Key US-Canada bridge reopens after police clear protesters
WINDSOR (Ontario) — After protests against COVID-19 restrictions shut it down for nearly a week, the busiest U.S./Canada border crossing reopened late on Sunday. However, Canadian officials resisted a wider protest in Ottawa.
Detroit International Bridge Co. said in a statement that “the Ambassador Bridge is now fully open allowing the free flow of commerce between the Canada and US economies once again.” Esther Jentzen, spokeswoman for the company, said in a later text to The Associated Press that the bridge reopened to traffic at 10 p.m.
The crossing typically carries 25% of all trade between these two countries. However, the blockade by the Canadian side had disrupted commerce in both countries with several automakers being forced to shut down many assembly plants.
Police in Windsor, Ontario, said earlier in the day that more than two dozen people had been peacefully arrested, seven vehicles towed and five seized as officers cleared the last demonstrators from near the bridge, which links the city — and numerous Canadian automotive plants — with Detroit.
The protest in Ottawa has also paralyzed the downtown. Residents are furious at police inaction and have turned up pressure to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who presided over a Cabinet meeting late on Sunday.
Demonstrations have been heard across Canada and elsewhere, with similar convoys being held in France, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned of possible truck convoys in the United States.
Despite the ending of the protest, The Ambassador Bridge remained closed most of the day as heavy snowstorms blanketed it.
“Today, our national economic crisis at the Ambassador Bridge came to an end,” said Windsor’s Mayor Drew Dilkens said before the bridge reopened. “Border crossings will reopen when it is safe to do so and I defer to police and border agencies to make that determination.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Sunday acknowledged the seemingly peaceful resolution to the demonstration, which it said had “widespread damaging impacts” on the “lives and livelihoods of people” on both sides of the border.
“We stand ready to support our Canadian partners wherever useful in order to ensure the restoration of the normal free flow of commerce can resume,” Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall said in a statement.
The city of Ottawa is located approximately 500 miles northeast from Ottawa. Mayor Jim Watson announced Sunday that the city had reached a deal to accommodate protestors who had clogged the streets for over two weeks. They will be allowed to move out of residential areas within the next 24 hours.
Watson stated that he would meet with protestors if they kept their demonstration to the area of Parliament Hill and removed their trucks from residential areas by noon Monday.
The mayor shared a letter from one of the protest’s organizers, Tamara Lich, in which she said demonstrators “agree with your request” to focus activities at Parliament Hill. But Lich later denied there was an agreement, saying in a tweet: “No deal has been made. End the mandates and end the passports. That is why we are here.”
Watson added in his letter to protesters that residents are “exhausted″ and “on edge” due to the demonstrations and warns that some businesses are teetering on the brink of permanent closure because of the disruptions.
Police said that there were approximately 4,000 protestors by Saturday. A counter-protest was organized by frustrated Ottawa residents to stop the trucks from entering downtown.
Clayton Goodwin, a 45 year-old military veteran, was among those who were part of the counter-protesters.
“I’m horrified that other veterans would be down there co-opting my flag, co-opting my service,” said Goodwin, who is the CEO of the Veterans Accountability Commission, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It’s a grift. It was completely free. We’re 92% vaccinated. We’re ready to support our businesses.”
Colleen Sinclair, another counterprotester, stated that the demonstrators have had enough time for their discontent to be heard and they need to move on — possibly with police force, if necessary.
“They’re occupiers. People are scared to go to work, too scared to leave their homes,” she said. “This is not how you get your voice heard. This is domestic terror and we want to get you out of this city. Go home.”
Similar protests have occurred in the city on weekends. Loud music was played while people walked around downtown where antivaccine demonstrators were encamped since late Jan, much to the dismay and frustration of local residents.
“It just feels like I’m living in a different country, like I’m in the States,” said Shannon Thomas, a 32-year-old teacher. “It just makes me really sad to see all these people waving Canadian flags and acting like patriots when it’s really the most sad and embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Trudeau has so far rejected calls to use the military, but had said that “all options are on the table” to end the protests. Trudeau has called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society. Both provincial and federal politicians said that they cannot tell police what to do.
Major-General Steve Boivin, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said Sunday that two of his special forces soldiers were supporting the protests in Ottawa and were in the “process of being released” from service. Boivin said the activity goes against the military’s values and ethics.
Friday saw a judge order the removal of the Windsor Crossing blockade. Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a State of Emergency, allowing fines upto 100,000 Canadian Dollars and up to one-year imprisonment for anyone who blocks roads, bridges, or walkways.
The partial closure of the bridge began on February 7th and was severe enough that automakers had to shut down or reduce production by midweek. This standoff occurred at a time when industry is already having trouble maintaining production due to shortages of computer chips from pandemics and other disruptions in supply chains.
“We are protesting the government taking away our rights,” said Windsor resident Eunice Lucas-Logan. “We want the restrictions removed. We have to wait to find out.”
For the past four days, the 67-year old has been supporting the protest. She thanked the police for being patient.
The other side of the country saw a major truck crossing from Surrey, British Columbia to Blaine, Washington closed Sunday. This was a day following Canadian authorities claiming that some vehicles had broken police barricades, and a large group entered the area on foot.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Sunday afternoon four people had been arrested for “mischief” during the protest. Some of those who stayed over had left but they were not allowed to cross the border or use the roads around the area.
On Jan. 29, a border blockade began in Coutts in Alberta. It was north of Sweet Grass in Montana. According to RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff added.
Savinkoff stated that officers also disabled three excavators being brought to the protest.
“Had those made their way to the blockade, it would only have compounded the unfortunate situation we’re facing at the border,” he said.
While protesters decry vaccine mandates for truckers, and other COVID-19 limitations, many of Canada’s public health measures such as mask rules or vaccine passports to get into restaurants and theatres are already disappearing as the omicron surge increases.
90% of Canadian truckers are currently vaccinated. Trucker associations and large-rig operators have condemned the protests. Trudeau could lift the ban because the U.S. has the exact same vaccination rules for truckers crossing the border.
Pandemic restrictions in Canada have been much stricter than those in the U.S. but Canadians have generally supported them. The COVID-19 death rate in Canada is about one-third that of the United States.
Meanwhile, Biden, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on Sunday ahead of the Super Bowl, struck a critical tone when asked about those likely to object to the mask mandate at the NFL championship game.
“I love how people talk about personal freedom,” he said. “If you’re exercising personal freedom, but you put someone else in jeopardy, their health in jeopardy, I don’t consider that being very good with freedom.”
Gillies reported in Toronto. This report was contributed by Gene Johnson in Seattle and Ted Shaffrey, Ottawa, Ontario, Associated Press writers.