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‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters shut down third border crossing as U.S. officials urge Canada to get control of spiraling crisis

Video captured in Port Huron, Mich., on Feb. 8 showed a line of trucks stalled on the highway as protesters continued to block U.S.-Canada border crossings. (Video: Reuters)

TORONTO — Protesters blockaded a third U.S.-Canada border crossing on Thursday, escalating a crisis that is leading automakers to cut production, weighing on the economies of both countries and prompting U.S. officials to call for their Canadian counterparts to intervene.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Thursday that the Emerson crossing between Manitoba and North Dakota was “shut down,” after a large convoy of vehicles and farm equipment blocked traffic in both directions. Demonstrators protesting vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions have also blockaded border crossings at Coutts in Alberta and the Ambassador Bridge.

That bridge, which connects Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, is the busiest land crossing on the border, and a key conduit for the auto industries on both sides. The mayor of Windsor said Thursday that the city and auto groups were seeking an injunction to end a blockade by protesters that for several days has snarled the crossing and the nearly $300 million in daily commerce that crosses it. Ford and General Motors have said they’ve already cut production and canceled shifts at some sites.

As the crisis deepened, officials in the United States called on their Canadian counterparts to get the demonstrations under control. The self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” now heading into its third weekend, has paralyzed the Canadian capital. It has blockaded crossings and caused delays at crossings that remain open.

‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada inspires vaccine protests across the globe

“It is imperative that Canadian local, provincial and national governments de-escalate this economic blockade,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said in a statement Thursday. “They must take all necessary and appropriate steps to immediately and safely reopen traffic so we can continue growing our economy, supporting good-paying jobs and lowering costs for families.”

The White House said Thursday it was “monitoring” the situation at the border “very closely” and that Cabinet officials were “engaged around the clock to bring this to a swift end.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged their Canadian counterparts to “use federal powers to resolve this situation” and offered the support of their departments, the White House said. Homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood Randall was due to speak with her Canadian counterpart Thursday evening.

Ottawa residents like Joycelyn Sinclair Bates have had to deal with incessant honking and exhaust fumes as anti-vaccine demonstrations have dragged on. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that deploying the military was “not in the cards” at that time. The protests have not always featured large numbers of people, but their use of big rigs and other vehicles has made them disruptive.

The Canadian demonstrations have drawn support and inspired copycats from Europe to Australia. Authorities in Paris and Brussels said Thursday they would try to stop planned convoys from entering those cities.

The protests started in opposition to U.S. and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated. But they’ve mushroomed into a movement against pandemic restrictions more broadly, which are mostly imposed by provinces, and against Trudeau.

The convoy rolled into Ottawa on Jan. 28. Since then, vehicles have clogged downtown. Many businesses have been closed due to security concerns and the lives of residents have been disrupted. Some have been harassed for wearing masks, police have said.

Early Thursday, a convoy with passengers shouting “freedom!” and “fake news!” descended on Ottawa International Airport, eight miles south of Parliament Hill, causing traffic disruptions and delays.

Pat King, a far-right figure listed as a regional organizer for the convoy, has said the only way to end restrictions “is with bullets.” In a video streamed online, he agreed with a passenger who said “it’s going until the mandates are gone and the premiers are gone and the prime minister is gone.”

“And the dissolving of the Liberal Party,” King added.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Thursday that authorities had negotiated the departure of 12 vehicles from the parking lot of a baseball stadium that demonstrators have used as a logistics hub and 10 vehicles from the downtown core. He said tow truck operators have been uncooperative or have faced threats for working with authorities.

“This is a significant logistical impasse,” Sloly said. He said authorities are trying to determine whether tow trucks from the United States might help.

Auto industry already feels the pinch from Canadian bridge blockade

Police have said that those found to be taking part in criminal activity, which could include blocking streets or “assisting others in the blocking of streets,” could be arrested. They’ve also said that if suspects are convicted, their vehicles could be seized and forfeited and they could be denied permission to cross the border.

Residents express frustration over noise as the 'Freedom Convoy' occupies the streets of downtown Ottawa with one goal in mind: Make Trudeau resign. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Some 400 trucks remained downtown on Thursday, jamming major thoroughfares. Police said there have been 25 arrests, including for mischief and menacing behavior. Authorities have issued more than 1,700 tickets, received reports of 400 hate incidents and are pursuing over 120 active investigations.

Law enforcement officials have been under pressure to use tougher measures to disperse demonstrations. Officials across the country have pleaded for more officers, but they are wary a forceful response could escalate tensions and embolden demonstrators.

They’ve also expressed fear that demonstrators might be armed or could use their vehicles against police. Authorities in Ottawa have said that 25 percent of the vehicles encamped in the city are believed to have children in them, potentially complicating a response.

“You can’t arrest your way out of the choices that people are making,” Roberta McKale, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police superintendent in Alberta, told reporters at the Coutts crossing on Wednesday. “The best thing is for them to make the decision to leave. And they’ve got to go.”

Still, McKale said, asking the protesters to leave has so far not worked: “We’re going to have to use our enforcement options in order to have that happen.”

The Ontario government said Thursday that the province’s attorney general had successfully applied to the Superior Court of Justice for an order that would freeze access to monetary donations made through GiveSendGo, an online site that has raised millions of dollars in funds for the convoy.

The interim leader of the Conservative Party in Canada initially supported the convoy. On Thursday, she urged the blockaders to pack it up.

“To all of you who are taking part in the protests, I believe the time has come to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action and come together,” Candice Bergen said in Parliament. “The economy you want to see reopened is hurting … I believe this is not what you want to do.”

Aaron Davis in Washington contributed to this report.

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