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Council members speak out after State of Cochrane address protest turns aggressive

“We all believe in protesting if it doesn’t cause harm in getting your point across,” Flowers said. “But to spit on the mayor’s wife and yell obscenities at children at the crowd, I thought it was really unprofessional and unbecoming of the people involved.”
A crowd gathered on Feb. 9 to protest outside of the Cochrane RancheHouse prior to Mayor Jeff Genung's Cochrane's 2023 State of Address.

Although the intention of the mayor’s state of address on the evening of Feb. 9 was to acknowledge and celebrate some of the progress in Cochrane in the last year, the actions of protesters outside of the Cochrane RancheHouse that evening have drawn criticism from Mayor Jeff Genung and other members of council.

On the evening of the event, picketers made their way to the RancheHouse to protest the concept of 15-minute cities, despite the Town of Cochrane outlining their stance on the topic in an advisory sent out the same day of the protest.

“Cochrane does not have any plans to adopt the ‘15-minute city’ concept as most residents can already access all main services within a 15-minute drive,” Kristin Huybrecht, manager of intergovernmental relations and corporate communications, said in the Town’s post.

In addition to criticism of the 15-minute cities concept, some picketers were upset with the cost of a $50 ticket to the State of Cochrane address, which was organized by the Cochrane Chamber of Commerce.

But the demonstration turned aggressive when some of the protesters grabbed, berated, and even spat on some Town officials and attendees as they entered the RancheHouse.

Coun. Susan Flowers said although her recollection may be different from what others may have experienced, what she heard and witnessed online was unlike anything she’s seen in her time living in Cochrane and as an elected representative.

“I’ve watched the community for the last 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Flowers said. “I was disappointed that we came away not knowing what the message was.

“It was convoluted and the signs didn’t make any sense, and there was a sign right at the Ranche, so it tells me it wasn’t many Cochrane people [there protesting] if they don’t know where the RancheHouse is.”

Flowers said she was disappointed in the actions shown by some of the protesters.

“We all believe in protesting if it doesn’t cause harm in getting your point across,” Flowers said. “But to spit on the mayor’s wife and yell obscenities at children at the crowd, I thought it was really unprofessional and unbecoming of the people involved.”

Although she does not know if any punitive action will be taken against the protesters who displayed aggressive or harassing behaviour, she thinks the Town should look into it.

“There has to be a message that, yes, we want to communicate, but come on, this is Cochrane, let’s be kind to one another,” Flowers said. 

Coun. Patrick Wilson was also in attendance at the State of Cochrane address, but showed up later, at which point the number of protesters had dwindled. Although he said what happened to his fellow Town officials was unacceptable, he said he spent time speaking to those who were in attendance who were more reasonable.

“Even if there were a few bad apples, there were a lot of people there who were peacefully protesting and that’s what I saw,” Wilson said. “I thought some of them had legitimate grievances and topics I characterize as little bit insane, but there was a mix.”

Although he had to dismiss some of the comments in regards to the 15-minute city concept and other unfounded conspiracies, Wilson noted a few protesters brought legitimate concerns and suggestions about local governance.

“There was a group who wanted us to hang a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in council chambers and I’m sympathetic to that group,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said he discourages the type of behaviour that others said they witnessed at the RancheHouse on Feb. 9 and hopes he doesn’t hear about similar activities occurring at future public events.

“I think it’s the right for someone to protest at their town hall,” Wilson said. “And I think as long as there’s civility involved; I think getting your message across is important.

“If that means protesting, emails, social media posts – I think everything is in bounds of our system.”

Mayor Genung said that what he initially saw as a chance to discuss issued with concerned residents quickly transformed into a more hostile environment.

“I was genuinely curious with what they were trying to share, as far as messaging,” Genung said. “I approached the entrance of the evening as an opportunity to stop and talk to a few people and say, ‘Listen, we’re not doing this [15-minute city] and these are the reasons [why].’”

Since he was unsure how things would transpire, Genung said he told his family members who were with him to enter the RancheHouse first while he waited in his car, to avoid any blow-back that might be directed his way.

“I didn’t know what had happened to them until after,” Genung said. “But when I got there, things really ramped up and it was quite impactful.”

Genung said only a select few protesters acted in a negative manner, but their behaviour turned what was meant to be a civil exchange of ideas into what he felt was a public scolding.

“The language and abusive behaviour was just rude and uncalled for,” Genung said. “And once I learned what happened to my family when someone had yelled out ‘That’s his family!’ and they turned on them and actually spit in my wife’s face...

"’s like I said in my mayor’s report in council – if you want to talk to me, council, or the organization and share your concerns, that’s one thing. But to treat my family that way, it’s cowardly and unnecessary. There’s no place in Cochrane for that.”

Compared to previous protests and rallies, Genung said this was the first time he has ever experienced something like this.

“It cast a shadow on everyone involved,” he said. “And again, I’m not saying it was everyone involved that treated us this way, but the acts of a few individuals really tarnished the message the rest were trying to share.”

Although he is disappointed by what transpired, Genung said he is taking the sour experience from Feb. 9 as a reminder that the work done by Town officials is continuing on the right track.

“The community we have has no place in it for that type of behaviour, so that’s the community I’m passionate about building,” Genung said. “I have a renewed and invigorated purpose, and feeling of support from not only my family, but Town staff, and individuals who went above and beyond that evening.

“I’d like to put this behind us and hopefully it never happens again.”

Daniel Gonzalez

About the Author: Daniel Gonzalez

Daniel Gonzalez joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2022. He is a graduate of the Mount Royal University Journalism program. He has worked for the Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta and as a reporter in rural Alberta for the ECA Review.
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