Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Maybe it’s the sudden snap of cold weather, but the town of Coutts, Alta., seems too quiet.
Last week, a convoy of trucks and cars commemorated the one-year anniversary of the protests that shut down Ottawa and two Canada-U.S. border crossings, including the one here, for weeks. But it passed without incident, and now everything is frigid, windy and nearly silent. The Smuggler’s Saloon – the village pub that became an impromptu headquarters during last year’s convoy standoff – has been closed down. No one is walking on the streets. The fading 50s-era playgrounds are empty. The only reliable sound is the rumble of trucks and the squeak of brakes as commercial traffic passes through the border with metronomic regularity.
That wasn’t the case last year, when this town of about 200 people, opposite the community of Sweet Grass, Mont., became the site of a disruptive blockade.
With Coutts largely being a commercial gateway, and the home of several cross-border trucking companies (as well as retirees and farmers), its location – along with the general disposition of the people of southern Alberta – made it an obvious choice for a particularly economically painful protest.
The blockade was only disbanded after a raid by the RCMP at a nearby property uncovered a cache of weapons. Four men – Jerry Morin, Chris Lysak, Chris Carbert and Anthony Olienick – were arrested and remain jailed on charges of conspiracy to commit murder of RCMP officers. According to police, some of the men maintain links to the neo-fascist militant group Diagolon, whose crest appeared on some of the seized body armour.
But many in Coutts don’t believe the claims. While the town itself may be silent, social media is loud with indignation for these men, whom some have labelled “Alberta political prisoners.” Several fundraisers have been launched for their defence lawyers. One Facebook group is even selling bumper stickers and other merchandise with the men’s faces, along with the caption “innocent until proven guilty.”
This crowd believes that the RCMP planted the guns in order to frame the men and end the protest. They are aghast that the accused have been denied bail and will stay in jail until their trial this June. (The reasons for this denial are subject to a publication ban requested by the four’s defence lawyers.) “As far as sentiment goes,” said Logan Murphy, a photographer and documentarian who covered the convoy last year, “most attention is now on getting the Coutts boys out of prison and supporting their families.”
No one really regrets blocking the border, Mr. Murphy added. After all, he argued, the public-health measures have been lifted, haven’t they? Everything else, from the various arrests to government responses, is perceived as part of a broader plot to clamp down and control the working people who actually run things.
”Anyone with a brain knows what happened during the freedom convoy and Coutts was all required and justified,” Mr. Murphy said.
A deeper religious sentiment also animates these beliefs. For some, to stand up to the government and fight for freedom is divine.
The mayor of Coutts, Jim Willett, won’t talk to me about the protests. He can’t, actually; the Coutts village council recently passed a resolution barring members from speaking publicly about the blockade. But last year, when he testified before the federal Emergencies Act commission, Mr. Willett acknowledged that the majority of the town was on the convoy’s side. There were, of course, individuals who were highly distraught by their little village being taken over by “domestic terrorists,” as the mayor then characterized them. But that kind of language hasn’t won him many friends in town.
Mr. Willett did talk to me about the place generally. Like many small towns in southern Alberta, he said, this is a tight-knit community, filled with family and friends who are bound by years of shared history. Someone might live here for a decade and still be considered a newcomer.
That can make the community a warm and supportive place to live. Lethbridge, the nearest major town, is more than an hour away by car. Coutts sits in a beautiful spot of prairie, with big open sky and rolling hills covered in ash-blond stubble from last fall’s harvest.
But the place can also be stark, hard and poor. The people here are independent and self-sufficient, and will generally turn inward before accepting help from outsiders. This can make them distrustful of remote institutions – including the RCMP, whose officers tend to cycle into the community for a few years before moving elsewhere. Worse, the RCMP work for the federal government. There is little love for distant Ottawa.
The intimacy of the place means that politics, like religion or other sensitive topics, generally isn’t discussed. That changed when the convoy came to town. It’s difficult enough getting into a heated debate in a big city; it’s another thing altogether to fight with someone with whom you must live cheek-by-jowl in a tiny town. That gives Coutts the sense of living in a perpetual family reunion: When fights do happen, grudges can form.
The convoy took the lid off all of it in Coutts. Arguments over vaccines, over masks, over mandates – feelings got hurt. It may take some time, and a good deal of conscious forgetting. Hence the village council’s resolution.
Mr. Willett is optimistic. “The feeling in the village is to let it go. It’s been a year,” he said. “If people have hard feelings, they can work it out amongst themselves, and we’ll carry on.”
Coutts may well be heading that way, if its quietude one year later is any indication. But that shouldn’t be confused with lasting peace.