Ambassador Bridge blockade has both sides on edge

OTTAWA, Ontario — The mayor of Windsor, Ontario is warning that things could get ugly quickly at the Ambassador Bridge where a convoy protest is jamming a crucial trade link between Canada and the United States.

“You have a number of people who are on the ground here, who are part of the protest group, who have outwardly stated that … they feel such a passion for this particular cause that they're willing to die for it,” Mayor Drew Dilkens told reporters Wednesday. “If you have people who hold that sentiment, the situation can escalate and become very dangerous for police and those members of the public in very short order.

“It's fair to say that all of us don't want to see people get hurt.”

Authorities at all levels are confronted with the question of how long Canada should wait before bringing the protests to an end.

The convoy demonstrations started as a movement to oppose a Canadian government policy that requires mandatory vaccinations for truckers who cross the border from the U.S. The campaign quickly widened into an well-organized, heavily funded crusade to push back against Covid-19 restrictions and, for some, to see Trudeau step down.

For nearly two weeks, the big rigs of the “freedom convoy” have paralyzed much of downtown Ottawa. Police in Canada's capital city have worked gradually to remove the protesters and their vehicles, which are clogging streets.

The demonstrations — which have drawn global headlines and inspired copycat campaigns in other countries — have also popped up in other Canadian cities. They’ve also spread to another key border crossing in Coutts, Alberta.

Now, they’re gumming up the economically vital span that connects Windsor with Detroit in a development that could create significant supply chain problems in both countries.

Dilkens said governments need a plan for a “protracted” protest at the Ambassador Bridge, which is listed as "temporarily closed" for entry to Canada on the government's wait-times website. But he later added that the demonstrations cannot continue for an extended period of time.

“You have 100 people who are holding hostage part of our national economy,” Dilkens said of the protesters.

Windsor Police Chief Pam Mizuno told the same press conference that officers won’t tolerate illegal activities and will take action, if necessary, though it may not be immediate.

“Our priority is public safety and keeping the peace,” Mizuno said. “We still have to mitigate the risk — the risk to the public and the risk to members of our community and everyone involved, including the protesters.”

Bill Blair, Trudeau’s emergency preparedness minister and a former Toronto police chief, had a more direct assessment, while noting that enforcement is the responsibility of police and not politicians.

“They're essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians,” Blair told a press conference Wednesday in reference to the demonstrators’ efforts to block ports of entry. “We are all hoping for a peaceful resolution to these protests, but they need to end.”

Dilkens said more than C$450 million in goods moves between the cities every day, making it one of the busiest commercial border crossings in the world. It's a critical link for the automotive industry as well as agricultural and aerospace goods.

Since the start of the bridge blockade this week, factories in southern Ontario have cut shifts for thousands of workers. Truck traffic has been diverted to the Bluewater Bridge crossing between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ontario, which has created hours of delays.

The Ambassador Bridge blockade has Washington’s attention.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration is watching the border disruptions “very closely,” especially since the Ambassador Bridge supports about 25 percent of U.S.-Canada trade.

“The blockade poses a risk to supply chains,” Psaki said, adding the administration is working with border authorities, the auto industry, Michigan officials and Canadian counterparts. “We’re very focused on this, the president is focused on this and we are working … to do everything we can to alleviate the impact.”

She noted that the many workers who cross the bridge every day are being detoured to the Windsor-Detroit tunnel, which is still open.

Asked if President Joe Biden has an opinion on the convoys, Psaki said the White House supports peaceful protests but that it’s important for everyone in both countries to understand the impact of the protest on workers and on supply chains.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is focused on ways to make sure the blockade doesn't hurt the state's cross-border supply chains.

"The Canadians have to be the ones ultimately to determine what their strategy is going to be," Stabenow said Wednesday in Washington.

Roy Norton, who has served as Consul General of Canada in Detroit, told POLITICO that the Canadian government is spending around C$5 billion to build a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit to improve the flow of trade in the corridor.

“We're not doing that because somebody decided to become benevolent, we're doing it because it's that critical to our economy,” said Norton, who is on the international authority overseeing the implementation of the agreement to build the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

He said he doesn’t see any immediate way to end the standoff between the convoy protesters and the Trudeau government, which has shown no intention of getting rid of the vaccine mandates for truckers.

“Somebody is going to have to intervene and take the risks associated with intervening,” Norton said. "Otherwise, we are delegating to the mob the right to determine whether there is seamless transport at the border."

Kelly Hooper contributed to this report from Washington.