'There was no clear leadership': Crown's RCMP witness undermines central claim in Coutts Three trial

Every video played by the Crown as evidence in the trial of the Coutts Three – Marco Van Huigenbos, George Janzen, and Alex Van Herk – was Rebel News branded during Thursday's proceedings in Lethbridge, AB.

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The three defendants are being charged with mischief over $5,000 for their involvement in the Coutts border blockade and protest of 2022, which took place concurrently with the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, ON. The two peaceful protests involved civil disobedience and shared opposition to governmental decrees, edicts, and mandates marketed as "public health" measures in response to COVID-19.

"It didn't seem that there was any leadership at the time," former Coutts mayor Jim Willett, the Crown's first witness, stated in his testimony. He worked as the border village's mayor during the Coutts protest. The claim was at odds with a central claim by the prosecution alleging the three defendants had a leadership role with control of the protesters.

Michael Johnston, Van Herk's defence counsel, played a video recorded during the protest in which his client advised other protesters to withdraw from the protest in anticipation of the arrival of RCMP "tactical units", the same type of law enforcement units used in response to violent riots.

Van Herk's advice was rejected by many of the protesters, who argued that they were willing to be forcefully arrested in order to maintain their demonstration. Johnston later told Rebel News that this video amounted to evidence contradicting the Crown's attribution of protest leadership to his client.

The former mayor also said that attempts to control the protesters via leadership "was like herding cats", adding that Van Herk told him of his desire "to go home to his family", and that Van Herk "looked haggard" from the difficult conditions of protesting in a cold remote village.

Willett also testified that a lane in each direction of the Alberta 4 Highway to Coutts was kept open, undermining the Crown's allegations of a blockade of the major road to the border village.

When asked what share of Coutts's residents supported the protesters, Willet replied, "I would say a majority, yes, for sure."

Mark Wielgosz, an RCMP officer with over 20 years of experience who operated in part as a liaison between law enforcement and protesters, was the Crown's second witness to testify.

"There was no clear leadership," Wielgosz stated when questioned by prosecutor Aaron Rankin. He added, "It seemed to be very disorganized."

Wielgosz remarked on Rebel News's presence at the Coutts protest when questioned about this news media outlet's work in the border village. "Major media were there," he stated, referring to CBC and CTV, but unlike Rebel News and Western Standard, were "typically not that close to the saloon or the protesters."

Wielgosz and Willett both testified that the RCMP set up a roadblock in Milk River, a small town of under 1,000 people on the Alberta 4 Highway, to prevent Canadians from driving south to join the demonstrators in Coutts.

Wielgosz also testified that he repeatedly traveled to and from Coutts to Lethbridge, about 100 kilometres north of the border village, without being impeded. His and his partner's hotel rooms were in Lethbridge.

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