NORTH PORTAL - Over 50 vehicles, cars, trucks and semis, and up to 100 people, gathered at North Portal Saturday morning.
On the day when the U.S. imposed a vaccine mandate on foreign travellers including truck drivers, and a week after Canada implemented similar regulations requiring truck drivers to be fully vaccinated in order to enter the country, people who oppose the new rules came together near the border to demonstrate their protest and discuss their position.
Even though it was short notice and the weather was pretty typical for this time of year, cold and snowy, dozens of Canadians gathered on their side and were met by several Americans, supporting the protest on the other side of the border.
Emily Gilles of Estevan opened up with singing Canadian and then American national anthems, with those present singing along. Then, supervised by the American border agents, Jay Riedel of Roche Percee and American Doug Hysjulien exchanged flags as a sign of mutual support.
Riedel then opened an event with a speech.
"We all know what's going to happen with these truckers that can't cross the border. Omar Alghabra who is the truck minister in Canada, was saying that there is 120,000 truckers and only 10 per cent of them will not be crossing the border," Riedel said, adding that the Canadian Trucking Alliance estimates that about 38,000 truck drivers could opt out of cross-border work because of vaccine mandate.
"A little bit of everything here that's going to be affected, we knew it was coming. And now the States are going to be the same way," Riedel said.
"How many people through the course of a day, a couple of days are they (truck drivers) actually in contact with? Three-four at the most. (So how can we) justify that them needing to be jabbed is more important than getting food on our tables … This government's overreach is beyond anything anybody has ever seen before. And they can't justify any of it," Riedel continued.
Gilles, who grew up in North Portal, took the microphone next.
"I am a U.S. citizen. I moved to north soil when I was eight, I became a Canadian citizen when I was 23. I was growing up here when the border was an easy place to cross. No ID was necessary. Not even a passport, surely not a dream of a vaccine passport. We would ride our little pedal bikes over to Portal, get a pop and a cheeseburger and visit our friends. We would cross the border for a dozen reasons every week," Gilles shared.
"We were enjoying our international golf course here on the 49th parallel, unique to all the world. We have community groups that were active on both sides of the border. But times have changed," she said.
She pointed out that just during the gathering a number of semi-trucks crossed the border. Besides, she was an officer at the port at North Portal for 14 years, and at that time 200-400 trucks a day crossed the international border going into Canada, and as many were going into the U.S., just at their location.
"That is a lot of men and women hauling all of our stuff in and out of the country," Gilles noted.
She also shared her reasons for quitting the job, which she knew she would do after Stephen Harper's government announced in 2006 that by 2016 they would arm all border officers.
"I knew that waking up every morning with the willingness to shoot someone in exchange for a paycheque was a deal I could not make. I worked through those 10 years denying the training to obtain a firearm and exercising my option to remain unarmed. So when it became fully mandatory that every officer on the line wears a gun to do their job in 2016, that's when I walked away from that job," Gilles shared.
She addressed the CBSA officers questioning them about what their job is asking from them nowadays.
"Are you being asked to violate someone's privacy by medical choice? If you follow this mandate towards commercial carriers, then you are? And is that who you believe you are as a person? Does that match your beliefs of yourself? Probably not," Gilles said.
"I have a friend in the trucking industry, and he wrestled all fall whether to get the vaccine to pay his mortgage to keep his house to support his 17-year-old son. No one should be in that position. My friend is a truck driver who for the most part is by himself in his truck. He's not a danger to anyone. There's been no link that truckers contributed to any spread of COVID as they travelled around our two countries," she said.
"Are you doing anything to stop this? You complaining to your superiors? Are you pointing out the legalities of what's going on? Do you find other people in your office that might feel the same way and organize a walkout," Gilles continued her address to CBSA officers, supported by applause from the crowd. "We did this thing called work-to-rule. You cannot be fired from your job if you do the job you are hired to do. So there are loopholes, look for them. You can do your job and show up and ask for people's declarations and check their receipts and collect duties and taxes. But you can also say my job is to uphold the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so I won't be enforcing this mandate. That is work-to-rule."
"You don't have to go along with whatever the government boss man tells you, because you work for the public, you don't work for the elected leaders. And I'm sorry, customs officers, that you have been mandated to get the vaccine yourselves. No one should be in the position of being forced, it should be a choice. So we now have the choice to extend a choice to the truck drivers," Gilles said, reminding that truck drivers kept everyone going when others could work from home, risking their wellbeing throughout the months of the pandemic.
The opportunity was then given to the American participants of the demonstration.
"First of all, I'd like to say that I miss you guys," said Jason Hysjulien, the owner of 109 Steakhouse in Lignite, N.D. "We are powerless against the forces that are against us. And the only way that we have any hope of victory, the only way that our efforts here will come to fruition, is if we remember that God is in control of all things."
Another American and a few other Canadian participants including Linda Dunbar and Gene Davis of the North Portal Duty-Free shop made brief speeches.
"A big, big chunk of our fresh food, vegetables are travelling on trucks. So pull that off the grocery shelves in dollars, you're talking hundreds of millions. So my advice to Canadians is maybe stock up until this is over. Grocery stores will be getting late," Davis pointed out.
The speakers also invited those present or watching the live stream of the event on social media to support and/or join the convoy heading out from the west on Jan. 23 to Ottawa, to show their opposition to the truck driver vaccination mandate.
Drone footage of the event is available here.