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February 8, 2022 3:18 PM, EST

Canada’s COVID-19 Protests Threaten Border Trade With US

COVID protest OttawaA woman crosses the street in front of vehicles parked as part of the trucker protest on Feb. 8 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

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OTTAWA — Canadian lawmakers expressed increasing worry Feb. 8 about the economic effects of disruptive demonstrations after the busiest border crossing between the U.S. and Canada became partially blocked by truckers protesting vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, a “vital trade artery.” It carries 25% of trade between the countries.

“Such blockades will have serious implications on our economy and our supply chain,” Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said. “I’ve already heard from automakers and food grocers. This is really a serious cause for concern.”

Ambassador Bridge

Trucks are backed up heading to and from Canada on the Ambassador Bridge, due to protests on the Windsor side, on Feb.  7.  (Daniel Mears /Detroit News via AP)

Speaking in an emergency debate late Feb. 7 in Parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the protesters are “trying to blockade our economy, our democracy,” and it has to stop.

The daily demonstrations staged by the so-called Freedom Truck Convoy began in Ottawa, where demonstrators have used hundreds of parked trucks to paralyze parts of the capital for more than 10 days. The protests have infuriated people who live around downtown, including neighborhoods near Parliament Hill, the seat of the federal government.

Dave Weatherall, a federal civil servant, lives near the truckers’ prime staging area in a city-owned parking lot outside of the downtown core. “They’re using the lot to terrorize people in Centretown,” he said, asking why the city has allowed the convoy to remain parked on its property for free and without intervention.

“It’s the first time since having kids that I’ve seriously wondered about the world we brought them into,” he said. “I always figured they could handle most things the world will throw at them, but this feels different.”

Demonstrations have spread to locations on or near the Canadian border, including the Ambassador Bridge, where a protest caused long backups and at one point stopped traffic in both directions. The bridge remains blocked on the road to Canada.

At a news conference after Trudeau spoke, trucker spokesman Tom Marrazo reiterated that the protesters want to overthrow the government. Marrazo said he is willing to meet with the opposition parties and the nation’s governor general, the representative of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

All three opposition parties technically could join together and defeat the government because Trudeau does not have the majority of seats in Parliament, but that is highly unlikely because the vast majority of lawmakers have condemned the protests.

Protesters also have closed another important U.S.-Canada border crossing in Coutts, Alberta.

“The border at Coutts continues to open and close at the discretion of a group of protesters who believe they are above the law. It has to stop,” tweeted Rachel Notley, Alberta’s former premier and current opposition New Democrat leader.

Protesters have said they will not leave until all vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. They also called for the removal of Trudeau’s government, though it is responsible for few of the restrictive measures, most of which were put in place by provincial governments.

François Laporte, the president of Teamsters Canada, which represents over 55,000 drivers, including 15,000 longhaul truck drivers, said the protests do not represent the industry in which 90% of drivers are vaccinated.

The Freedom Convoy “and the despicable display of hate lead by the political right and shamefully encouraged by elected conservative politicians does not reflect the values of Teamsters Canada, nor the vast majority of our members, and in fact has served to delegitimize the real concerns of most truck drivers today,” Laporte said in a statement.

Joel Lightbound, a lawmaker for Trudeau’s Liberal Party, rebuked his leader for dividing Canadians and said his government needs to create a road map for when coronavirus measures should be lifted.

“It is time we stopped dividing people, to stop pitting one part of the population against each other,” Lightbound said. “I can’t help but notice that both the tone and actions of my government changed drastically on the eve and during the last election campaign. From a positive and unifying approach a decision was made to wedge, to divide and to stigmatize.”

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Trudeau continues to take a hard line against the protesters. The prime minister said during the Parliament debate that everyone is tired of COVID-19, and that the restrictions will not last forever. He noted that Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, noted that the U.S. and Canada have one of the most significant trading relationships of any two countries in the world, with about $2 billion in daily trade of goods and services. Any blockade of the Ambassador Bridge cannot continue for long as it also critical to the U.S. supply lines, he said.

“[The bridge] is also a key access crossing for cross-border jobs such as Canadian nurses in Detroit hospitals and, of course, cross-border access to medical care,” Heyman said.

— Gillies reported from Toronto.