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A truck convoy of anti-vaccine mandate demonstrators block the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 2, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

There are dozens of stories out of the sweeping report of the Public Order Emergency Commission, which was established to study Ottawa’s invocation of the Emergencies Act in February, 2022. The highest-profile accounts include policing failures during the “Freedom Convoy” protests, or how organizers’ descriptions of the demonstrations in Ottawa as lawful and calm belied a situation that was often unsafe and chaotic. It also includes how Ontario Premier Doug Ford avoided any direct involvement in the mess until his province’s key industries started to feel squeezed by the Ambassador Bridge blockade.

But in the discussion of the “failure of federalism” that the POEC’s commissioner, Justice Paul Rouleau, identified in his report, one of the least told stories is how political leaders in Ottawa didn’t even provide the courtesy of a response to Alberta when the provincial government made an urgent request for help to end the illegal border protest and blockade in Coutts. It seems out of sight, out of mind ruled the day – until the very end.

And while much was made of Mr. Ford’s failure to appear before the Emergencies Act inquiry, Jason Kenney – the Alberta premier at the time – said in a recent message to The Globe and Mail that he was never asked.

The narrative around Coutts is central to Ottawa’s reason for using the Emergencies Act – especially in the dramatic final days of the protest and blockade, when the RCMP used undercover operatives and emergency wiretaps to collect information on a small group of protesters allegedly hatching a violent plot. The risk of violence in Coutts was cited as a concrete manifestation as to why the federal government needed to invoke the legislation.

“The blockade at the Coutts Port of Entry was notable for its duration, complexity, and volatility, as well as the dramatic way in which it was resolved: an RCMP action that uncovered a cache of weapons and allegations of a conspiracy to murder police officers,” wrote Justice Rouleau.

But while talking about the necessity of using the Emergencies Act is important, reflecting on how the country got to that crisis stage is equally consequential.

In the days before the end, the story at Coutts was the province and the RCMP trying to remove the hundreds of tractors and trucks that blocked traffic and blared their horns beginning in late January, 2022. Coutts might not be the Ambassador Bridge, but it’s the busiest land border crossing in Alberta, operating 24/7. At the time of the protests, it was the only port of entry that could process livestock shipments because it had veterinary services. While border crossings were only formally suspended from Feb. 12-15, the protests starting in late January caused a range of disruptions, frequently blocking all traffic.

The RCMP was searching for the heavy equipment needed to move the vehicles and made a request to the Canadian Armed Forces, but was told the military did not have suitable supply.

The Alberta government was also looking. According to testimony at the commission from Marlin Degrand, an assistant deputy minister responsible for Alberta’s public security portfolio, provincial officials knew of heavy equipment at CFB Edmonton they believed could have been put into use. This was because Mr. Kenney was a former federal defence minister, and other provincial public servants had previously been in the military – including deputy minister Paul Wynnyk, a former vice chief of the Defence Staff.

There were some texts and phone calls between Alberta and federal cabinet ministers in early February, 2022. By Feb. 10, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair wasn’t responding to texts from the province’s then-municipal affairs minister, Ric McIver.

Evidence tabled at the Emergencies Act inquiry also looked at messages from Mr. Kenney.

“Your guy has really screwed the pooch,” an unrestrained Mr. Kenney told federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, according to texts from Mr. LeBlanc three days before the act was invoked. When asked by inquiry counsel whether “your guy” was a reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. LeBlanc said he didn’t know.

“This trucker vax policy is obviously just dumb political theatre. Calling them all Nazis hasn’t exactly helped. And now the provinces are holding the bag on enforcement,” Mr. Kenney told Mr. LeBlanc.

The former premier also expressed exasperation at his inability to secure tow trucks and the federal government’s dismissal of an Alberta request to use military equipment, leading him to believe it “doesn’t really care about the international border being closed.”

Instead, the Alberta government went to searching on Kijiji and Truck Trader for vehicles with heavy tow capacity – eventually purchasing 12 vehicles on its own at a cost of $800,000.

A formal request from Alberta for assistance, sent as a letter on Feb. 5, simply went unanswered. A response letter from federal government, to say it couldn’t help, was never actually sent – the result of “human error,” according to Justice Rouleau. Mr. McIver would text Mr. Blair on Feb. 21, saying, “We received no help until after the Coutts issue was resolved, and you know that.”

For sure, there’s no love lost between Alberta and Ottawa. The division between Alberta’s UCP and the federal Liberals on a long list of issues played a role in this. A few UCP MLAs even went to meet with the protesters.

And lower levels of government said they, too, were left hanging. Jim Willett, the mayor of 250-person Coutts, said he didn’t receive the support he expected from either the provincial or federal government.

“In particular, he expected the provincial government to make better use of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act,” says an interview summary from the commission. (Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski was charged under that act with willfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure.)

There’s no guarantee federal help would have sped the resolution in Coutts, or thwarted any violent plot. But there’s little evidence that federal officials tried much to improve the situation in Alberta. The Kenney government was sympathetic to some of the motivations behind the protests, and of the position that Ottawa should have lifted the vaccine mandates for truckers. But it also took concrete actions to try to stop the illegal road blockade at the province’s most important border crossing.

The Alberta government didn’t agree with Ottawa’s use of the Emergencies Act – Mr. Kenney has long said he was worried it would further inflame the situation. The Smith government still argues it was an unnecessary, dangerous precedent. However, it’s clear from evidence presented at Justice Rouleau’s inquiry that strain between the province and Ottawa also existed because federal cabinet ministers treated the emergency in Coutts as an afterthought compared with what was going on in their own backyard.

Justice Rouleau talked about the missing act of leaders rising “above politics and collaborate for the common good” during the Freedom Convoy protests. In that spirit, Alberta deserved a letter back.