Jurors hear closing arguments in trial for three men charged in Coutts blockade

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — A Crown prosecutor making the case against three men charged with mischief at the border blockade at Coutts, Alta., told jurors Tuesday they don’t have to determine the accused were kingpins of the protest in order find them guilty.

Steven Johnston said if jurors are satisfied the three were demonstrably supporting the blockade, they should be convicted of mischief over $5,000.

“The right to protest does not let you lay siege to property for two weeks. It was not their highway to close,” Johnston said.

“One act, one statement of encouragement can be enough to convict.

“The Crown does not have to prove these men were the leaders.”

Johnston made the comment in closing arguments at the trial of Alex Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos, and Gerhard Janzen in Lethbridge, Alta.

The Crown said evidence shows the accused were key players and became faces of the blockade that tied up traffic at the Canada−United States border crossing at Coutts for two weeks in early 2022 in a protest of COVID−19 rules and restrictions.

Johnston said the accused clearly supported the blockade. He told jurors the three spoke on behalf of protesters, and the evidence “should leave you with no doubt these men are guilty.”

“They use the words, ‘We — the Coutts convoy,’" said Johnston.

"They are not some mere messengers. They use the words, ‘We, our and us.’"

Defence lawyers did not call any evidence during the trial, and the accused did not testify.

However, in cross−examining witnesses, the defence argued the trio is not guilty because the demonstration involved numerous, strong−willed protesters who didn’t always publicly agree and sometimes went their separate ways.

The prosecution called a handful of witnesses, including Mounties who were at the blockade

Officers testified that as the protest dragged on, its leadership coalesced around the accused, and police increasingly turned to them to negotiate.

Sgt. Greg Tulloch told court he worked to establish a dialogue with the protesters and identified Van Huigenbos as the main contact.

During the cross−examination of Tulloch, a lawyer for Van Huigenbos questioned whether his client really was a leader or simply a conduit delivering messages to those in charge.

"Have you ever heard the phrase, ’Don’t shoot the messenger?’ I’m going to suggest that’s really what Marco was here. He was a messenger, a communicator, a spokesperson for the group — not a leader," lawyer Ryan Durran told Tulloch.

Tulloch replied: "That’s far too simplified from the impression I was left with. Because when things were happening, they happened immediately after Marco said he would do something or transmit a message."

Tulloch maintained that he considered Van Huigenbos to be at the top of the inner circle of the protest, followed by Janzen and, to a lesser degree, Van Herk.

The defence pointed to a video from the protesters’ gathering spot, Smuggler’s Saloon, where Van Herk is seen asking for a vote to try to get everyone to leave but is met with vocal opposition.

"I don’t care, let ’em come," says one man on the video.

"The only way I’m leaving is in a (police) cruiser," says another.

Former Coutts mayor Jim Willett was asked under cross−examination if there was any one group in charge at the protest.

"It was a bunch of people I didn’t know, driving a bunch of vehicles who were upset. That was the impression I got," Willett said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Photo: police