Police clear ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters from key U.S.-Canada border crossing but it’s still not reopened


A subheadline in an earlier version of this article incorrectly said Ottawa is Ontario’s capital. While Ottawa is Canada’s capital, Toronto is its provincial seat. This article has been updated.

OTTAWA — Canada reopened the Ambassador Bridge, a vital border crossing, on Sunday night after Canadian police cleared the blockade by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” which continued to disrupt other cities and trade routes and illegally occupy the country’s capital for a third week.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra tweeted his thanks to law enforcement and government officials for their help in ending the six-day closure of the road between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, which disrupted U.S. supply chains and millions of dollars in trade.

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,” according to the Associated Press.

But the appeal of such demonstrations, which have spread across Canada to New Zealand and European capitals, had not let up Sunday. According to Ottawa’s mayor, he reached a tentative agreement with protesters for them to behave less disruptively. This was made using a loosely organized movement that had no central leader. After the disruptions began over two weeks ago, many Ottawaans have taken matters into their own hands and tried to stop them.

Canadian officials have been caught flat-footed since a convoy of truck drivers opposed to vaccine mandates illegally parked by Parliament on Jan. 28 and kicked off a global movement of people fed up with pandemic policies, angry at their governments, and, in some cases, driven by extremist views and calls for insurrection. Many demonstrators from France to New Zealand have used the same tactics as the Canadian convoys. Despite mounting difficulties for authorities and police, the threats of punishment seem to be insufficient to deter them.

The police effort to disrupt the Windsor convoys was the most robust move yet taken by Canadian law enforcement, which is facing mounting pressure to do more to disperse the big rigs and highly organized protest sites paralyzing the capital.

In Ottawa, well-funded Freedom Convoy protesters have remained despite being threatened with fines, prison time and the loss of their licenses. Though local and provincial officials declared states of emergency, loud dance parties with illegal fireworks and alcohol raged in the blockaded streets throughout the weekend as police largely stood by.

Police have aimed to contain protests and minimize harm to officers and residents, but “it doesn’t work … where the organizers have the objective of being as disruptive as possible to Canadian government and economy until their political demands are met,” said Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

Ottawa police have cited the presence of children, who they say are in about 100 of the 400 trucks parked in the city, as a major concern. In Ottawa’s “red area” where blockaded streets are blocked, highly combustible yellow and red fuel cans for trucks and heaters circulate.

On Feb. 12, authorities attempted to clear a protest blockade near Ambassador Bridge, a key trade corridor to Detroit. (The Washington Post)

On Sunday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he had reached a tentative agreement with a key protest organizer to remove trucks from residential areas, and to limit vehicles to a perimeter near Parliament downtown in exchange for a meeting.

Tamara Lich, president of Freedom Convoy 2022, one of the organizing bodies for the protests, told Watson in a letter dated Feb. 12 and released Sunday that organizers “will be working hard over the next 24 hours to get buy-in from the truckers.

Watson said he would meet with Lich and her group if there was “clear evidence” by noon Monday that his requests were being met.

Watson said on CTV News Ottawa that residents downtown “need a reprieve from the horror and the hell that they’ve been through over the course of the last coming up to three weeks” — including horn-honking, catcalling and “diesel-spewing all night,” he said.

Watson said the truckers involved would not get “special treatment” and would have to pay any tickets they have accrued. The city issued a statement on Sunday night urging citizens to not travel to downtown where there were many public facilities closing.

Some Ottawa residents on social media criticized the deal as effectively permitting the convoys, which the mayor’s office denied was the intent.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 11 promised President Biden quick action to end blockades by anti-vaccine mandate protesters at border crossings. (Reuters)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also faced criticism for not mobilizing more federal resources to aid Ottawa’s overwhelmed government and police.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said the federal government was considering invoking the never-before-used Emergencies Act of 1988, which gives the federal government broad powers subject to Parliament’s approval.

“The closing of our borders, the targeting of critical infrastructure, particularly our points of entry by the people behind these protests, is a significant national security threat to this country, and we have to do what is necessary to end it,” Blair told Canada’s CTV.

Canada and the United States have denounced the border disruptions as harmful to trade, industry and local communities. Car manufacturers, including Toyota and Ford, have reduced some nearby operations in recent days, citing disruptions to the delivery of necessary manufacturing parts.

Disruptions have also plagued other vital cross-border arteries — including the one from Coutts, Alberta, which connects to Montana, and from Surrey in British Columbia to Washington state.

The White House said Sunday that both countries have discussed the “imperative of taking swift, strong action and deterring future blockade.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called these blockades a “siege” and declared a provincial state of emergency on Friday, warning protesters of “severe” consequences, including fines up to U.S. $78,500 and prison terms.

In Windsor, police on Friday began to enforce an injunction ordering truckers and their supporters to leave and ticketed and towed vehicles. As temperatures plummeted below freezing, a core group of around two dozen protestors remained on foot. Police began to move in on protestors close to the bridge that had been closed since Monday.

Windsor Police Chief Pam Mizuno told reporters Sunday, before the bridge reopened, that there had been 25 to 30 arrests and that no one had been injured “as a result of any police interaction.”

Upon the bridge’s reopening Mizuno tweeted that she was thankful for a peaceful outcome and praised the “professionalism & dedication” of the police.

In Facebook groups, Telegram channels and right-wing media, the Freedom Convoy in Canada has continued to inspire protests around the world.

Across the Atlantic, protesters temporarily blocked the Champs-Elysees, a central artery in Paris, on Saturday, despite an order banning them from entering the French capital. Local outlets reported Sunday morning that police had made at least 97 arrests.

In Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, people inspired by the Canadian protesters blocked an area outside Parliament for the sixth day on Sunday, and officials attempted to use sprinklers and songs including “Baby Shark” to diffuse the protest, to no avail.

Back in North America, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Surrey, British Columbia, southeast of Vancouver, said Sunday evening that four people were taken into custody for “mischief” at protests near the Pacific Highway border crossing near Blaine, Wash. A police statement said “some of the vehicles and protesters who stayed overnight Saturday have now packed up and left the area,” but the crossing remained closed, with law enforcement blocking the border area.

Some members of law enforcement and the military have drawn scrutiny for allegedly backing the demonstrations. A special-forces branch of the Canadian military said Sunday that two members accused of supporting the protests are under investigation and “in the process of being released from the Canadian Armed Forces.”

“The Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) does not condone its members supporting and/or actively taking part in causes that jeopardize the apolitical imperative associated with their functions,” said Maj. Gen. Steve Boivin, a commander with the group.

The Ontario Provincial Police also said Sunday that they are investigating a Saturday video that “has raised concerns about professionalism,” which was widely interpreted as a reference to a clip on social media with the #freedomconvoy2022 hashtag. The video seemed to show an officer telling people he had pulled over, “I support you guys 100 percent,” according to CTV News.

The military previously said it was investigating a member who denounced vaccine mandates in a video and told other military and police officers to “stand up” against “medical tyranny.”

Meanwhile, counterprotests have grown.

On Friday, the city of Ottawa, responding to frustrated residents, filed an injunction against demonstrators violating city bylaws.

For the second straight day Sunday, counterprotests popped up in Ottawa, where residents braved frigid temperatures to block two major intersections about four miles from Parliament Hill to prevent dozens of vehicles — primarily pickup trucks — from joining the downtown protest.

Frustrated residents chanted “Whose streets? Our streets” and “Go home!”

The message on one man’s sign was simple: “Make Ottawa boring again.”

Timsit reported from London, and Pietsch from Seoul. This report was contributed by Claire Parker and Hannah Knowles in Washington.

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