COUTTS, Alta. — Protesters using their trucks and cars to clog up the main United States border crossing in southern Alberta agreed Wednesday to make some room to allow traffic through.
Mounties were taking a cautious wait-and-see approach to the partial pull back on the fifth day of the blockade in Coutts.
Chad Williamson, a lawyer representing the protesters, said they were opening one lane of Highway 4 in each direction. Demonstrators followed through in the early afternoon, vehicle tires grinding on the hard-packed snow as they departed.
“The truckers finally feel like their message has been heard,” Williamson said in an interview.
“That doesn’t mean the protest is over, but it signals what we hope to be ongoing cordial efforts to address the concerns of the people who have been involved in the movement down here in Coutts.”
Late Wednesday, RCMP said travel was still impeded but some progress has been made reopening Highway 4 from Milk River to the border, noting that Mounties are escorting vehicles.
"We continue to work with the blockade participants to re-establish safe passage," the RCMP said on Twitter.
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"Due to ongoing protest activity and congestion that could endanger the safety of the officers and the public, these escorts will continue until further notice. Travellers should still continue to avoid the area due to anticipated long delays."
Earlier in the day, RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said one lane of access was available in the north and southbound lanes of the highway, but there were indications that it may be temporary.
“We are just continuing to monitor and engage in dialogue with the protest group, or the reported organizers or leaders of it, in an effort to continue moving toward a complete reopening of the highway.”
Demonstrators began parking their trucks and other vehicles near the crossing Saturday in solidarity with similar events in Ottawa and countrywide to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and broader public health measures.
The impasse stranded travellers and cross-border truckers for days, compromised millions of dollars in trade and impeded access to basic goods and medical services for area residents.
On Tuesday, some demonstrators left the blockade after Mounties announced that negotiations to end the standoff had failed and they were prepared to make arrests and tow vehicles.
But that move didn't sit well with some protesters, who breached a police barrier to join the blockade. Tractors with Canadian flags ripping in the wind weaved by RCMP vehicles and into ditches. Two vehicles crashed head-on, resulting in an assault, but police reported no significant injuries.
Later Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he had been briefed that Mounties were being swarmed and assaulted and there had been an attempt to ram a police cruiser.
RCMP have not confirmed Kenney’s statement. The premier's office declined to say where or how it received the information.
On Wednesday, just north of Coutts, there were 20 police cruisers, accompanied by uniformed officers, lined up fender to fender across both lanes and the median, facing a growing lineup of protesters still seeking to join the main blockade.
Jolene, who declined to give her last name, was in the lineup, sitting in her vehicle with her young daughter.
“We’re fighting for Canada's freedoms," she said.
“I want my children to have a future. There's getting to be so many rules … and all of a sudden you don't have choices as a Canadian anymore. That is scary to me.”
By late afternoon dozens more vehicles, both personal and trucks, had joined the lineup. Many honked horns and flew Canadian flags with signs protesting COVID-19 restrictions.
Coutts Mayor Jim Willett has called for the protest to end. He said it has cut off village residents from medical services.
RCMP have said some protesters have also gone to Willett’s home to take photos and wave through the windows.
“If that's the agreement (to open access) that’s been reached then, yes, I'm glad,” said Willett in an interview.
“I've said all along if they want to protest, slow traffic down, go for it (but) don’t stop it completely. Don't hassle people that want to travel.”
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents some of Canada’s largest grocery chains, expressed relief that the bottleneck could be easing. Spokesman John Graham said retailers are concerned that a continued shutdown would lead to gaps on grocery store shelves.
“Alberta retailers are pleased that the Coutts border crossing is partially reopening, following a significant five-day interruption that is likely to cause, for some stores, short-term shortages of U.S.-sourced fruits and vegetables,” he wrote in an email.
The Canadian Meat Council also said it was encouraged.
The organization, representing the country’s large packing and processing plants, said Coutts is one of three border crossings that provide inspection services for Canadian meat products heading to the U.S.
Council spokeswoman Marie-France Mackinnon said the group was aware of 150 truckloads of meat products that had been waiting to cross the border as of early Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022.
— With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton and Amanda Stephenson in Calgary