Canadian border blockade peacefully clears as police enter the scene
By ROB GILLIES and MIKE HOUSEHOLDER
WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) – Protesters opposed to COVID-19 vaccination mandates and other restrictions pulled their vehicles from a key border bridge between the United States and Canada on Saturday, although access remained in lockdown as other protests escalated in cities across Canada, including the capital, where police said they were waiting for more officers before ending what they described as an occupation illegal.
The tense standoff at the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario eased somewhat early in the day when Canadian police persuaded protesters to move the trucks they had used to barricade the entrance to the international crossing very frequented.
But protesters gathered nearby – with reinforcements – and were still choking off access from the Canadian side late Saturday, snarling traffic and commerce for a sixth day. About 180 stayed late Saturday in the freezing cold.
In Ottawa, the ranks of protesters swelled to what police said were 4,000 protesters. The city has seen this for the past weekend, and loud music played as people crowded downtown where anti-vaccine protesters had camped since late January.
Early Saturday evening, crews lined concrete traffic barricades behind a line of police that stretched across the main road leading to the foot of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor. The officers then retreated behind the barricades that separated them from the protesters. Barricades were also placed along some side streets. Police vehicles had been parked on these streets, preventing motor vehicles from entering the highway.
Protests on the bridge, in Ottawa and elsewhere, have reverberated outside the country, with similarly inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands, and the US Department of Homeland Security warned that truck convoys could be in preparation in the United States.
A former cabinet minister in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has taken the unusual step of calling out his former federal colleagues as well as the province and city for failing to end the protests.
“Surprisingly, it’s not just Ottawa. This is the nation’s capital,” Catherine McKenna tweeted. “But no one – not the city, not the province, not the federal government can seem to unite to end this illegal occupation. It’s appalling. … Get together. Now.”
Trudeau has so far rejected calls to use the military.
“The Prime Minister has emphasized that border crossings cannot and will not remain closed and that all options are on the table,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement late Saturday after meeting with senior officials.
Trudeau called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society, and federal and provincial leaders say they can’t order the police what to do.
“Security concerns — stemming from the aggressive and unlawful behavior of many protesters — have limited law enforcement capabilities,” Ottawa police said in a statement late Saturday.
Ottawa police said a joint command center has now been set up with the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Police earlier issued a statement calling the protest an illegal occupation and saying they were waiting for “reinforcements” from the police before implementing a plan to end the protests.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency for the capital last week, where hundreds of trucks remained outside the Parliament Buildings and protesters set up portable toilets outside the Prime Minister’s office where Trudeau’s motorcade usually parks.
Surrounded by dozens of officers in Windsor, a man with ‘Mandate Freedom’ and ‘Trump 2024’ spray-painted on his vehicle left the bridge entrance early in the day as others began dismantling a small encampment covered with a tarp. A truck driver honked as he too drove off, to cheers and chants of “Freedom!”
But hundreds more arrived to reinforce the crowd and settled into a confrontation with police about two blocks away, waving flags and shouting. Although there were no visible physical clashes, the crowd still controlled the road leading to the bridge and traffic had not resumed in the evening.
Windsor Police tweeted that no one had been arrested but urged people to stay away from the bridge: ‘We appreciate the cooperation of protesters at this time and will continue to focus on the peaceful resolution of the protest . Area to avoid!”
Protester Daniel Koss said shortly before police said the protest was successful in drawing attention to demands for the lifting of COVID-19 warrants and that he was glad it remained peaceful.
“It’s a win-win,” Koss said. “The pandemic is unfolding right now, they can remove the mandates, all the mandates, and everyone is happy. The government is doing the right thing and the demonstrators are all happy.
The day before, a judge ordered an end to the blocking of most vans and cars, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency, authorizing fines of C$100,000 and up to one year in prison for anyone who unlawfully blocks roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
“Illegal blockades impact trade, supply chains and manufacturing. They hurt Canadian families, workers and businesses. Glad to see that Windsor Police and their policing partners have begun law enforcement on and near the Ambassador Bridge,” federal Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne tweeted on Saturday. “These blockages must end.”
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest US-Canada border crossing, carrying 25% of all trade between the two countries, and auto factories on both sides have been forced to close or reduce production this week. The standoff came at a time when the industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced computer chip shortages and other supply chain disruptions.
In Ottawa, Stephanie Ravensbergen, 31, said she came to support her aunt and uncle who have parked their tractor-trailer in the streets since the protest began. She opposes vaccine and mask requirements and said it was important that schoolchildren could see their friends’ faces and emotions.
“We want the right to choose,” Ravensbergen said. “We want the right to be able to do what anyone can do.”
On Saturday, protesters tore down a fence authorities erected around the capital’s National War Memorial two weeks ago after protesters urinated on it. Later, some chanted “liberty”, French for “liberty”.
“Completely unacceptable,” tweeted Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs. “This behavior is disappointing and I call on protesters to respect our monuments.”
Across the country, protesters halted operations at another border crossing between Surrey, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington, but officials said it was not blocked . Two border crossings, in Alberta and Manitoba, also remained closed.
As protesters decry vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada’s public health measures, such as mask rules and vaccination passports to enter restaurants and theaters, are already falling as omicron’s thrust stabilizes.
Pandemic restrictions there have been much stricter 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.
Inspired by the Canadian protests, demonstrations against pandemic restrictions were seen in parts of Europe on Saturday.
At least 500 vehicles in several convoys attempted to enter Paris via key arteries but were intercepted by police. More than 200 motorists were ticketed and elsewhere at least two people were arrested amid a seizure of knives, hammers and other items in a central square.
The police fired tear gas at a handful of people demonstrating on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in defiance of a police order. An Associated Press photographer was hit in the head with a gas canister as police struggled to control the crowd.
In the Netherlands, meanwhile, dozens of trucks and other vehicles ranging from tractors to a car towing a motorhome arrived in The Hague, blocking an entrance to the historic parliament complex. Walking protesters joined them, carrying a banner reading “Love and freedom, no dictatorship” in Dutch.
Earlier this week in New Zealand, protesters took to the grounds of Parliament in a convoy of cars and trucks and set up camp. Police took a hands-off approach after initial attempts to remove them led to physical clashes.
Speaker of Parliament Trevor Mallard on Friday ordered his staff to turn on sprinklers on the lawn to water them and play Barry Manilow tunes and the 1990s hit ‘Macarena’ on loudspeakers to annoy them . Protesters responded by playing their own songs, including “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister.
A householder reported from Windsor and Gillies from Toronto. Ted Shaffrey contributed from Ottawa, Ontario. Thomas Adamson in Paris and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand contributed to this story.