Canadian judge orders end of border bridge blockade
TORONTO, ON – A judge on Friday ordered protesters at the Ambassador Bridge over the US-Canada border to end the 5-day-old blockade that has disrupted the flow of goods between the two countries and forced the auto industry on both sides to reduce its production.
It was not immediately clear when or if law enforcement officers would be dispatched to evict the protesters, who parked their pickup trucks and other vehicles in a bumper-to-bumper protest against the COVID-19 restrictions of the country and a wave of fury against the Prime Minister. Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court said in a virtual hearing that the order will come into effect at 7 p.m. to give protesters time to leave.
Windsor Police immediately warned that anyone blocking the streets could face arrest and their vehicle could be impounded.
The news was met with defiance by protesters.
At the Ambassador Bridge, an unidentified person grabbed a microphone and addressed them, asking them if they wanted to stay or go when the deadline rolled around. By a show of applause, it was agreed that they would stay. “Okay,” the man said. “Let’s stand.” The demonstrators responded by singing the Canadian national anthem.
The crowd then grew in size and intensity, with flags waving and frequent chants of “Freedom!” Other patrol cars moved around the site and police handed out leaflets warning that the state of emergency would come into effect at midnight.
Since Monday, drivers mostly in vans have bottled up the bridge linking Windsor to Detroit. Hundreds more truckers have paralyzed downtown Ottawa over the past two weeks; it was a party vibe there on Friday night, when they even set up a concert stage.
And protesters also blocked two other border crossings, in Alberta and Manitoba.
The judge’s decision came after a 4.5-hour hearing in which the city of Windsor and auto parts makers’ lawyers argued the blockade was causing undue economic harm to the city and region.
Supporters of the protesters, some of whom are truckers, have argued that a disbandment order would disrupt their right to peacefully protest vaccination mandates that hamper their ability to earn a living.
The decision came during a day of rapid developments as federal, provincial and local authorities worked simultaneously on different fronts to try to break the standoff with the so-called Freedom Convoy, whose members were cheered by the right in the United States, including Fox News personalities, Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
“This illegal activity must stop and it will end,” Trudeau warned a few hours earlier.
“We heard you. It’s time to go home now,” the prime minister said, warning that “everything is on the table” to end the lockdowns.
Also on Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency and threatened heavy penalties for those who interfere with the free movement of goods and people.
Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to urgently pass measures stating that it is “crystal clear” that it is illegal to block critical infrastructure. Violators face up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000, he said.
“There will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe,” Ford said. “This is a pivotal and pivotal moment for our nation.”
The measures will also provide additional authority “to consider revoking the personal and business licenses of anyone who does not comply”, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Trudeau called Ontario’s decision “responsible and necessary” and said he had spoken to US President Joe Biden about it.
“We discussed American and even global influences on the protest,” Trudeau said. “We talked about the flooding of 911 phone lines in Ottawa, the presence of American citizens in the blockade, and the impact of foreign money to fund this illegal activity.”
Trudeau said that on some fundraising platforms, up to 50% of donations come from the United States
He said he and Biden agreed that “for the safety of people and the economy, these blockades cannot continue.”
Trudeau said he understands protesters are frustrated by the pandemic, but “these lockdowns hurt ordinary families, auto assembly workers, farmers, truckers, blue-collar Canadians.”
The protests have caused auto parts shortages that have forced General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Honda to close factories or cancel shifts.
Before the judge’s ruling was released, dozens of protesters in Windsor blocked the entrance to the bridge in what looked like a block party. Protesters moved around, carrying signs and Canadian flags – some on the ends of hockey sticks – as music played and food was handed out. A trampoline has been installed for the children.
Troy Holman, a 32-year-old Windsor resident who has been protesting every day this week, said he thinks the government has overstepped its bounds with its COVID-19 restrictions, which he says are hurting small business of his wife.
“Unfortunately we have to be here because that’s what will get the government’s attention,” he said.
Placards read “Freedom is essential”, “Say no to mandatory vaccines” and “End warrants”.
“We defend freedom. We believe everyone should personally decide what they inject into their body,” said protester Karen Driedger, 40, of Leamington, Ont. “We say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We need to get back to normal and live our lives again.
Authorities at various levels of government have been reluctant to forcibly evict protesters across the country, apparently reflecting a lack of local police manpower, Canada’s respect for free speech and the fears of violence. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens warned earlier this week that some of the truckers were “ready to die”.
But political pressure to reopen the bridge appeared to be mounting along with the economic toll.
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 computer chip shortages and other supply chain disruptions.
“American lawmakers are freaking out, and rightly 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.”
Amid signs authorities may be ready to get tough, police in Windsor and Ottawa waited for reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police force.
The mayor of Ottawa has requested 1,800 additional officers, which could nearly double the manpower available for the force in the capital.
The protests have also spread outside of Canada. Protesters angry over pandemic restrictions headed for Paris in scattered convoys of motorhomes, cars and trucks on Friday in a bid to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
And in a bulletin to local and state law enforcement, the US Department of Homeland Security warned that truck protests could be underway across the United States. The agency said protests could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington around the State of the Union address in March.
As Canadian protesters decry vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of the country’s infection measures, such as mask rules and vaccination passports to enter restaurants and theaters, are already collapsing as omicron’s push levels off.
Pandemic 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 death rate from COVID-19 is one-third that of the United States.
Gillies reported from Toronto, Krisher from Detroit.
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