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Drivers work to move a gravel truck after a breakthrough to resolve the impasse at a protest blockade at the United States border in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 2, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The trial for three alleged leaders of the 2022 highway blockade at Coutts, Alta., launched in a Lethbridge courtroom Wednesday, with the prosecution stressing the case is about the flow of traffic, not the pandemic or the right to protest.

Marco Van Huigenbos, George Janzen, and Alex Van Herk pleaded not guilty to mischief charges stemming from their roles at the protest. Demonstrators gathered in Coutts on Jan. 29, 2022, in support of the convoy that travelled to Ottawa around the same time, to press governments to back off public-health restrictions related to COVID. The Alberta protest fizzled out Feb. 15, 2022, after an RCMP raid uncovered a cache of weapons in Coutts.

Steven Johnston, the Crown lawyer overseeing cases tied to COVID in Alberta, in his opening argument to the jury, said the accused trio effectively controlled Highway 4 at Coutts, where demonstrators parked dozens of semi-trailers, personal vehicles and farm equipment on the road.

“This trial is not about people’s personal feelings about COVID. This is not a trial about the right to protest. What it is about is that you simply can not obstruct the use of a highway in order to achieve a goal,” Mr. Johnston told the jury while speaking at a podium fashioned from a cardboard box.

The three men identified themselves as part of the leadership group at Coutts, made demands and issued directions, which resulted in disruptions on the highway, the lawyer said.

“The Crown does not allege that these men before you committed a single act of violence. 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.”

The men may not have parked their vehicles on the highway, Mr. Johnston said, but they decided when vehicles could pass.

“These men directed the blockade,” he said. “Effectively they had gained a control valve on Highway 4.”

The three men are being tried together and their trial is scheduled to last three weeks.

Their case is separate from the four men charged with conspiracy to commit murder in relation to the protest at Coutts. In February, two of those four men pleaded guilty to lesser offences and the conspiracy to commit murder charges were dropped. A jury trial for the remaining two, Chris Carbert and Anthony Olienick, is scheduled for May. The pair are in remand.

Separately in Ontario, prosecutors are arguing Tamara Lich and Chris Barber worked together to organize the larger convoy that took over downtown Ottawa in early 2022.

In Lethbridge, the Crown called Jim Willett, who was the mayor of Coutts during the Canada-wide demonstrations, as its first witness. The former mayor testified that he approached the protesters at the start of the gathering and found confusion. “There was nobody to talk to. Nobody wearing a hat and saying: ‘I’m the leader,’” he said.

The Coutts protest started as a slow roll and evolved into a “tractor blockade,” the former mayor said. The demonstrators occasionally arranged the vehicles on the highway to allow some traffic to trickle through, Mr. Willett said.

Mr. Willett said on about Feb. 3 or 4, he entered Smugglers Saloon, a roadside tavern adjacent to Highway 4 which protesters used as their headquarters, seeking information on behalf of villagers. Mr. Willett said he asked who was in charge and protesters directed him to Mr. Van Herk. The pair spoke in a side room and Mr. Willett testified that Mr. Van Herk said he found it difficult to get people to follow directions.

The Crown played two videos, made during the protest, while questioning Mr. Willett. In one video, in which all three appear, Mr. Huigenbos called on Jason Kenney, who was then the premier of Alberta, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “retract all provincial and federal mandates and emergency health measures.”

In another video, Mr. Huigenbos said the Coutts convoy would wrap the next day, as a result of the RCMP raid. Mr. Willett testified the protesters left after the video was posted.

Lawyers for the accused are expected to cross-examine Mr. Willett on Thursday.

Mr. Johnston said he also expects to call a handful of RCMP officers as witnesses, as well as a farmer with operations in the area.

During the protest, RCMP set up a checkpoint at Milk River, about 18 kilometres north of Coutts, to prevent the original protest site from swelling. A secondary protest, in turn, popped up at the police barricade.

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