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. 

Court of King's Bench Justice Keith Yamauchi warned the packed courtroom before the six man, six woman jury came back with their verdict.

"While this court understands the vested interest of those assembled this court will not allow those interests to interfere with the jury rendering its verdict without interruption or interjection," he said.

"Anyone who cannot abide by or agree with that rule should now leave the courtroom."

The three men were comforted by about three dozen people outside the court.

Van Huigenbos and Janzen embraced.

"Let's hope they put us in the same spot," Van Huigenbos said.

Van Herk said he was initially optimistic due to the short time the jury deliberated.

"It was quite shocking right? And it's like wow. You get that pit in your stomach but you know what, I have no answer to that. The jury decided and I'll accept it," Van Herk said.

Van Herk said he's proud of participating in Coutts and holding politicians accountable.

"If that's what it takes, that we can show politicians what is right, and we'll do whatever sentence that is. I'd do it again tomorrow."

The maximum sentence for public mischief over $5000 is 10 years in prison.

Van Huigenbos said he wasn't surprised at the jury's verdict.

"Honestly there's no surprise here for me. Based on the charge, based on the interpretation of the law. We're guilty," he told reporters.

"It was much more than just 18 days on a highway in the middle of nowhere. We shook and threatened the pinnacle of power in this province. Coutts was the flame that the grassroots rallied around and turned into a fire."

Neither Van Huigenbos nor Van Herk intend to appeal their convictions.

Jail time is a concern for Van Huigenbos.

"I'm human. I worry more about how it will affect my kids, my wife. It'll affect me less. They're the ones that will have to deal with this."

A pre-sentence report has been ordered for all three men. The case is scheduled to appear again July 22 before a sentencing hearing can be scheduled.

Earlier Tuesday, in closing arguments to the jury, Crown prosecutor Steven Johnston said jurors only needed to find 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 and the three spoke on behalf of protesters. 

"They are not some mere messengers. They use the words, ‘We, our and us'", Johnston said. 

Defence lawyers didn't call 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." 

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. 

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.