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Major U.S.-Canada border crossing obstructed as ‘Freedom Convoy’ trucker protest escalates

Trucks are backed up Feb. 7 on both sides of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP)

TORONTO — The busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canada land border was blockaded Tuesday as the demonstrations against vaccine mandates that have paralyzed Canada’s capital spread to a crucial trade artery, while inspiring similar protests from Europe to Australia.

The Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, was “temporarily closed” for passengers and commercial traffic, authorities on both sides of the border said Tuesday, though Windsor police said “limited traffic” was being allowed into the United States. The 1.6-mile suspension bridge is an important trade link, particularly for the region’s auto industry. It also connects families, friends and essential workers, including Canadian nurses who work in Detroit-area hospitals.

The blockade there began Monday; it was unclear when it might end. Local law enforcement said there were between 150 to 200 vehicles and roughly 200 people involved. The U.S. Transportation Department estimates the bridge carries nearly 30 percent of the annual trade between Canada and the United States.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged the self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” which has since Jan. 28 jammed major thoroughfares in downtown Ottawa with idling big rigs and other vehicles, to go home.

Canadian police make arrests, seize vehicles in Ottawa 'Freedom Convoy' protest

“Individuals are trying to blockade our economy, our democracy and our fellow citizens’ daily lives. It has to stop,” he said during an emergency debate in Parliament on Monday evening. “The people of Ottawa don’t deserve to be harassed in their own neighborhoods.”

On Tuesday, a lawmaker in Trudeau’s Liberal Party broke ranks, telling reporters that he has heard from many people who feel “it is becoming harder and harder to know where public health stops and politics begins.” He said the government should provide “clear and measurable targets” for lifting some of the public health restrictions.

“I fear that this politicization of the pandemic risks undermining the public’s trust in our public health institutions,” said Joël Lightbound, who represents a Quebec City district. “This is not a risk we ought to be taking lightly.”

The Ottawa protest has drawn support from former president Donald Trump and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, and police have said a “significant element” from the United States has been involved, including in its funding and organization. Senior Canadian officials hit back at U.S. politicians weighing in.

The convoy started as a protest of U.S. and Canadian rules that require truckers to be fully vaccinated to cross the border, but its grievances are now wide-ranging. Some protesters want an end to all public health measures, most of which are imposed by provinces, not the federal government. (Several Canadian provinces on Tuesday unveiled plans for when and how to lift some restrictions.)

Others are directing their ire at Trudeau.

In Ottawa, the number of protesters has fallen since the weekend , but rows of big rigs continued to jam city streets. Local media reported relative quiet after a judge Monday granted a temporary injunction barring protesters from incessantly honking their horns.

“Tooting a horn is not an expression of any great thought I’m aware of,” said Ontario Superior Court Justice Hugh R. McLean.

Despite Ottawa declaring a state of emergency, protesters still gathered on Feb. 12 to demonstrate against coronavirus restrictions. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Canadian officials caution against ‘foreign interference’ as U.S. Republicans back ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests

Many businesses, including a downtown shopping mall, remained closed because of security concerns.

Flavio Volpe, the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said an estimated $100 million in auto parts crosses the Ambassador Bridge each day. The blockade, he said, was “certainly not ideal.”

“Even if we have other options available to us, it’s going to raise prices and it’s going to challenge our ability to deliver just in time,” he said. “Very importantly, the same goes for all of those automotive part suppliers in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois who use that border crossing to send their cars to their Canadian customers.”

He called on authorities to enforce the law. He noted that several groups representing Canadian truckers have distanced themselves from the demonstrations and that the vast majority of truckers are fully vaccinated.

“This is not a truckers protest,” Volpe said. “It stopped being a truckers protest, especially in Windsor, a week ago.”

By Tuesday afternoon, there were delays of more than two hours for commercial traffic at the Blue Water Bridge, an alternative route more than 60 miles away that connects Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Mich.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was in contact with its Canadian counterparts.

“We, or course, support … the right to freedom of speech and protest,” she told reporters. “While we do see some of this congestion due to protests, it is clear that these disruptions have broadened in scope beyond the vaccine requirement implementation.”

In Ottawa, police have shifted their strategy in recent days to focus on trying to dismantle the supply lines that have sustained what Police Chief Peter Sloly has called a “siege.” One tactic has been seizing fuel from well-supplied logistics hubs that have sprouted up, though authorities have had mixed success.

Police investigate ‘illegal’ acts at Ottawa anti-vaccine mandate trucker protests

Police said Tuesday that they had made more than 20 arrests, issued more than 1,300 tickets and opened 85 criminal investigations. On Monday, they worked with authorities in Ohio to identify and arrest a person who they allege was calling in fake threats to “distract” emergency resources.

“Through intelligence, we’ve also learned that almost 25 percent of the 418 trucks encamped in our city have children living in them … who could be at risk during a police operation,” Deputy Chief Steve Bell said. “We’re working with the Children’s Aid Society to ensure their welfare and safety.”

An additional challenge, he said, is that demonstrators have deliberately immobilized vehicles blocking thoroughfares by removing their tires or bleeding their brakes.

The standoff in Ottawa is inspiring copycats, particularly in Europe, where anti-vaccine and anti-mandate groups have started to rally under the “Freedom Convoy” banner.

Though Europe has a history of trucker and anti-lockdown protests, the Ottawa demonstration has fueled a rush of online organizing.

A “European Freedom Convoy” flier posted to Twitter on Jan. 31 calls on groups across the continent to “block” each European capital before making their way to Brussels on Feb. 14.

One Facebook group for the European convoy has more than 48,000 members. Users who join the group might be directed to events in France, Portugal, Denmark and Norway.

On Telegram, a messaging app popular with far-right groups, one international convoy channel has 49,000 members and another more than 18,000. Both are circulating links to smaller channels for more than two dozen European countries, including Sweden, Luxembourg and Malta.

The Twitter organizing uses language popular with the anti-lockdown movement, a combination of anti-vaccine, anti-mandate and conspiracy-theorist far-right politics that has thrived on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the pandemic.

Public health measures such as vaccine and mask mandates are compared to “martial law.” There are references to “individual sovereignty” and “the right to choose” — clear calls to anti-vaccine-mandate organizing.

On Telegram, there are earnest expressions of support for truckers and calls for protest amid the more conspiracy-theorist fare, including misinformation about vaccines and QAnon-influenced memes about “cabals” of global elites.

Here’s what you need to know about the ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) tweeted over the weekend that their states would investigate GoFundMe after the website said it was removing a fundraiser that had raised more than $8 million for the Ottawa protest. GoFundMe cited evidence from law enforcement “that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.”

Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister, told reporters it was “certainly not the concern of the Texas attorney general as to how we in Canada go about our daily lives in accordance with the rule of law.”

Bill Blair, the minister of emergency preparedness, also chimed in.

“We’re all entitled to an opinion,” he said, “and in my opinion, [Paxton] is wrong.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels. Timsit and Hassan reported from London.