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Trio found guilty of mischief for roles in 2022 border blockade at Coutts, Alta.

Trio found guilty of mischief

UPDATE: 9:24 p.m.

Three men accused by the Crown of helping lead and coordinate the COVID-19 protest blockade at Coutts, Alta., in 2022 have been found guilty of mischief.

Jurors deliberated for three hours Tuesday night before finding Alex Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos and Gerhard (George) Janzen guilty of one count each of mischief over $5,000.

Gasps of surprise were heard in a courtroom packed with supporters of the trio when the verdict was announced.

The three were on trial in Court of King's Bench for their roles in a blockade that tied up cross-border traffic between Canada and the United States at Coutts for two weeks in early 2022 in protest of COVID-19 rules and restrictions.

Earlier Tuesday, in closing arguments to the jury, Crown prosecutor Steven Johnston said jurors only need find that the three were active participants in the blockade to return a guilty verdict.

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

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

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

The Crown said the evidence showed the accused were key players and became faces of the blockade.

Johnston said the three spoke on behalf of protesters.

“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 was not guilty because the demonstration involved numerous strong-willed protesters who didn’t always publicly agree and sometimes went their separate ways.

In his closing argument, defence lawyer Ryan Durran told jurors his client, Van Huigenbos, was not a leader but was turned into a messenger by the RCMP.

“Marco becomes like a switchboard operator connecting calls,” said Durran.

“Marco was there to convey a message. He stumbled into a role where he was a spokesman. Marco gave the RCMP the news of the day."

Durran said Van Huigenbos was part of a group that failed to end the blockade.

“So much for leadership. He didn’t start it, he didn’t control it and he didn’t end it. But he carried the message.”

Lawyer Michael Johnston, representing Van Herk, said his client tried unsuccessfully on two occasions to convince the protesters to leave and was concerned about breaking federal laws.

"Not everyone at the protest is guilty of a crime," Johnston said.

"(Van Herk) wasn't anyone of influence in anybody's mind."

Janzen's lawyer, Alan Honner, said his client was always willing to help other protesters sort out their problems as well as work with the RCMP.

"This is the real George Janzen. He helps because that is who he is," said Honner.

Before jurors began deliberations, Justice Keith Yamauchi told them a mischief conviction could only be reached if there was an obstruction of property, the action was unlawful, the conduct was wilful, and there was intent to commit a crime.

During the trial, the Crown called a handful of witnesses, including Mounties who were at the scene, and former Coutts mayor Jim Willett.

The officers testified that as the protest dragged on, leadership coalesced around the three accused, and RCMP increasingly turned to them to negotiate.

Sgt. Greg Tulloch said he considered Van Huigenbos to be at the centre of the inner circle of the protest, followed by Janzen and, to a lesser degree, Van Herk.

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

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," he replied.


ORIGINAL: 2:45 p.m.

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

Lawyers for the defence, though, argue their clients were moderates who played a small role.

In closing arguments, prosecutor 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 told the jury.

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

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

Alex Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos, and Gerhard (George) Janzen are on trial in Court of King's Bench.

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.

Defence lawyer Ryan Durran told jurors his client, Van Huigenbos, was not a leader but was turned into a messenger by the RCMP.

“Marco becomes like a switchboard operator connecting calls,” said Durran.

“Marco was there to convey a message. He stumbled into a role where he was a spokesman. Marco gave the RCMP the news of the day."

Durran said Van Huigenbos was part of a group that failed to end the blockade.

“So much for leadership. He didn’t start it, he didn’t control it and he didn’t end it. But he carried the message.”

Durran said the three accused cannot be blamed for the actions of "a horde of protesters."

Michael Johnston, who represents Van Herk, said the convoy was part of a "great winter of political discontent," where a mass of protesters with divergent views converged on the border.

"The jury will have to decide if Mr. Van Herk was merely at Coutts to communicate a message," he said.

He said his client tried unsuccessfully on two occasions to convince the protesters to leave and was concerned about breaking federal laws.

"Not everyone at the protest is guilty of a crime," Johnston said.

"(Van Herk) wasn't anyone of influence in anybody's mind."

Janzen's lawyer, Alan Honner, said there's little evidence his client started the protest. He said Janzen was always willing to help other protesters sort out their problems as well as work with the RCMP.

"This is the real George Janzen. He helps, because that is who he is," said Honner.

"You don't see anything that could be construed as aiding unless it is helping the police."

Before jurors were to begin deliberations, Justice Keith Yamauchi said a mischief conviction can only be reached if there was an obstruction of property, the action was unlawful, the conduct was wilful and there was intent to commit a crime.

“Use your good common sense,” the judge told the jury.

During the trial, the Crown called a handful of witnesses, including Mounties who were at the scene and former Coutts mayor Jim Willett.

The officers testified that as the protest dragged on, leadership coalesced around the three accused, and RCMP increasingly turned to them to negotiate.

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

Tulloch said he considered Van Huigenbos to be at the centre 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 heard asking for a vote to try and get everyone to leave, but is met with 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.

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," he replied.



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