An Ontario court on Friday ordered protesters to end their blockade of a key bridge connecting Canada with the United States, as the country headed into a third weekend of “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations. The protests have paralyzed the capital, slowed traffic at the border and caused manufacturers on both sides of the crossing to reduce operations.
Ontario Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz gave protesters until 7 p.m. to end the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, the busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canada border and a vital supply route between automakers on both sides. As the deadline passed, the number of protesters lessened but many chose to defy the order, chanting “freedom,” waving flags, singing the national anthem and voting among themselves to stay put.
Earlier Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford upped the pressure on the protesters when he declared a state of emergency in the province, and said that he would seek to impose steep fines and prison time for people who continued to obstruct highways and bridges.
“We’re now two weeks into the siege of the city of Ottawa,” Ford, whose government has some jurisdiction over the capital city, said at a news conference. “I call it a siege because that’s what it is. It’s an illegal occupation. This is no longer a protest.”
But in the hours after, little appeared to have changed in the blockaded streets of Ottawa, where protesters held dance parties between truck convoys and police intervened only to direct traffic and give out tickets to some illegally parked vehicles. One driver said he received a ticket for 80 Canadian dollars.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that consequences for protesters were “becoming more and more severe.”
“You don’t want to end up losing your license, end up with a criminal record, which will impact your job, your livelihood, even your ability to travel internationally, including to the U.S.,” he said at a news conference.
Ford said he would convene his cabinet and “urgently enact orders that will make crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and services along critical infrastructure.” He warned of penalties of up to $78,000 and a year in prison.
The initial state of emergency was to last 42 hours. The cabinet planned to meet Saturday to discuss further amendments, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said.
Trudeau said he spoke with President Biden on Friday morning about the blockades, the presence of Americans, the “U.S.-based flooding of 911 lines in Ottawa” and the influx of foreign money to help fund the protests.
“We see that almost half of the funding through certain portals that is flowing to the barricades here in Canada is coming from the United States,” he said, but did not provide more detail. He said he and Biden agreed “that for the security of the people and the economy, these blockades cannot continue.”
Trudeau also said he remained reluctant to deploy troops against protesters. “Using military forces against civilian populations in Canada or in any other democracy is something to avoid having to do at all costs,” he said. “That’s why the solution right now is focused on police forces.”
Demonstrators holed up in trucks continue to paralyze parts of downtown Ottawa and block the Ambassador Bridge as well as crossings in Coutts, Alberta, and Emerson, Manitoba. What began as a protest in both countries against rules requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to cross the border, has snowballed into a much broader movement against pandemic restrictions generally and other complaints. Some protesters have demanded the removal of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was reelected to a third term in September, and the dissolution of Parliament.
As the crisis deepened this week, officials in the United States called on their Canadian counterparts to get the demonstrations under control. The impacts of the protests have been felt on both sides of the border.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned Thursday that the Ambassador Bridge blockade was “adding to the significant supply chain strains on manufacturers and other businesses.” Automakers Ford and General Motors said they have cut production and canceled shifts at some sites. A lawyer representing Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association told the Ontario court Friday that the estimated cost to the economy was nearly $40 million a day.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged their Canadian counterparts Thursday to “use federal powers to resolve this situation” and offered the support of their departments, the White House said. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said her message was simple: “Reopen traffic on the bridge.”
In Ottawa and on the border, police so far have largely avoided confronting protesters. But “public exasperation is growing,” warned Roland Paris, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Trudeau.
As Canadian officials have grappled with how to disperse the protesters, they’ve also warned about “potential foreign interference,” including from groups in the United States.
“Although these protests are homegrown, they are receiving a great deal of encouragement from right-wing politicians and prominent conservative activists and media personalities in the United States,” said Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
Donald Trump weighed in last week stating that “insane covid mandates” were destroying Canada.
Some U.S. truckers have said they will send two convoys this weekend to a fourth border crossing, Reuters reported, in a show of support for the Canadian protesters. The busy Peace Bridge, which connects Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, serves as the gateway from New York to Toronto.
Ottawa police said Thursday that there had been a “concerted effort to flood our 911 and non-emergency policing reporting line.” Many of those “excessive calls” came from addresses in the United States, Police Chief Peter Sloly said.
Ottawa police have made 25 arrests linked to the demonstrations on charges such as mischief and menacing behavior. “We will ensure those who are responsible will face the consequences,” Sloly said. “We know the residents of Ottawa are angry. We know you are tired.”
The Canadian demonstrations have drawn international support and inspired similar protests in Europe and Australia. Authorities in Paris and Brussels said they would try to stop planned convoys from entering those cities over the weekend.
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.