Police officers hold a line as protesters against COVID-19 restrictions march in Windsor, Ont., Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. The demonstrations at the Ambassador Bridge, downtown Ottawa and elsewhere have targeted vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions and vented fury toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society. (via AP)
WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) — A tense standoff at a U.S.-Canadian border bridge eased somewhat Saturday after Canadian police persuaded demonstrators to move the trucks they had used to barricade the busy international crossing. But protesters still blocked access as night approached, snarling traffic and trade between the two countries for a sixth day.
Since Monday, demonstrators upset with COVID-19 vaccine mandates and angry at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have choked off access from the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, a major thoroughfare for commerce.
Surrounded by dozens of officers, 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, tarp-covered encampment. A trucker honked his horn as he, too, drove off, to cheers and chants of “Freedom!”
But more protesters arrived to reinforce the crowd and congregated about two blocks away, waving flags and yelling. While there were no visible physical confrontations, the crowd still controlled the road to the bridge and traffic had not resumed by late afternoon.CORONAVIRUS PANDEMICEXPLAINER: A look at what’s behind the protests in CanadaNew Zealand tries old earworm hits to flush out protestersHong Kong reports record COVID-19 cases, tightens measuresNYC workers face firing for not following vaccine mandate
The demonstrations at the bridge, in downtown Ottawa and elsewhere have reverberated outside the country, with similarly inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that truck protests may be in the works in the United States.
Trudeau has called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society.
Windsor police tweeted that no one had been arrested but urged people to stay away from the bridge: “We appreciate the cooperation of the demonstrators at this time and we will continue to focus on resolving the demonstration peacefully. Avoid area!”
Protester Daniel Koss said shortly before police advanced Saturday morning that the demonstration had succeeded in bringing attention to demands to lift COVID-19 mandates and he was happy it remained peaceful.
“It’s a win-win,” Koss said. “The pandemic is rolling down right now, they can remove the mandates, all the mandates, and everyone’s happy. The government does the right thing, and the protesters are all happy.”
A judge on Friday ordered an end to the blockade of mostly pickup trucks and cars, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency allowing for fines of 100,000 Canadian dollars and up to one year in jail for anyone illegally blocking roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
“The illegal blockades are impacting trade, supply chains & manufacturing. They’re hurting Canadian families, workers & businesses. Glad to see the Windsor Police & its policing partners commenced enforcement at and near the Ambassador Bridge,” Federal Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne tweeted Saturday. “These blockades must stop.”
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25% of all trade between the two countries, and auto plants on both sides have been forced to shut down or reduce production this week. The standoff came 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.
In the capital, Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency last week after thousands of protesters descended on the city. Their numbers have dwindled but hundreds of trucks remain parked in front of the Parliament Buildings, and demonstrators have set up portable toilets where Trudeau’s motorcade usually parks outside the prime minister’s office.
Stephanie Ravensbergen, 31, came to Ottawa to support her aunt and uncle who have parked their semi in the streets since the beginning of the protest. She opposes vaccine and mask requirements, and said it’s important for schoolchildren to be able see their friends’ faces and emotions.
“We want the right to choose,” Ravensbergen said. “We want the right to be able to do what everybody else can do.”
Protesters on Saturday tore down a fence that authorities put up around the National War Memorial two weeks ago after demonstrators urinated on it. Some demonstrators later chanted “liberte,” French for “freedom,” as police watched.
“Completely unacceptable,” Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s veterans affairs minister, tweeted. “This behavior is disappointing and I’m calling on protesters to respect our monuments.”
Police issued a statement calling the Ottawa protest an unlawful occupation and saying they were waiting for “reinforcements” before implementing a plan to end the demonstration. The statement did not elaborate.
While the protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada’s anti-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.
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.
Protests inspired by the Canadian demonstrations were seen in parts of Europe on Saturday.
At least 500 vehicles in several convoys attempted to enter Paris at key arteries but were intercepted by police. Over 200 motorists were ticketed, and elsewhere at least two people were detained amid a seizure of knives, hammers and other objects in a central square.
Police fired tear gas against a handful of people who demonstrated on the Champs Elysees Avenue in defiance of a police order. Some 7,000 officers have been mobilized for the weekend protesters, who are railing against the vaccination pass that France requires to enter restaurants and many other venues.
An Associated Press photographer was hit in the head with a tear 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 camper arrived in The Hague, blocking an entrance to the historic parliamentary complex. Protesters on foot joined them, carrying a banner emblazoned with “Love & freedom, no dictatorship” in Dutch.
Earlier this week in New Zealand, protesters rolled up to Parliament grounds in a convoy of cars and trucks and set up camp. Police have taken a hands-off approach after initial attempts to remove them resulted in physical confrontations.
Parliament Speaker Trevor Mallard on Friday ordered his staff to turn on the lawn’s sprinklers to douse them and to play Barry Manilow tunes and the 1990s hit “Macarena” over loudspeakers to annoy them. Protesters responded by playing their own songs, including Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”