Canadian Authorities Look to Courts to Break Blockade

Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda closed auto plants or canceled shifts because of parts shortages.

The blockade was set up to rally against provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and in support of Ottawa protestors.
The blockade was set up to rally against provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and in support of Ottawa protestors.
John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP

WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) — Canadian authorities Friday turned up the legal and public pressure on protesters to lift their blockades in Ottawa and at the U.S. border, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warning: “This unlawful activity has to end and it will end.”

Federal, provincial and local officials moved simultaneously on different fronts to try to break the so-called Freedom Convoy standoff, which began with truckers and others angry over the country's COVID-19 restrictions and has morphed into a broader outpouring of wrath from the right toward Trudeau and his Liberal government, cheered on by conservatives in the U.S.

“We heard you. It’s time to go home now," the prime minister said, warning that “everything is on the table” for ending the blockades.

READ MORE: COVID-19 Protest in Canada Shuts Down Auto Plants (Feb. 10)

Since Monday, drivers mostly in pickup trucks have bottled up the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, disrupting the flow of goods and upsetting the auto industry on both sides of the border. Hundreds more truckers have paralyzed downtown Ottawa over the past two weeks.

In a rapid string of developments Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency and threatened heavy penalties against those who interfere with the free flow of goods and people. And the mayor of Windsor asked for an injunction to end the bridge protest. A judge began hearing evidence.

Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to urgently enact measures that make it “crystal clear” it is illegal to block critical infrastructure. Violators will face up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000, he said.

“Let me be as clear I can: There will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe,” Ford said. “This is a pivotal, pivotal moment for our nation.”

The measures will also provide additional authority “to consider taking away the personal and commercial licenses of anyone who doesn’t comply," according to the premier's office.

Trudeau called Ontario’s decision “responsible and necessary" and said he spoke with U.S. President Joe Biden about it.

“We discussed the American and indeed global influences on the protest,” Trudeau said. “We talked about the U.S.-based flooding of the 911 phone lines in Ottawa, the presence of U.S. citizens in the blockade and the impact of foreign money to fund this illegal activity.”

Trudeau said that on some fundraising platforms, as much as 50% of the donations are coming from the U.S.

He said he and Biden agreed that "for the security of people and the economy, these blockades can’t continue. So make no mistake: The border cannot and will not remain closed.”

Trudeau said he understands the protesters are frustrated by the pandemic, but “these blockades are hurting everyday families, auto assembly workers, farmers, truckers, blue-collar Canadians.”

The protests have caused shortages of auto parts that have forced General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Honda to close plants or cancel shifts.

At the bridge, dozens of protesters in Windsor blocked the entrance to the span in what felt like a block party. Demonstrators milled about, carrying signs and Canadian flags — some at the ends of hockey sticks — while music played and food handed out. A trampoline was set up for the children.

Troy Holman, a 32-year-old Windsor resident who has protested every day this week, said he believes the government overreached with its COVID-19 restrictions, which he said hurt his wife’s small business.

“Unfortunately, we have to be here, because this is what’s going to get the attention of the government,” he said.

Signs read, “Freedom Is Essential,” “Say No to Mandatory Vaccines” and “End Mandates.”

“We stand for freedom. We believe that it should be everyone’s personal decision what they inject into their bodies,” said protester Karen Driedger, 40, of Leamington. “We’re saying, ‘That’s enough.’ We need to go back to normal and live our lives again.”

Authorities at various levels of government have hesitated to forcibly remove the protesters around the country, reflecting apparently a lack of manpower by local police, Canada's reverence for free speech, and fears of violence. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens warned earlier this week that some of the truckers are “willing to die.”

But the political pressure to reopen the bridge appeared to be mounting along with the economic toll. The Biden administration has urged Trudeau’s government to end the blockade, and Michigan's governor likewise called for a quick resolution to 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 maintaining the bumper-to-bumper occupation of Ottawa, protesters have closed three border crossings in all: at Windsor; at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana; and at Emerson, Manitoba, across from North Dakota.

“We are now two weeks into the siege of Ottawa,” Ford said. “It’s an illegal occupation. It’s no longer a protest.”

The Freedom Convoy has been promoted and egged on by many Fox News personalities and attracted support on the right from the likes of former President Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

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, which could nearly double the manpower available to the capital city's police force.

The government reaction to the protests has 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.

“If anyone `takes responsibility,′ they will be charged with failure when things are not resolved quickly or if things go badly,” Wiseman said.

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.

While the Canadian protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of the country’s infection measures, such as mask rules and vaccine passports for getting into restaurants and theaters, are already falling away as the omicron surge levels off.

Trudeau has stood firm against lifting vaccine mandates. The prime minister has called protesters a “fringe” who believe in conspiracy theories and wear “tinfoil hats.” That 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.

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