Anti-vaccine mandate protests spread across the country, crippling Canada-U.S. trade

Federal ministers warned Wednesday that anti-vaccine mandate protests at two key Canada-U.S. border crossings have the potential to seriously disrupt the flow of goods in the days to come.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Ottawa, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said the blockade at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge is particularly alarming because a quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade moves through that one crossing, which connects Canada with Detroit and points beyond.

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products have been held back for three days as 50 to 75 vehicles and about 100 anti-mandate protesters camp out on the main road that leads on and off the bridge.

The Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) has closed the bridge to commercial traffic temporarily, diverting trucks to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ont. instead. CBSA is reporting wait times in excess of four hours to make the short trip across to Port Huron, Mich.

“I believe it is very serious and potentially grave. It is already having a huge impact on Canadian industry and Canadian workers,” Blair said of the disruptions.

“We’ve seen the criminal acts, acts of thuggery and the obnoxiousness that they’ve inflicted on the people of Ottawa. Now they’re blocking the highways leading into our ports of entry. They’re putting their foot on the throats of all Canadians.”

Labour unions representing auto workers have reported some idled Windsor plants have sent workers home while the trucker convoy holds up much-needed parts coming from the U.S.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said central Canada could soon see empty store shelves because so much of the region’s fresh food and produce comes into the country across that bridge.

“To be honest, I find it ironic that the same people who were trying to sell Canadians fake stories about empty shelves are now causing those shelves to go empty,” Alghabra said.

Trucks are backed up heading to and from Canada on the Ambassador Bridge due to protests on the Windsor side. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News via AP Photo)

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said the protesters appear to be determined to stay. “They feel such a passion for this particular cause that they’re willing to die for it,” he said.

Speaking briefly to reporters before question period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is working with Ontario and the City of Windsor to put an end to the blockade.

“We need to stop the blockage of supply chains. Jobs are affected,” he said, adding he’s “very preoccupied” with a protest movement that now threatens to bring trade in some regions to a standstill.

A spokesperson for U.S. President Joe Biden said the White House is watching events in Windsor “very closely” as concerns mount about the protests’ effect on the highly integrated North American auto industry.

“The blockade poses a risk to supply chains for the auto industry because the bridge is a key conduit for motor vehicle components and parts,” Jen Psaki said. “The president is focused on this.”

In a letter signed by dozens of Canadian and U.S. chambers of commerce and major industry groups, business leaders called on all levels of government to “immediately clear” the Windsor and Coutts crossings and bring an end to these “illegal blockades.”

“Given the importance of ensuring that the supply of food, medical products and industrial goods can continue, the disruption at the Ambassador Bridge is an attack on the well-being of our citizens and the businesses that employ them,” the letter reads.

The opposition Conservatives blamed Trudeau and his vaccine mandate for the chaos. They called for a “road map” to end federal pandemic restrictions and clear out illegal blockades that are damaging the economy.

“Countries around the world are opening up. Canadians are ready to get their lives back but it seems like the prime minister wants to live in a permanent pandemic,” Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen said, repeating her call for Trudeau to dump vaccine mandates and travel restrictions.

“The prime minister needs to put his ego aside and do what’s right for the country.”

Industry groups have been warning for weeks that the federal vaccine mandate would disrupt supply chains. With 12,000 to 16,000 truckers sidelined by the policy — which requires cross-border essential workers like truckers to either get a shot or face quarantine — there are fewer drivers to make the trip.

But it’s protesters opposed to the policy who have brought traffic to a standstill in both Windsor and Coutts, Alta. — where demonstrators have also blocked the border crossing.

A transport truck crosses the border at Coutts, Alta., after passing through a anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest roadblock on the highway in Milk River, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The Coutts port of entry has been largely impassable for nearly two weeks. It’s a major trade hub where millions of dollars worth of agricultural products like meat and feed trade hands each day.

CBSA reported Wednesday that the wait time to cross at Coutts was more than seven hours. The demonstration has continued despite the fact that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he is dropping the provincial vaccine passport for non-essential businesses — agreeing to a demand made by some of the anti-mandate protesters.

It’s still up to the police, minister says

Asked what the federal government would do to bring these protests to an end, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the government has convened a “tripartite table” so that federal, provincial and local officials can chart a path forward. He said it’s up to local law enforcement to bring these protests to an end — not the federal government.

“I believe the rule of law has to be upheld. It is the responsibility of the police to do that. We’ve seen many instances of lawbreaking here and we’ll not direct the police but we have every expectation that they’ll do their job,” he said.

Mendicino also pledged to work with the provinces to deploy more police officers to Windsor and Coutts as required.

As the anti-mandate protest spreads from its original epicentre in Ottawa, the situation in the nation’s capital remains tenuous.

A provincial judge has issued an injunction against incessant honking by truckers and their supporters. But hundreds of protesters’ vehicles are still in place on the city’s main streets and demonstrators are still refusing to move, despite pleas from police and politicians.

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