Ontario’s premier declared a state of emergency Friday in response to truck shutdowns in Ottawa and at the US border, and said he would urgently push for new legislation to crack down on those interfering with the free flow of goods and people.
Since Monday, dozens of truck drivers protesting Canada’s restrictions on COVID-19 and the barrier against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have mobilized the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit. Hundreds of others have been paralyzed in downtown Ottawa in the past two weeks.
Premier Doug Ford said he will call the provincial cabinet to meet on Saturday to enact orders that make it “absolutely clear” that blocking critical infrastructure is illegal.
“We are now two weeks into the siege of Ottawa,” Ford said. It is an illegal occupation. No longer protesting.”
Separately, the mayor of Windsor planned to seek an injunction Friday afternoon to try to break the bridge blockade, as protest-induced parts shortages have spread to the auto industry on both sides of the US-Canada border.
Federal, provincial and local authorities have been reluctant to forcibly remove self-proclaimed Freedom Caravan protesters there and elsewhere in the country, apparently reflecting a shortage of manpower by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fear of backlash. Windsor Mayor Drew Delkins warned earlier this week that some truck drivers were “ready to die”.
But pressure to reopen the bridge appears to be mounting, with Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda shuttering auto plants or canceling shifts due to parts shortages, and the Biden administration has urged the Trudeau government to use its federal powers to end the blockade. Similarly, the governor of Michigan called on the Canadian authorities to quickly resolve the crisis.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest US-Canada 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 lawmakers are terrified, and rightfully so,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “The White House is now putting pressure on Trudeau to act more decisively.”
In addition to occupying Ottawa, protesters have now closed three border crossings: at Windsor; in Coates, Alberta, opposite Montana; and in Emerson, Manitoba, on the other side of North Dakota.
The Freedom Caravan was promoted and encouraged by many Fox News personalities and attracted support from the likes of former President Donald Trump.
This is an unprecedented demonstration. It has great levels of fundraising, coordination and communication. They have command posts set up here and across the country and out of this country, said Ottawa police chief Peter Slolly.
On Friday, amid signs that authorities may be ready to crack down, police in Windsor and Ottawa await reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police force.
The mayor of Ottawa has requested an additional 1,800 police officers, nearly double the manpower available to the city’s police force, which includes 2,100 officers and civilian members.
The reaction to the protests has also been marked by disagreements over who is responsible. Canada’s emergency preparedness minister said this week that Ontario bears the ultimate responsibility, while the province’s transportation minister said the job of the federal government is to secure the borders.
Also, the leadership of the opposition Conservative Party at the federal level has openly supported the truck drivers, and they seem happy to make this problem Trudeau.
“The problem is that police forces are depleted at all three levels of government,” Weizmann said, adding, “If anyone takes responsibility, they will be accused of failing when things are not resolved quickly or if things go wrong.”
The protests spread outside Canada as well. Protesters angry at the pandemic’s restrictions traveled to Paris in scattered convoys of campers, cars and trucks on Friday in an attempt to besiege the French capital, despite a police ban.
In a bulletin addressed to local and state law enforcement officials, the US Department of Homeland Security warned that truck protests may be in the works in the US. The agency said protests could start in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington over the March State of the Union address.
Wiseman said the Canadian military should have been called up a week after the standoff in Ottawa.
“The reluctance of the federal authorities to act decisively encouraged the occupiers and imitated their professions,” he said. “Ottawa, I think, will have to use the army.”
Denouncing vaccine mandates for truck drivers and other COVID-19 restrictions, Canadian protesters attack Trudeau, even though many of the country’s infection measures are being lifted quickly as omicron levels soar.
Trudeau continues to stand firmly against lifting vaccine mandates. The prime minister described the protesters as “fringes” who believed in conspiracy theories and wore “foil hats”. It only exasperated them.
Epidemiological restrictions have been much stricter in Canada than in the United States, 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 were quick to impose lockdowns when the waves hit.
The Ontario premier moved Thursday to cut funding for protests by successfully asking a court to freeze millions of dollars in donations to the caravan through crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. Ford described the protests as an occupation and is expected to announce more measures later on Friday.
Canadian officials previously asked GoFundMe to cut funding after protest organizers used the site to raise about C$10 million ($7.8 million). GoFundMe determined that the fundraising effort violated the site’s terms of service due to illegal activity.