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Braid: The border crisis is a major challenge for Kenney and UCP

This protest hurts innocent people and worsens some of the very problems the protesters complain about, including inability to travel across the border

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Premier Jason Kenney’s government has a couple of urgent problems: one named Grant Hunter, the other called Coutts.

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The Grant Hunter problem drove back from the border Monday. The village called Coutts, meanwhile, was still blockaded by truckers.

Hunter, the UCP member for Taber-Warner, went down to the border to show support for the people causing transportation havoc at Alberta’s only 24-hour crossing point to the U.S.

He had been dumped from cabinet last summer after two years as minister for red tape reduction.

The UCP caucus held a long meeting Monday, a rarity when Premier Jason Kenney himself is absent. He was to fly back from the U.S. Monday evening.

The talk in government is that Hunter is expected to voice contrition on Tuesday for joining the demo.

The protesters’ demands are counter to his own government’s COVID-19 policy, and the border protest is both illegal and economically damaging.

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The UCP passed the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act as an urgent response to blockages of national rail lines in February and March 2020.

When anti-vaxxers protested at hospitals last fall, the government quickly included medical infrastructure in the list of facilities that cannot be damaged, destroyed, impeded or otherwise prevented from functioning.

The demonstrations stopped, and no wonder. The base fine for an individual convicted under the act is $1,000. A second offence raises the ante to $10,000. The alternative to fines is imprisonment for up to six months.

The law might have been written for what’s happening now at the border. It defines many things as critical infrastructure, including “a provincial highway, transportation system, or urban rail transit system . . .”

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Highway 4 at Coutts certainly is not functioning. More than 150 truckloads of beef are stuck at the border, along with angry travellers on both sides.

This protest hurts innocent people and worsens some of the very problems the protesters complain about, including inability to travel across the border.

A convoy of trucks and other vehicles is shown blocking traffic on Highway 4 near the Coutts border crossing on Monday, Jan. 31, 2021.
A convoy of trucks and other vehicles is shown blocking traffic on Highway 4 near the Coutts border crossing on Monday, Jan. 31, 2021. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The Alberta politician at the sharp end of this crisis is UCP Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney.

“I do not agree with this blockade at all,” she said in an interview. “And I’ve come out very strongly because of the impact on the supply chain, and the whole southern region.

“This is going to have an economic impact. There are perishable goods in the back of trucks right now. Those companies are going to experience losses . . . that has to be clear to everyone who’s protesting as well.”

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She says it’s up to the RCMP to decide if charges should be laid under the Critical Infrastructure legislation. The government can’t just order that people be charged.

And there’s a possibility that if heavy charges are levied, other demonstrators might rush to the border in support. Enforcement could escalate a standoff into genuine crisis.

Sawhney isn’t caving to the protest but clearly wants the border cleared through negotiation.

“This is going to require some listening,” she says. “There is an opportunity for dialogue and to move forward in a peaceful way.

“Elected representatives have a responsibility. I feel a very heavy sense of responsibility.”

She says the demonstrators “want to be acknowledged — they’ve found all this very, very painful. They want to talk to somebody, they want to air their opinions without judgment . . . It’s important that this be handled very delicately, but firmly.”

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She seems to be suggesting politicians should get down there and talk to the blockaders. Nobody in the UCP government is volunteering.

Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks Hwy 4 at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022.
Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks Hwy 4 at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Seven provinces have land links with the U.S. But so far Alberta’s blockade seems to be the only one of its kind in Canada.

Ottawa has taken the brunt of the protest, obviously, but Alberta could feel real damage from the border crisis.

One has to wonder if the government’s initial response would be so delicate if this protest came from the left.

In any case, it’s another dangerous moment for Kenney’s government. They need a quick parade out of Coutts.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

Twitter: @DonBraid

Facebook: Don Braid Politics

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