WINDSOR, Ontario — A tense standoff in the U.S.-Canadian border crossing crucial to both countries’ economies appeared to be dissolving peacefully Saturday as Canadian police moved in to disperse the nearly weeklong blockade and demonstrators began leaving without resistance.
Many demonstrators drove away from the Ambassador Bridge spanning the river between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, as scores of police approached shortly after dawn. They had spent the night there in defiance of new warnings to end the blockade, which disrupted the flow of traffic and goods and forced the auto industry on both sides to roll back production.
Surrounded by dozens of officers, one man with “Trump 2024” and “Mandate Freedom” spray-painted on his vehicle left in the morning as other protesters began dismantling a small tarp-covered encampment.
This week’s demonstrations at the Ambassador Bridge, downtown Ottawa and elsewhere have targeted vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions. There is also an outpouring of fury toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has called them a “fringe” of Canadian society.
The protests have reverberated outside the country, and police in Paris intercepted at least 500 vehicles attempting to enter the French capital Saturday, in defiance of a police order, to take part in protests against virus restrictions inspired by Canada’s horn-honking “Freedom Convoy.”
Several convoys were stopped from entering at key Parisian arteries and over 200 motorists were ticketed, police said. Elsewhere, at least two protesters were detained amid a seizure of knives, hammers and other objects in a central square. Some 7,000 officers have been mobilized for the weekend protesters, who are railing against the vaccination pass that France requires to enter restaurants and many other venues.
At the Ambassador Bridge, Daniel Koss was among those who stayed overnight. Shortly before police advanced, he said the protest had succeeded in bringing attention to demands to lift COVID-19 mandates and he was happy it remained peaceful.
“It’s a win-win,” Koss said. “The pandemic is rolling down right now, they can remove the mandates, all the mandates, and everyone’s happy. The government does the right thing, and the protesters are all happy.”
He said he believed most people would disperse in an orderly fashion, “because we don’t want to cause a big problem,” he added.
One truck driver honked his horn as he left, to cheers and chants of “Freedom!”
Windsor police tweeted that they had begun enforcement at and around the bridge: “We urge all demonstrators to act lawfully & peacefully. Commuters are still being asked to avoid the areas affected by the demonstrations at this time.”
Most of the vehicles in the blockade were pickup trucks and other cars.
The previous day, a judged ordered an end to the blockade and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency allowing for fines of 100,000 Canadian dollars and up to one year in jail for anyone illegally blocking roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
“The illegal blockades are impacting trade, supply chains & manufacturing. They’re hurting Canadian families, workers & businesses. Glad to see the Windsor Police & its policing partners commenced enforcement at and near the Ambassador Bridge,” Federal Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne tweeted Saturday. “These blockades must stop.”
Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court issued an injunction giving protesters blocking cross-border traffic until 7 p.m. Friday to clear out. However, the deadline came and went.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25 percent of all trade between the two countries. The standoff came at a time when the auto industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain disruptions.
While the Canadian protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of the country’s infection measures, such as mask rules and vaccine passports for getting into restaurants and theaters are already falling away as the omicron surge levels off.
Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States.
Story by Rob Gillies and Mike Householder