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Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Jan. 31, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Inside the Smugglers Saloon, a roadside tavern around the bend from the U.S.-Canada border, protesters blocking Alberta’s Highway 4 thought they had a deal with provincial legislators representing rural areas.

The group, who were assembled on Wednesday afternoon, voted by a show of hands to move their campers, tractors, semis and other vehicles so traffic could flow in one lane in each direction. The group had been blocking north and southbound traffic at Coutts, a village of about 250 people, since last Saturday, shuttering an important Alberta border crossing.

“They said, if we open that lane of traffic, they will drop … the [vaccination passport system],” one of the protesters said in a video posted online from inside the bar. “If they do not meet our requests, that border is shut again immediately.”

The group’s lawyer Martin Rejman told The Globe and Mail that there were “backchannel” discussions with members of the legislature, but would not reveal who was involved.

The protesters scurried about in -20 weather to clear the way, with some leaving the protest entirely.

In Ottawa, site of the original protest, trucks remain parked across from Parliament Hill, without any hint the impasse may soon end.

There was, however, no deal in Alberta – at least not with anyone who had the power to authorize the province to drop its coronavirus restrictions to appease a group of disgruntled citizens protesting illegally. Once that was clear, a secondary protest, clogging but not blocking the highway, popped up at a police barricade 14 kilometres north of the original Coutts camp.

Jason Kenney says truckers’ Coutts border blockade violates traffic laws and must end

But a day after the phantom deal, Premier Jason Kenney accelerated the timeline for lifting Alberta’s COVID-19 protocols. Meanwhile, scores of United Conservative Party caucus members issued statements denouncing the pandemic policies.

In an unannounced Facebook Live broadcast on Thursday evening, Mr. Kenney said that, because of widespread vaccination rates and protection from prior COVID-19 infections, the rationale for Alberta’s restrictions exemption program (REP) – code for a vaccination passport system – is not as strong as it was when it was introduced in September.

“That is why, early next week, Alberta will announce a firm date to end the REP and do so in the very near future,” he said. “We will also lay out a simple, phased plan to remove almost all public-health restrictions later this month, as long as we see a trend of declining pressure on our hospitals.”

But no downward trend in hospital admissions has started. Alberta counted 1,584 people with COVID-19 in hospital when Mr. Kenney made his remarks on Thursday. On Jan. 27 – as a convoy of truckers and motorists was converging on Ottawa, but before the protest emerged at Coutts – Alberta’s hospitals had 1,570 people with COVID-19.

“We are continuing to see upward movement in our inpatient beds, hospitalization pressure, from COVID-19, and we’re at, in fact, the highest point in the two years in terms of people in hospital with COVID,” Mr. Kenney said at the Jan. 27 media conference. “Now is not the right time to be relaxing measures when the hospitals are under so much pressure.”

If Alberta moved too quickly, Mr. Kenney warned, the situation could get worse.

“Let’s just keep our eye on the ball, have the backs of the people in our hospitals. Let’s not start removing measures that could trip us back into higher transmissions and hospitalizations when the hospitals are already under so much pressure,” he said. “That day … is coming. I’m pretty confident it will come before the end of March.”

A record 1,648 COVID-19 patients were in hospital as of Feb. 1, the day before demonstrators in Coutts dismantled their blockade.

However, the protest is not over.

Disaffected Albertans remain parked on the sides of the highway in Coutts. The allied protest at the police barricade to the north continues. That crowd is likely to swell with supporters over the weekend as protests spread across Southern Alberta.

Jarrad McCoy, a carpenter from the town of Milk River, was among those inside Smugglers Saloon when some in the group believed they had a deal with the government. He said he is protesting not because of his family’s circumstances, but to alleviate the suffering of others and to build a better future for his six kids.

“Every generation has a fight or a battle, or has to be courageous in some way. And I think this is a moment of courage and love for these guys,” Mr. McCoy said on Wednesday, noting that many of the participants are “men of faith.”

While his own contracting business has prospered through the pandemic, he said he’s seen provincial health restrictions hit the finances of neighbours and friends. “I’ve seen God provide for my family through all of this. But I’ve seen other people suffer. And it’s broken my heart.”

Mr. McCoy said the clearing of one lane in each direction so that the flow of cross-border traffic and trade could resume was a good thing.

“None of the guys here want to be affecting anyone’s livelihood either,” he said. “We don’t want anyone suffering.”

With a report from Kelly Cryderman

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