Canada’s usually sleepy capital is under a state of emergency. It’s been nearly two weeks since the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” reduced its key arteries to a parking lot. Two crossings on the U.S.-Canada border, including the busiest, have been partially blockaded, and demonstrators were attempting to block a highway to a third.
“They’re essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians,” Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness, said Wednesday. “It can’t be allowed to persist.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is warning that U.S. truckers are potentially planning to block roads in major metropolitan areas in protest of vaccine mandates, and that the protest activity could impact the Super Bowl in Los Angeles this Sunday as well as President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address March 1, according to a copy of the bulletin obtained by The Washington Post.
The DHS has distributed a bulletin to law enforcement agencies warning that a convoy of protesting truckers will potentially begin in California as early as mid-February and arrive in D.C. as late as mid-March. Truckers from Canada may potentially join the convoy as it travels eastward, the DHS warned.
The bulletin was first reported by CBS News.
In a statement, DHS spokesperson Angelo Fernandez confirmed the department “is tracking reports of a potential convoy that may be planning to travel to several U.S. cities.”
“We have not observed specific calls for violence within the United States associated with this convoy, and are working closely with our federal, state, and local partners to continuously assess the threat environment and keep our communities safe,” the statement read.
Canadian officials continued to condemn the “illegal” blockades – which have been boosted by far-right and anti-vaccine groups around the world and inspired copycat demonstrations from Europe to Australia – and detailed their deleterious effects on national security and the economy. But there were few indications of how or when authorities will bring them to an end.
Officials in some cities said they needed more police officers. Others said tow-truck operators were refusing to help. The federal government said it had set up a group of federal, provincial and local officials to respond – but the government of Ontario, the most populous province, and home to Ottawa, the capital, hadn’t sent a representative.
In Windsor, Ontario, the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit – the busiest land crossing on the U.S.-Canada border and a vital corridor for the auto industries on both sides – was blockaded by up to 100 people and 75 vehicles, police said Wednesday.
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens appealed for more law enforcement resources. He said officials feared the use of force could “inflame” the conflict and there was a “need to plan for a protracted protest.”
The demonstrators have wielded a growing list of grievances, from an end to vaccine mandates to the removal of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It’s unclear what it would take to get them to withdraw, but the question is probably moot: Officials have shown no interest in meeting their demands.
“You have a number of people on the ground that have openly stated that this cause is so passionate for them . . . that they are willing to die for it,” Dilkens told reporters. “One can appreciate that if you have people who hold that sentiment, the situation can become very dangerous for the police and members of the public in short order.”
Approximately $300 million in goods crosses the Ambassador Bridge each day. Officials and business groups said the blockades were already having an impact on supply chains.
Authorities directed most commercial traffic from the Ambassador Bridge to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ontario, but demonstrators were blockading a section of highway leading to that crossing and wait times on Wednesday afternoon stretched past four hours.
In southern Alberta, demonstrators resumed their blockade of the crossing at Coutts. Sonya Savage, Alberta’s solicitor general, said Tuesday that the province had not ruled out filing for a civil injunction – but didn’t think it was necessary yet.
Law enforcement officials, too, were shunning a more forceful approach. Curtis Zablocki, a deputy commissioner with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta, said he could “appreciate that there’s public discussion” about why officials haven’t responded more aggressively.
“From the onset of this event, we actively engaged towing companies to assist,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, they were unwilling to become involved when it was implied that helping law enforcement with removal could damage their livelihoods into the future.”
Officials in Ottawa, the epicenter of the demonstrations, say they’ve faced the same problem.
Nearly two weeks after the convoy first rolled up, blockading streets, fraying residents’ nerves and prompting the mayor to declare a state of emergency, police there warned protesters: It’s a crime to “obstruct, interrupt or interfere with the lawful use, enjoyment, or operation of property.”
The ostensible motive behind the demonstrations, at least at first, was to protest U.S. and Canadian rules requiring that truckers be fully vaccinated to cross the border. But the cause has since snowballed into a broader movement against Canada’s pandemic restrictions, which are mostly imposed by provinces and have been generally popular, and Trudeau, the Liberal leader who was reelected to a third mandate in September.
Convoy supporters, including several Conservative lawmakers, had argued that requiring truckers be vaccinated would lead to shortages of goods and raise the prices of groceries at a time of rising inflation.
“I find it ironic that the same people who were trying to sell Canadians fake stories about empty shelves are now the ones causing these shelves to go empty,” Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, told reporters Wednesday. “This is an illegal economic blockade.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration has been in touch with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D, and auto companies to determine what impacts might be felt if auto parts couldn’t be delivered, and was tracking potential disruptions to U.S. agricultural exports from Michigan to Canada.
“We’re very focused on this,” she said. “The president is focused on this, and we’re working very closely with the [the Department of Homeland Security], with Canadian officials and others to do everything we can to alleviate the impact.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had added extra personnel and opened all screening lanes to prevent disruptions. It also said that it was working with its Canadian counterparts to “identify and combat any potential threats to public safety or national security.”
Several Canadian provinces this week outlined plans to begin lifting some coronavirus restrictions.
Alberta said Tuesday it would no longer require residents to show proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as restaurants and would lift most restrictions next month if the strain on hospitals continues to ease.
It was not enough to deter protesters in Coutts.
“It started with the border thing, it started with Trudeau, and until Trudeau moves, we don’t move,” one demonstrator told the Canadian Press.
Analysts say the wide-ranging grievances of the protesters complicate efforts at resolution. Officials in Windsor said they were trying to negotiate with leaders of the protest, but it wasn’t clear who they were.
One of the main groups behind the demonstrations aimed to present a “memorandum of understanding” to the Senate and the governor general, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, in which they would rescind the public health restrictions and/or dissolve the government – a constitutional impossibility.
The group on Tuesday claimed it wished to “immediately withdraw” its memorandum of understanding, saying it “does not reflect the spirit and intent” of the convoy and that it did not want “any unintended interpretations” of the document.
A spokeswoman for the Governor General’s office told The Washington Post that it has been inundated with “a high volume of calls and emails related to the protest.”
The convoy has drawn support from several U.S. Republicans. Police here say it’s been funded and organized by a “significant element” in the United States.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he had launched an investigation into GoFundMe for potential violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The site had hosted a fundraiser that raised more than $8 million for the convoy, but removed it after learning from law enforcement that the protest was “unlawful.”
Bruce Heyman, U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017, said some Republicans are “using language and encouragement that is destabilizing, not only to the Canadian government,” but also to “the economy and our shared economy.”
“It’s in the United States’ best interest . . . that Canada is thriving, that it’s prosperous and that it has a strong democracy,” he said. “All of that is being tested right now because of what’s happening.”
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The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff and Matt Viser in Washington contributed to this report.