Coutts arrests prompt deeper look at extremist elements at protests
As protesters rolled out of Coutts on Tuesday, one day after RCMP found a weapons cache in trailers at the border blockade, the 18-day standoff shows a need to examine hateful elements within the convoy organizers’ ranks, one expert says.
Departing demonstrators took one last photo op at the Smugglers Saloon, which served as a headquarters during the blockade, and offered hugs and handshakes to RCMP officers in a receiving line before protesters left the site. Police will be reviewing the conduct of the members in the videos circulating on social media.
At least fourteen people were arrested in connection with the blockade throughout its duration, including 12 related to a stash of weapons found in three trailers on site. Another was arrested as Mounties found weapons in the individual’s vehicle during a traffic stop, while RCMP say they also arrested a semi truck driver who accelerated through a checkstop north of Milk River. In a separate incident, police also laid a charge under the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act for the first time.
The RCMP remains on scene as investigations continue and in case protesters return. Speaking to reporters at a news conference on Tuesday evening, RCMP deputy commissioner Curtis Zablocki said the danger posed by the blockade was real and organized.
“It could have been deadly for citizens, protesters and officers,” Zablocki said.
Police are still trying to determine whether the group of individuals charged with weapons offences and other violations organized prior to the protest or during.
While the Emergencies Act powers were not available at the time of the arrests of the weapons complaints, Zablocki said police would look into whether they would be necessary in future situations.
Premier Jason Kenney thanked the RCMP for its enforcement, saying it sent a clear message that rule-breaking won’t be tolerated.
“I think it also made some of the protesters realize that they had unwittingly been associating themselves with people with extremist views and intentions,” Kenney said.
The Canadian Border Services Agency officially reopened the border crossing after what it described as a “service disruption.” Kenney said most of the $56 million per day in trade generated from the Coutts border crossing was not interrupted, as drivers were diverted to other crossings, “but it was terribly inconvenienced.”
Three individuals who are facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder, mischief and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose made an appearance at Court of Queen’s Bench on Tuesday, while nine others face charges of mischief and possession of a weapon. A fourth person has also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, per an RCMP update yesterday.
Blockades entwined with anti-democratic, far-right movements
Peter Smith, a researcher and investigative journalist with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told AB Today while there may be legitimate policy debates over public health mandates, organizers of the freedom convoy and blockades are inextricably entwined with anti-democratic, far-right movements.
He classified the convoy protest as a far-right populist movement, noting the goal of organizers is anti-democratic and aims to topple the government.
Smith said patches on body armour seized by RCMP in Coutts — one an anti-Muslim “infidel” patch, another a “Diagolon” patch — serve as signals to others within networks of conspiratorial thinking.
Diagolon is a joking reference to a fictional country created by a diagonal dividing line from Alaska to Florida. But the network itself is an anti-government accelerationist movement that believes in an inevitable downfall of corrupt governments leading to a civil war. Its de facto leader Jeremy MacKenzie has spoken about the need to prepare to keep communism out of Canada and said there is already a race war in America.
One of the men charged with conspiracy to commit murder was previously referred to as Diagolon’s “head of security” by MacKenzie, according to the anti-hate network.
RCMP chief superintendent for Southern Alberta Trevor Daroux said the protest started out peaceful but “very rapidly” became unlawful.
When asked about potential ties to “insurrectionists,” he said that may be part of the force’s investigation. He confirmed Mounties will explore all avenues when asked if further charges could be laid in relation to organized crime or anti-terrorism laws.
Smith said far-right groups, which once saw a great deal of in-fighting, have become a more unified force of conspiracy movements among those who believe in nefarious plots by the government throughout the pandemic. Extremists have shifted their focus as of late from recruiting for one specific group to creating networks, he said.
The online streams these groups create are far-right and conspiratorial but have a dedicated following, said Smith, who has infiltrated online streams and chats conducted by the groups. He said they express concern about law enforcement, journalists and anti-fascist activists behind closed doors.
Far-right groups have also shifted from largely respecting police, who they believe to be sympathetic to their cause, to seeing the police as traitors over enforcement of pandemic measures, per Smith.
“There is this dynamic where they respect police and the role they play in society, but at the same time, see them as having turned against the people as they continue to enforce mandates,” Smith said.
He said he has seen hardcore neo-Nazis (who believe Covid was a design of the government) and nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys (who think pandemic measures are a form of control) set aside their differences during the pandemic.
“This is not about shutting down criticism of health measures or mandates or public policy — all those things are encouraged — but this is a very conspiratorial mindset,” Smith said.
Daroux said RCMP are trying to determine the extent to which other protesters knew of the activity of those charged.
Having spent time at the Ottawa protests, Smith said while some participants may be “willfully ignorant” of the connections between organizers and extremist groups, a vein of conspiracy evidently runs deep.
“This is a conspiracy-driven, inherently anti-democratic movement that is draping itself in the language and aesthetic of liberation,” Smith said. “And it’s working.”