Canadian protests that began by championing the rights of truckers have spread into a sprawling, ad-hoc anti-establishment demonstrations across the country — shuttering crucial trade links, confounding police, and giving hints that the efforts could spread.
As of Thursday, the rolling blockades had closed three U.S.-Canada border crossings, including the crucial Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, which is responsible for $13.5 million per hour in economic activity, according to the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
That led to U.S. and Canadian auto plants curbing production and economists warning that the unrest could deliver a powerful one-two blow to Canada’s recovery if it continues — both further fanning inflation and sapping growth.
The standoff, hours from the epicenter in Ottawa, is emblematic of how the protest has been almost flipped on its head. It was once about defending the rights of unvaccinated truckers and warnings that vaccine requirements would worsen a supply chain crisis; now, the Ambassador Bridge blockade almost entirely targets working truckers while upending the supply chain.
There were signs of easing tensions Thursday in Ottawa, as some trucks cleared out and Canada’s Conservative Party — whose current leading figures had egged on the protest — reversed course, calling for the blockades to end. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has few clean options, as the protesters’ demands are sprawling and include his removal from office.
The demonstrations have had staying power in Canada in large part because police, wary of stoking violence, have hesitated to make arrests and clear the blockades. Ottawa police say they are planning to step up enforcement soon, but so far there is little sign of it.
At its very beginning, the convoy was prompted by border rules that took effect in mid-January, requiring truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border to be vaccinated. But it has since become a galvanizing force to spark broader political protest.
Many of the original organizers already had a long history of loathing Covid restrictions and hating Trudeau, who has not been shy about campaigning on vaccine mandates and requirements. He goaded the convoy on its way into Ottawa, dismissing its participants as a “fringe minority” with “unacceptable views.” The protesters have adopted the insults as a badge of honor, writing it on their trucks and placards.
While there are many self-described leaders in the movement, there is no clear figurehead. Canada Unity, a group that played a significant role in the logistics of the convoy, promoted a “memorandum of understanding” that included toppling Trudeau and installing a provisional government.
Earlier this week, Tom Marazzo — a former Canadian soldier — spoke at a makeshift news conference alongside protest organizers about the convoy perhaps joining forces with Canada’s opposition parties to form a new government. (Marazzo has since walked back this claim.)
“I hate to say it — they found a weakness in our democracy and are exploiting it,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who studies security and counter terrorism.
The prominent leaders of the movement have ties to more traditional anti-establishment movements, she said.
“These are not any individuals who have anything to do with trucking,” Carvin said, “They’re not there for the mandates; they’re there to make mayhem.”
‘Risky and Significant’
The original convoy departed Canada’s west coast on Jan. 23, snowballing as it crossed the frigid Canadian prairies. The scope was unclear, and absurd claims filled the vacuum. Former hockey legend Theoren Fleury declared on Fox News that 50,000 trucks were en route. By the time the convoy entered Ontario on Jan. 27, a police spokesperson said it included just 113 semis and 276 other personal vehicles — but by then, other convoys had been organized as well.
The trucks began trickling into Ottawa on a Friday, and by Saturday, hundreds were circulating through the city core. Ottawa Police were concerned about the convoy, with Chief Peter Sloly describing the coming demonstrations as “unique, fluid, risky and significant.” But they appear to have underestimated what they were up against. Heavy industrial equipment — including full-size tractor trailers, grain trucks, even a crane — was driven right onto the street in front of Parliament.
Some protesters filtered away after the weekend, while a hardcore element dug in, including at least 400 semis and other large vehicles. They built out an astonishing infrastructure network to keep the protest supplied. A fuel tanker was brought in to a staging area to supply diesel to the downtown semis using jerry cans. Large kitchens were erected in tents, and piles of firewood stacked up. Soon the protesters brought in all kinds of amenities: DJ booths, bouncy castles and portable saunas.
Their demands have also begun to sprawl. A fundraising effort through GoFundMe was shut down, but others sprung up. The convoy leaders are now pivoting to asking for cryptocurrency in an effort to skirt restrictions, with prominent Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham cheering them on.
For the roughly 24,000 people who live in apartments in Ottawa’s downtown, life was becoming intolerable as truck drivers blared their air horns for hours on end. A judge has since issued an injunction against the horn use, meaning any driver who continued doing it risked a criminal charge.
Police have few options now that the camp is so established. One problem is the presence of children: police estimate 25% of the heavy trucks have children living in the cabs with their parents.
As Ottawa’s protest dug in, offshoot protests metastasized across the country, even further detached from the initial notion of defending truckers. Cars and buses are still flowing in an underground tunnel, leaving semis uniquely hostage to the closure.
The Ambassador Bridge is owned by a company whose other major industry is in fact trucking. The company’s statement expressed support for all truckers but called for a reopening.
“We’re all anxious to see a resolution to the issue,” Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., said Thursday. In a written statement, Chairman Matt Moroun called for the blockade to end and floated several possible solutions, including repealing the vaccine requirements for cross-border trucking, which would amount to granting a key demand.
The economic fallout of prolonged closures would be substantial. Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Stellantis NV all curtailed shifts or production, either in Michigan or Ontario. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called for the bridge to reopen, while local police cautioned that they had few swift options.
“This is a national crisis,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said. “We hope to not have to move in. We hope they will voluntarily get in their cars and go on their way.”
Border crossings have also been closed in Manitoba and Alberta — provinces that, like Ontario, have conservative premiers who’ve generally resisted overly punitive lockdown measures.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are bracing for the possibility of a new protest that could begin this weekend and carry into March, potentially including a cross-country caravan and disruptions to cities and major transportation routes.
Neither Trudeau nor President Joe Biden has given any hint that they’d ease vaccine requirements for cross-border truckers. Biden’s homeland security adviser, Liz Sherwood-Randall, held a meeting Wednesday on the subject and planned another Thursday. U.S. officials say they’re monitoring similar protests being planned in the U.S.
In Ottawa, police are finally starting to flex their muscles. On Thursday they announced they would start charging drivers who remained in the blockade with criminal mischief, and the police chief said they intend to go further on the offensive as reinforcements arrive from outside the city this weekend. Leaders of the demonstration have warned fellow protesters that the risk of violence is growing, a report Thursday in The Guardian said, citing unverified information circulating among the encampment.
Hundreds of trucks still remain, and protest leaders are escalating their rhetoric. Friday afternoon, one woman on a microphone at the main demonstration site compared their situation to Canada’s great military victories. “This is our Vimy, our Passchendaele, our Juno Beach,” she said.