Freedom Convoy vaccine mandate protest canadian border blockade
Aerial photo of the U.S.-Canada border blockade in Coutts, Alberta. Credit: Courtesy Royal Canadian Mounted Police

SWEET GRASS — A large group of truckers is blocking the U.S.-Canada border with their vehicles north of Shelby this week to protest a vaccine mandate for truck drivers who travel between the two countries. 

The blockade is an offshoot of a Canadian protest dubbed the “Freedom Convoy” that converged on Parliament Hill in Ottawa last Saturday to air grievances about the mandate and other pandemic policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

The blockade just over the border in Coutts, Alberta, began over the weekend, according to Canadian law enforcement. A spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told Montana Free Press that what began as a peaceful protest has turned into an “unlawful blockade” that is hindering commerce and other services in the area. On Tuesday morning, RCMP officers ordered the drivers to stop blocking the highway just north of the border crossing. Some complied with the order, but others did not. The RCMP said those who continue could face fines and arrest. 

“It’s a fluid situation,” RCMP Constable Patrick Lambert said Tuesday afternoon. 

“I’m frustrated that I have not been able to go home for two years. I just want to go home.”

Canadian citizen and Billings resident Kim Meier

In March 2020, the U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. People involved in essential activities, such as truckers, have generally been able to cross the border freely to do their jobs. Starting Jan. 15, however, Canada began requiring that truckers who cross the international boundary be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be forced to quarantine after crossing. Unvaccinated truckers who are not Canadian citizens are turned away at the border under the new policy. 

On Jan. 23, Canadian truckers began to converge on Delta, British Columbia, near Vancouver, and headed east toward Ottawa, arriving on Saturday. At the same time, smaller convoys sprang up across the country, including one near Coutts on Saturday in support of the gathering in Canada’s capital. Law enforcement said some drivers who partook in that event decided to park their vehicles at the border, impeding traffic and essentially bringing cross-border travel to a halt. 

Protest participants have generally been peaceful across the country, though on Tuesday there were conflicting reports from government officials of someone trying to ram an officer with a vehicle at the Coutts border crossing. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has said he believes the protesters have legitimate concerns, condemned the alleged violence as “totally unacceptable.” RCMP could not confirm that any officers were injured or that the protesters had tried to assault them.

Politicians south of the border have generally been mum on the situation, though on Jan. 31, Sen. Steve Daines stated on Twitter that he supported the protesters going to Ottawa. 

A Canadian citizen and permanent American resident, Kim Meier of Billings, traveled to Sweet Grass on Saturday where she and others stood near the international boundary in solidarity with protesters on the other side. Meier was born in Canada but has lived in Billings for 20 years and said she has not been able to visit her family in Canada in two and a half years. She believes Canada’s vaccination requirements have gone too far, and she dismisses politicians including Trudeau who have called the Freedom Convoy and its supporters a “fringe” group and a minority in the country. 

“I’m frustrated that I have not been able to go home for two years,” she said. “I just want to go home.”

“It’s not an anti-vaccination protest,” she added. “It’s pro-freedom.” 

She estimated that a few hundred people came out to support the action north of the border, including permanent residents like her and local families that have been split by the border restrictions. 

The Canada Border Services Agency was urging travelers to and from Canada to avoid the Coutts-Sweet Grass crossing. Besides halting trade at the border crossing north of Shelby, the blockade is having a major impact on the small community of Coutts. Coutts Mayor Jim Willett told CBC News that some kids were unable to get to school on Monday and mail delivery had been briefly halted because of the blockade. Willett added that he had no problem with peaceful protest, but that the blockade of the border had gone on too long.

“People in this village would like their freedom back,” he said. 

This story was updated Feb. 3, 2022, to more accurately convey Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s statements regarding the protest and conflicting reports of violence.

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.