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From ‘Freedom convoy’ to border blockade: The tale of two towns — Ottawa and Coutts, Alta. — caught in the middle of a protest


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From ‘Freedom convoy’ to border blockade: The tale of two towns — Ottawa and Coutts, Alta. — caught in the middle of a protest

Cindy Clarke was out walking her two dogs, the scenic Sweet Grass Hills on the horizon, when she noticed the police helicopter trailing behind her.

Choppers and police vehicles have become a common sight in recent days, for Clarke and other residents of Coutts, Alta., who find their small village the scene of a trucker protest against vaccine mandates that had, as of Wednesday, been blockading the nearby U.S. border for five days.

Clarke, a pottery maker who has lived in Coutts for about eight years, says she noticed eight police vehicles just during her recent walk.

She said she supports the right to protest but believes things have been getting out of hand; the blockade has made it difficult to get in and out of town, and she said the sense of unease in the air has made her uncomfortable leaving the house or walking her dogs.

“We’re a sleepy little town of 250 people where very little happens,” she said. “I never once thought I’d be afraid to leave my house in Coutts.”

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 kilometres away, in the nation’s capital, residents have also been dealing with frustration and a sense of foreboding as truckers and supporters in the “Freedom convoy” continue to occupy parts of Ottawa.

Danielle Bélanger-Corbin, who lives on Lisgar Street about five blocks from Parliament Hill, says she was harassed walking outside the other day by two men who called her a “sheep” for wearing a mask, and that she hasn’t left her house much since.

“I believe firmly in the right of peaceful assembly. I believe firmly in freedom of speech. But this has gone on long enough,” Bélanger-Corbin said Wednesday. “I also believe in my right to be able to live in a safe environment, and I just want our elected officials to start taking action.”

They are, seemingly, two different manifestations of the same resentment and fury that has brewed across the country over the past nearly two years of the CVOVID-19 pandemic —sparked newly by the vaccine mandates affecting truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border.

Beginning as a backlash to vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers as in Coutts, the Ottawa protests have now spiralled into something bigger, with demonstrators honking and hollering in the city streets, forcing residents inside and businesses closed.

Both the Coutts demonstration and the Ottawa protests have seen local residents caught in the crossfire between angry truckers and the federal government — and underscored questions of what is the fair balance between the rights of protesters to be heard, and the rights of residents to go about their business freely and unhindered.

They are also vastly different scenes — the village of Coutts unaccustomed to the limelight; and the capital of Ottawa, often the target of symbolic protest, but where residents have become increasingly frustrated by the incursion of outsiders targeting their city.

There were signs the two towns are moving in opposite directions Wednesday, with at least limited progress made in opening up the Alberta blockade, even as Ottawa’s police chief suggested there may be nothing the force can do to rein in the demonstrations in the capital and warning of an expected weekend escalation.

Chief Peter Sloly said in a briefing he is “increasingly concerned there is no policing solution to this,” adding the force is aware of a strong U.S. presence in protest participation and funding.

What’s happening in Ottawa is a “tale of two very different demonstrations,” said Catherine McKenney, a city councillor representing downtown Ottawa. While local police are focused on protesters on Parliament Hill, members of the so-called Freedom Convoy are “terrorizing” residents of nearby neighbourhoods with “complete impunity,” McKenney said.

“They are sexually harassing women. They are screaming at seniors trying to get into grocery stores. They’re driving their trucks — pickup trucks — on sidewalks, going the wrong way. They’re putting peoples’ lives in danger. They’re honking horns 24 hours a day. It is torture.”

McKenney said they have been hearing from “hundreds of residents begging me to make it stop.”

Back in Coutts, Clarke said the truck convoy has been peaceful. She hasn’t noticed anyone getting belligerent or violent and they haven’t been leaving garbage behind, she said. But it is creating congestion and gridlock, which is concerning because Coutts has few amenities.

“You can’t buy a quart of milk or dozen eggs, there are no supplies here. There’s no gas here and there’s no doctor here. And in order to get those things, we need to drive through that blockade,” to the nearby town of Milk River, about 15 minutes up the road, Clarke said.

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She said she’s concerned about friends who are seniors who she’s heard are not able to access home care. While the truckers have said they’ll make way for residents who need to pass through, Clarke said that thought is “very unnerving” so she’s decided to stay home for now.

“They say they’re not blocking access, but I don’t know, to drive through that is scary,” Clarke said.

“We’re basically being held hostage here,” she added. “You have to negotiate yourself out and negotiate yourself in. They’re talking freedom, but they’re taking away my freedom to speak for their freedom.”

Over at the nearby Hills of Home Cafe and BnB, about a stone’s throw north of the border, owner Carolyn Dangerfield has a very different take. She said she is 100 per cent in support of the protest and is gathering supplies such as food, toiletries and bottles of water for the truckers.

She said she’s been heartened to see the nationwide support for the truckers’ cause.

“These truckers represent who all of us regular folks are. It’s struck a chord. … People get excited about Canada winning the Stanley Cup or whatever. But this is bigger,” Dangerfield said.

“This is what being Canadian all about. It’s a sense of community that I think people have been lacking for so long.”

She said the line of trucks appears to be two to three kilometres long. One of the reasons she supports the protest is because truckers are regulars at her café.

“These guys are a bunch of good, good guys. This is a town of truckers. We watch them out of our café window.”

Dangerfield said the protest has been completely peaceful in her observation and blamed the RCMP for creating congestion and more blockades. Clarke disagreed, saying she believe the police response has been “measured.”

In the capital, meanwhile, McKenney has called on Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to ask the federal government and the RCMP to intervene in the protests on the Hill so local police can focus on neighbouring communities.

While McKenney said there are “lines to be drawn” between the situations in Ottawa and Coutts, she’s just trying to stay on top of what’s happening at home.

“The citizens of this city, they deserve not to have what’s happening outside of that main demonstration to be happening in their community,” they said.

Ellie Carters lives in Ottawa’s west end but works downtown, and when she saw scenes of reporters being intimidated, residents walking nervously and a protester donning Nazi memorabilia, she knew she wanted to help.

Carters started a campaign to connect people that need support walking about the downtown area with a “buddy.” She said more people have volunteered to help than have asked for it.

“There was just so much support and so many positive reactions to it that I just kept going.”

Back in Coutts, Clarke is hopeful the protest will end soon as she’s running out of clay for her pottery.

She’s been leaving political statements about the protest to her husband, who happens to be the village’s mayor, and has no opinion on what’s happening in Ottawa.

“No, none whatsoever. I make pots in a basement in Coutts. That’s my political agenda.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMoslehLex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for the Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs

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