The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The self-styled ‘Freedom Convoy’ rumbled up at an inopportune time for U.S.-Canada trade

Authorities work to end the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” protest against pandemic restrictions in Ottawa on Feb. 19. (Cole Burston/AP)
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TORONTO — The self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” the spreading protest that paralyzed Canada’s capital and shut down some of its busiest border crossings, could hardly have come at a worse time.

For months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior officials have pressed their U.S. counterparts for exemptions to the Biden administration’s Buy American pledges and a proposed electric-vehicle tax credit that would favor U.S.-based manufacturers. They went so far as to threaten retaliatory tariffs.

Their strategy has been to stress the “deep integration” of continental supply chains, particularly in the auto sector. They’ve argued that upending a half-century of building cars together would harm not only Canada — an important trading partner and close ally — but also American production and jobs.

Now, there are worries here that the blockades at several U.S.-Canada border crossings — and the days it took Canadian authorities to clear them — will boost the economic nationalism that has weighed on bilateral ties. The question is whether the United States will view the costly disruptions as a one-off — or make Canada sweat.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 23 removed emergency powers that he invoked to end weeks-long demonstrations in Ottawa. (Video: CTV via AP)

“This empowers those in Congress and elsewhere who would be more than happy to cut Canada out of some of these supply chains, especially in autos,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in U.S. trade policy. “That’s a mortal threat to the Canadian economy.”

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Former U.S. diplomat Maryscott Greenwood, the chief executive of the Canadian American Business Council, said there’s a risk the blockades will “stoke nationalist tendencies and protectionist tendencies that are not productive or helpful.”

“They served to highlight the inherent risks in having an economy that’s so integrated across sovereign boundaries,” she said. “That’s a risk well worth taking, in our judgment, but it does remind people that we are dependent on each other, and sometimes there’s a backlash against that notion.”

The blockades against public health measures that began in Ottawa last month soon metastasized, spreading to the Ambassador Bridge, the vital trade link that connects Windsor, Ontario, with Detroit, and several other crossings along the 5,500-mile border, snarling millions of dollars worth of trade and forcing automotive firms on both sides to cut shifts and scale back production.

Some “convoy” organizers, who include several far-right and anti-government figures, had previously planned a protest in Ottawa against public health restrictions and Trudeau that fizzled. This time, they seized on U.S. and Canadian rules requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated to cross the border to draw support. But the major trucking association here condemned the demonstrations, noting that a majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated.

The blockades, meanwhile, kept commercial truckers from doing their jobs.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, detailed the costs in a news conference this month. Blockades at border crossings in Coutts, Alberta, and Emerson, Manitoba, had cost more than $68 million in daily trade.

The nearly week-long blockade at the Ambassador Bridge — the busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canada land border and a key corridor for the automotive industry — had choked off more than $300 million per day.

“These illegal barricades are doing great damage to Canada’s economy and to our reputation as a reliable trading partner,” Freeland told reporters.

The government cited “the adverse effects resulting from the impacts of the blockades on Canada’s relationship with its trading partners, including the United States,” as one reason it invoked never-before-used emergency powers to quell the unrest. (Trudeau revoked the use of the Emergencies Act this week.)

Police close in on Ottawa ‘Freedom Convoy,’ make at least 100 arrests

Once the blockades spread to border crossings — and to the Ambassador Bridge, in particular — U.S. Cabinet secretaries pressed their Canadian counterparts to get the crisis under control, including by using “federal powers.”

Members of Congress said the blockades showed why Buy American policies and reshoring were necessary.

“Michiganders have been saying for decades that when our manufacturing is outsourced too much, we end up paying the price,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) tweeted. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an adversary or an ally — we can’t be this reliant on parts coming from foreign countries.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that she believed such blockades would have been cleared far more quickly had they happened on the U.S. side of the border.

Asked about Slotkin’s comments, Dingell said she cherished ties with Canada, but when “we become dependent on another country and don’t have control over what is happening, then I am somebody, like my colleague, who believes we need to bring more of our supply chain home.”

David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, told the CBC that the blockades haven’t had an impact on the bilateral trading relationship and he’s “doubtful” they will. He chalked up the rhetoric from U.S. lawmakers to a desire to convey a “sense of urgency” to their Canadian counterparts.

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Others are less sanguine.

Flavio Volpe, president of Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, a Canadian industry group, has traveled to the United States regularly in recent months in a campaign to persuade U.S. lawmakers that Canada is a dependable trading partner and Buy American policies will strain economic ties.

But now, he said, the blockades have handed proponents of those policies in Congress “a bullhorn.” His group won an injunction this month to clear the Ambassador Bridge blockade. But in the short term, he’s pausing his visits “to let the dust settle.” When they resume, he said, he expects “an uphill battle.”

“It’s definitely not water under the bridge,” Volpe said. “The idea that the U.S.-Canada border could be closed by a group of idiots with 30 pickup trucks is something that we’re going to have to make the case was a one-time event, and any time you’re wasting time in a pitch playing defense, you’re at a disadvantage.”

After four tumultuous years of Donald Trump, President Biden has brought a friendlier tone to U.S.-Canada ties, but the pleasantries belie the reality that there are several sore spots, particularly over trade.

Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social spending plan contains provisions that could provide consumers with up to $12,500 in tax credits for buying vehicles produced in the United States with union labor and with U.S.-made batteries.

Vehicles are Canada’s second-largest export to the United States. Canadian officials fear Biden’s proposal could decimate the country’s automobile sector.

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On the eve of a summit between Biden and the leaders of Canada and Mexico last year, Freeland told reporters that the tax credit had “the potential to become the dominant issue in our bilateral relationship.” Biden spent that day visiting a General Motors plant in Detroit that had been retooled to manufacture electric cars.

In a December letter to U.S. congressional leadership, Canadian officials threatened retaliatory tariffs if the tax credit remained in place. They argued that a 34 percent tariff of Canadian-assembled electric vehicles “amounted to a de facto abrogation” of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the deal that governs trade among the neighbors.

It appeared to change few minds south of the border.

Although Biden’s Build Back Better bill appears to be on the back burner after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition, individual elements of it, including the electric-vehicles tax credit, could be revived.

Even if the bill never passes, firms are now making decisions about where to build electric vehicles. Volpe, who has been pressing for those “generational investments” to take place on the Canadian side of the border, worries that the blockades have undercut his message.

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, said the blockades came “at a tough time.” But she said they might drive home to U.S. officials how important cross-border trade is for both countries and how interdependent they are.

“I don’t think most Americans really realized the extent of that trade relationship and the extent of integrated supply chains,” she said. “It could be an important reminder to how critical that supply chain and that trade relationship is.”

Volpe said his interlocutors are generally “very literate” on the integrated nature of cross-border supply chains.

“All it did was wake up the people who weren’t literate on it, and the first chapter in their new book is going to be ‘should we be this integrated?’ ” he said. “These are very deep concerns for me. These aren’t throwaway questions. I know how tough this is going to be.”