On any given day, the Ambassador Bridge – the 2.3-kilometre steel span that ties Windsor and Detroit – carries upwards of 10,000 freight trucks between Canada and the United States.
Auto parts moving from here to there and there to here, produce and meat carried in chilled trailers, electronics and other things we typically take for granted, all of it going to businesses and consumers on both sides of the border. It’s $300-million worth of goods per day, give or take, shuttled across a hulking teal arc that is otherwise invisible to the rest of the country.
Then suddenly on Monday, all of that hustle and bustle of commerce ground to a halt. Cars and trucks lined up with no end in sight, the traffic marshalling on either side. Just like that, a few dozen cars, pickup trucks and big rigs stopped the flow through Canada’s most vital economic artery.
Exactly how a protest that has displayed the hallmarks of a glorified tailgate party brought a significant chunk of Canada’s major economic artery to a standstill and forced emergency bilateral talks between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at once comically absurd and deeply troubling.
It also reveals how much more fragile Canada’s trade infrastructure is than the pandemic-related supply chain crisis has already revealed.
As the mayor of Windsor put it starkly and succinctly this week: “You have 100 people who are holding hostage part of our national economy.”
Regardless of how the blockade unfolds in the coming days, the length and severity of the impact on the economy has led many to wonder why police weren’t quicker to clear the group at the start of the week and why politicians have struggled to contain it.
The protest’s roots certainly suggested little in the way of co-ordination and forethought.
By some accounts from protesters, the Ambassador Bridge blockade started with a rumour that a convoy of 300 tractor trailers, similar to the fleet that has crippled downtown Ottawa for weeks in what began as a protest about vaccination mandates, was on its way to Windsor.
That prompted a line of cars and trucks festooned in Canadian flags, as well as Stars and Stripes, pro-Trump flags and expletive-laced anti-Trudeau flags, to crawl up and down Huron Church Road, which leads to the bridge, in support of the approaching trucker convoy.
The convoy never arrived.
“We were going along like a line of ants and at some point somebody stopped and that’s where we set up,” said Sami Mandalawi, a Canadian veteran who has spent the past week camped out in his Toyota Rav4 along with about 80 other vehicles and 100 to 400 protesters.
Almost immediately, many in the logistics and auto industries began to warn the protest could wreak havoc, although neither police or political action followed.
Politicians at all levels pointed fingers at each other while a backlog of deliveries piled up on both sides of the border.
The episode has provided ample fodder for partisan attacks. Critics of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives took every opportunity to blame Premier Doug Ford for the mess, while those opposed to the federal Liberals said it was all Mr. Trudeau’s fault.
One thing is now clear. The importance of the Ambassador Bridge, and Canada’s apparent exposure to its limitations, can no longer be ignored.
In 2020, about $111-billion in goods crossed the link, equal to 17 per cent of trade between Canada and the United States that year, according to a 2021 report from Transport Canada. On an average day, the bridge handled about $300-million in cross-border trade. And that was during a rough year for trade – and the economy at large – due to the onset of the pandemic.
The auto industry in particular looms large. In December, about half of Ontario’s $2.2-billion in imports from Michigan were in vehicles and auto parts, based on figures from Statistics Canada. It’s not uncommon for a single part to cross the border several times on its way to completion, evidence of the complex supply chains under the North American trade pact.
The auto makers are “the ones most immediately impacted” by the closure, said Ambarish Chandra, an economics professor at the University of Toronto. “But Detroit-Windsor is used by companies across North America, whether they’re shipping furniture or lumber or beer or food.”
Many trucks are being diverted to the crossing between Sarnia, Ont., and Port Huron, Mich., around 100 kilometres north of the Ambassador Bridge on the American side. In 2021, around 850,000 trucks crossed into the U.S. from Sarnia, or 60 per cent of the volume from Windsor. Delays at the Sarnia crossing were running about three hours for commercial truckers on Friday afternoon.
There’s inherent trouble in being so reliant on the Ambassador Bridge – nearly a century old and privately owned by the billionaire Moroun family – for such a large chunk of trade, said Prof. Chandra, who has long worried about disruptions.
“My thinking was more, there could be infrastructure damage, a natural calamity, earthquake or terrorist attack,” he said. “I didn’t foresee this sort of struggle. Closing that one bridge is sort of calamitous, especially the longer it goes on.”
By Thursday, the makeshift encampment featured tents, couches, BBQs and a DJ blaring classic rock tunes. That night, the children of some protesters played in a bouncy castle and on trampolines.
The presence of the children has sparked sharp criticism on social media. Many accused the group of using the children as human shields, particularly after a photo of a dozen kids standing hand in hand across the road went viral.
The children’s involvement has also made police plans for removing the protesters more complicated.
As the protest unfolded over the week, the absurdities of the situation mounted.
On Friday, as rain and sleet fell on the scene, one protester complained aloud that a pair of couches someone had brought “make us look lazy,” so several men hauled them away to the back of a pickup truck.
At one point, as rumours of an impending crackdown by police spread and a hearing got under way on an application for an injunction to end the protest, the group agreed to move trucks, camper trailers and cars out of one lane as a “goodwill gesture.”
If the goal was to head off the injunction, it failed. Windsor police warned drivers that the lane from the bridge was not open.
The gesture raised the ire of some protesters. One irate man parked his truck in the empty lane screaming at others that they should “hold the line.” He was eventually told by the rest of the group to move.
A single lane would have made little difference to the economic crisis the blockade has brought on, says John D’Agnolo, president of a UNIFOR local that represents 1,700 employees at two Ford plants. Both plants, along with several other factories, had been forced to suspend activity due to parts shortages.
Mr. D’Agnolo said while it’s been difficult to see some unvaccinated long-time workers face the possibility of losing their jobs over vaccine mandates, the protesters have taken things too far. “This has been a nightmare for the industry,” he said. “This is starting to hurt people’s families. The protesters want to end the mandates by shutting down the bridge, but it’s shutting everything else down.”
Many protesters said they were aware the blockade has caused problems for other workers, but defend their actions by pointing to the widespread economic shutdown in 2020 as COVID-19 spread across the world.
“What about all the businesses the government destroyed, what about the effect on children’s IQs, what about all the lives they destroyed,” Mr. Mandalawi said. “We’ve formed an effective constraint on the flow of traffic that’s sending a message to the federal and provincial governments to stop these mandates.”
Another message was on the minds of some protesters, who include a large evangelical and Mennonite contingent, and that was a religious one.
Among four men taking a break from the protest in the nearby McDonald’s, discussion about the aims of the protest soon devolved into complaints about abortion and what they saw as society’s abandonment of religion. Mr. Mandalawi said he would not answer “to anybody but God.”
In the coming weeks and months, Canada’s political and law enforcement leaders will face difficult questions about why they were so paralyzed in the face of a ragtag clutch of protesters, and how they will safeguard the country’s roads and trade paths against the whims of more unconventional actors.
In the meantime, Mr. Mandalawi vowed on Friday afternoon the group would not leave until vaccination mandates were removed or police took them away in handcuffs. “We will be here as long as it takes,” he said.
The occupation of streets in downtown Ottawa and blockades at two border crossings to the US, including our busiest in Windsor, Ont. continues. Reporter Colin Freeze tells us more about who the leaders are of the Freedom Convoy, including those fundraising millions of dollars to support it. Subscribe for more episodes.
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