing to flow to the border, but travellers were still being asked to avoid the area because of the congestion.

Cpl. Curtis Peters said there was no way to predict when the protest would end, but he understood there was growing frustration.

“I’ve spoken several times about how this has affected the town of Coutts and the town of Sweetgrass, (Mont.). We continue working toward bringing this to an end.”

Peters said he doesn’t know what is going to happen nor can he say if police intend to take action.

“I don’t have a line in the sand. This is a constant state of evolving evaluation. This changes minute by minute, hour by hour.

“The one thing that does stay consistent throughout is the constant dialogue that we’re having.”