Since Monday, scores of truck drivers protesting Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions and railing against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have bottled up the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit. And hundreds of others have paralysed downtown Ottawa over the past two weeks.
Premier Doug Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to enact orders that make it “crystal clear” it is illegal to block critical infrastructure.
“We are now two weeks into the siege of Ottawa,” Ford said. “It’s an illegal occupation. It’s no longer a protest.”
Separately, the mayor Windsor planned to ask for an injunction Friday afternoon to try to break up the bridge blockade, as parts shortages caused by the protest rippled through the auto industry on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Federal, provincial and local authorities have hesitated to forcibly remove the self-proclaimed Freedom Convoy protesters there and elsewhere around the country, reflecting apparently a lack of manpower by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fear of a violent backlash. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens warned earlier this week that some of the truckers are “willing to die.”
But the pressure to reopen the bridge appeared to be mounting, with Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda closing auto plants or canceling shifts because of parts shortages, and the Biden administration urging Trudeau’s government to use its federal powers to end the blockade. Michigan’s governor likewise called on Canadian authorities to quickly resolve the standoff.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25% of all trade between the two countries. The standoff comes at a time when the auto industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain disruptions.
“American legislators are freaking out, and rightfully so,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “Pressure is now being exerted by the White House on Trudeau to act more decisively.”
In addition to the bumper-to-bumper occupation of Ottawa, protestes have now closed three border crossings in all: at Windsor; at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana; and at Emerson, Manitoba, across from North Dakota.
The Freedom Convoy has been promoted and cheered on by many Fox News personalities and attracted support from the likes of former President Donald Trump.
“This is an unprecedented demonstration. It has significant levels of fundraising, coordination and communication. They have command centers established here and across the country and beyond this country,” embattled Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said.
On Friday, amid signs that authorities might be prepared to get tough, police in Windsor and Ottawa awaited reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police force.
Ottawa’s mayor has asked for 1,800 additional police officers, nearly doubling the manpower available to the the city’s police force, which has 2,100 officers and civilian members.
The reaction to the protests has also been marked by disagreements over who’s in charge. Canada’s emergency preparedness minister said this week that Ontario has ultimate responsibility, while the province’s transport minister said it is the federal government’s job to secure the border.
Also, the leadership of the opposition Conservative Party on the federal level has openly supported the truckers, apparently happy to make this Trudeau’s problem.
“The problem is stretched police forces for all three levels of government,” Wiseman said, adding: “If anyone ‘takes responsibility,’ they will be charged with failure when things are not resolved quickly or if things go badly.”
The protests have spread outside Canada as well. Demonstrators angry over pandemic restrictions drove toward Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars and trucks Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
And in a bulletin to local and state law enforcement officers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that truck protests may be in the works in the United States. The agency said the protests could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington around the State of the Union address in March.
Wiseman said the Canadian army should have been called in after a week of the Ottawa standoff.
“Hesitancy by federal authorities to act decisively has emboldened the occupiers and copycat occupations,” he said. “Ottawa, I believe, will be compelled to use the army.”
The Canadian protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions and are railing against Trudeau, though many of the country’s infection measures are already rapidly being lifted as the omicron surge levels off.
Trudeau continues to stand firm against lifting vaccine mandates. The prime minister has called protesters a “fringe” who believe in conspiracy theories and wear “tinfoil hats.” It has only incensed them further.
Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States. Canada lacks hospital capacity, so provinces have been quick to impose lockdowns when waves have hit.
The Ontario premier moved Thursday to cut off funding for the protests by successfully asking a court to freeze millions of dollars in donations to the convoy through crowd-funding site GiveSendGo. Ford has called the protests an occupation and was expected to announce further measures later Friday.
Canadian officials previously got GoFundMe to cut off funding after protest organizers used the site to raise about 10 million Canadian dollars ($7.8 million.) GoFundMe determined that the fundraising effort violated the site’s terms of service because of unlawful activity.