Frustration mounted Monday as motorists were stranded at a Canada-U.S. border crossing in a southern Alberta village, where traffic has been snarled and services disrupted by a protest against COVID-19 public health measures.
Since Saturday afternoon, motorists travelling to and from the United States have been caught in a large blockade of vehicles that choked off the highway from south of Lethbridge to the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Coutts.
The demonstration is tied to an ongoing nationwide protest over federal rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Canadian truckers entering Canada from the U.S., which took effect earlier this month. It mandates that truckers who are not fully vaccinated must get a PCR test and quarantine.
The blockade of vehicles has disrupted services and halted traffic at one of the busiest ports of entry in Canada.
Canadian trucker John Schwarz was caught up in it for 40 hours while coming back from Idaho.
“These guys are basically holding us hostage, and nobody’s doing anything about it,” Schwarz told CBC News on Monday morning, and while stuck in the gridlock.
By Monday afternoon, RCMP said that protest organizers allowed some vehicles to leave although the border remains blocked.
“Through negotiations and continuous talks with the organizers of the event, in the last little bit, the organizers agreed to open up, and the some of the vehicles have been allowed to leave,” RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters told CBC News.
“Some of these guys have been stuck here for for three days, and you know, no access to shower [or] food and away from their families. So it’s good news for them.”
‘You’ve gone beyond protest’
Coutts Mayor Jim Willett told The Canadian Press on Monday that he’s angry and frustrated because about 100 trucks lined up on Highway 4 were preventing a mail truck from entering Coutts and a school bus from leaving the village for the nearest school.
Willett also said the roughly 250 residents of Coutts hadn’t been able to use the blocked road to get to the nearest grocery store, gas station and pharmacy.
“I’m disappointed, I think is the main thing,” Willett said on the Monday edition of the Calgary Eyeopener.
“Not impressed, I guess, with the fact that they blocked off the highway.”
The standstill came after organizers of the protest convoy reached out to Willett last week to let his office know the convoy would not block entrances to the village.
The original plan relayed by the protestors involved delaying traffic by travelling in one lane and making a loop when they were refused at the border, Willett said.
It would slow things down but still allow access.
“That didn’t last very long,” Willett said.
“And once they blocked off commerce and blocked off the highway, they lost some of my sympathy because now you’ve gone beyond protest.”
‘This event is unlawful’
Earlier on Monday, the RCMP’s Cpl. Peters told The Canadian Press that officers were attempting to come to a resolution with protesters with the least amount of intervention.
RCMP said officers were telling people trying to travel into the U.S. to use a different port of entry. Mounties were turning away truckers and other motorists about 15 kilometres from Coutts.
The message was the same on the other side.
“Officials in Montana are stopping and advising motorists, commercial vehicles, passenger vehicles to find the ultimate route as they won’t be able to get through once they cross into Canada,” Peters said.
Willett told the Calgary Eyeopener that he would like to see RCMP take action that would allow traffic to go back to normal.
For its part, RCMP said Sunday night in a statement on Facebook that the event is “unlawful.”
“When an event becomes unlawful, we utilize a measured approach, which ultimately includes enforcement,” the statement said in part.
“This event is unlawful and we are asking those who are involved to clear the area.”
On Sunday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also called for the blockade to end, saying it is causing “significant inconvenience for lawful motorists.”
He said the blockade violates the Alberta Traffic Safety Act, and he cited the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act as being among the tools available to the police and prosecutors.
But Kenney has said it’s up to local authorities to enforce provincial legislation, which allows for additional penalties against protesters blockading highways and other infrastructure.
Loads of beef ‘stuck at the border’
Meanwhile, many people are keeping a close eye on what impact the backup of truck traffic at the border is having on industry and consumers.
The Canadian Meat Council, which represents the country’s federally inspected meat packers and processors, warned Monday that an ongoing closure would impact production.
“There are over 150 loads of Canadian Beef stuck at the #coutts border,” the organization said on Twitter.
“Our members are going to have to slow down production if this keeps up. What is the government’s approach to fix this?”
Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, noted that early in the pandemic, food production and the food supply chain were labelled essential services and critical infrastructure in Canada.
“Transportation delays can severely impact the beef supply chain on everything from animal feed through to the transport of cattle,” Lowe said in a statement to CBC News.
“We continue to monitor the impacts of transportation delays and are working with the Government of Canada and other stakeholders to keep the beef supply chain moving.”
Two customs brokers, who handle the customs process for cross-border shipments at Coutts, told CBC News on Monday that things are still clogged.
The border crossing is an entry point for a wide variety of goods, from produce to farm equipment. Both said it’s their understanding trucks that can be rerouted are being rerouted.
“For the most part, trucks can cross at other ports,” said Carrie Barrows, who manages one of the brokerages. “It might be a bit of a delay and an additional expense to get there, but it is something that they can do.”
The store manager at the Family Foods grocery store in northeast Calgary said most of the product destined for her store shelves today would have already arrived at warehouses by the weekend and would be at the store today.
She said the impact of the border closure, if any, might not be known until the middle of the week. So far, she said, she hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Trade expert Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation, a public policy think tank based in Calgary, said the broader supply chain faces much bigger challenges than the closure of a single border crossing in Alberta.
However, Dade said that for those industries and businesses that depend on shipments moving across the border at Coutts, a prolonged blockade would have an impact.
At the consumer level, he said the blockade isn’t the kind of thing to affect an entire grocery store, but could impact certain shelves.
“You’ll have some specific products — so fresh fruits and vegetables — that tend to come by truck, those that don’t come by plane, may be impacted,” Dade said.
He said other goods at grocery stores are still facing global supply and logistics problems, which are “going to persist a long time after this has gone.”