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Canada police clear key border bridge but protests still crippling Ottawa
AFP — Canadian police on Sunday cleared a key US border bridge occupied by trucker-led demonstrators angry over Covid-19 restrictions, towing vehicles and making “several” arrests in their bid to quell a movement that has also paralyzed downtown Ottawa.
“Today, our national economic crisis at the Ambassador Bridge came to an end,” Drew Dilkens, mayor of Windsor, Ontario, said in a statement. “Border crossings will re-open when it is safe to do so.”
US officials, who had pressed for a quick resolution as the blockades hit auto industries in both countries, praised what they called the “decisive” action in Windsor and said they expected the bridge to open by day’s end.
White House national security advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall said US and Canadian officials recognized “the imperative of taking swift, strong action and deterring future blockades.”
A heavy police cordon continued to protect the area on Sunday afternoon, with protesters still nearby and police indicating they would make further arrests.
The demonstrations have inspired copycat protests around the globe, including in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, and with some US truckers discussing a protest for March.
On Sunday, with thousands of protesters still paralyzing the center of federal capital Ottawa, Canada’s public safety and emergency preparedness minister indicated that patience was running short.
“Enough is enough,” Bill Blair told the CBC. “This has to come to an end. The situation in Ottawa is unacceptable and intolerable, and the police need to restore order and enforce the law in that city.”
He said the border closures were having “an enormous impact” on Canadian workers and companies.
Blair said the federal government, working with the provinces, was prepared to do “whatever is required in order to bring the situation back under control.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has underscored that “this conflict must end,” but he has faced mounting criticism for failing to act more decisively.
Police in Windsor began their operation on Saturday to clear the major border crossing to the US city of Detroit, Michigan.
No arrests were initially made and drivers were warned that they potentially faced major fines, jail time and loss of their licenses if they continued blocking traffic, but some stood fast.
Early Sunday, as pressure grew for an end to the standoff, Windsor police deployed a large contingent of officers after warning on Twitter that “there will be zero tolerance for illegal activity.”
They were seen placing at least one bridge protester in handcuffs.
“Several arrests were made,” they said in a statement. “The arrested persons are all facing a charge of mischief.”
Amid widespread criticism of the time it took to clear the vital transit point, which carries 25 percent of all merchandise exported by both countries, the Windsor police defended their “progressive approach.”
“This exercising of police discretion,” the statement said, “should not be confused with lack of enforcement.”
Truckers had converged on Ottawa two weeks ago to press their demand for an end to a vaccination requirement affecting truckers crossing the international border.
But their demands have grown. The protesters now seek an end to all vaccine mandates, whether imposed by the federal or provincial governments.
Police in Ottawa on Saturday estimated that some 4,000 demonstrators were still occupying the city.
The atmosphere among protesters has been festive, with music, dancing and constant sounding of air horns, but the noise, obstruction and sometimes rude and aggressive behavior of demonstrators has harmed area businesses and infuriated many locals.
There was a glimmer of hope for frustrated residents: Ottawa City Hall reported a possible agreement with one of the protest organizers to clear the trucks from residential areas and concentrate them on the street alongside parliament.
The potential deal between Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and protest organizer Tamara Lich still needs the truckers’ approval, however.
The truckers’ message has resonated more widely throughout the country than authorities expected.
One opinion survey found that a third of Canadians support the protest movement.
The truckers have also found support among conservatives and vaccine mandate opponents across the globe, even as Covid measures are being rolled back in many places.
In Paris on Saturday, police fired tear gas and issued more than 300 fines in an effort to break up convoys of vehicles coming from across France.
An estimated 10,000 Australian protesters marched through the capital Canberra to decry vaccine mandates, while in Wellington, New Zealand, anti-mandate activists have been camped near the parliament for days. By Jeff Kowalsky with Philippe Sauvagnargues in Montreal