Fear of a violent confrontation is stopping police from using force to end the protest blocking Canada’s busiest border crossing, as factories begin cutting production and laying off people because of shortages caused by the Ambassador Bridge blockade.
On Day 3 of the blockade, Drew Dilkens, mayor of Windsor, Ont., said arresting the demonstrators opposed to pandemic health measures and towing their vehicles could lead to violence, because some have said they are “willing to die for it.” So instead, police are trying to negotiate an end to the blockade.
The Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor and carries about one-quarter of Canada’s trade with the United States – about $450-million daily in goods between the countries. Commercial traffic is being diverted to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ont., where the wait to cross to the U.S. on Wednesday was almost five hours.
Demonstrators also parked trucks and tractors on a highway near Sarnia on Wednesday, forcing another detour and more delays. Similar blockades of trucks and other vehicles are gripping downtown Ottawa and the border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
In Coutts, protesters have been blocking the border crossing on and off since Jan. 29. On Wednesday, Chad Williamson, who has been acting as a spokesman for the protesters, said the blockade restarted after Premier Jason Kenney’s “tepid repeal of some lockdown mandates” on Tuesday.
“Protesters have indicated that their demonstration will not end until lockdown and vaccine mandates are lifted,” he said.
In Ontario, business groups and individual companies on Wednesday called for a swift end to the Ambassador Bridge blockade, but so far all levels of government are leaving it up to police in the area.
The blockade has already led to a shortage in parts that forced major auto-assembly plants to slash production and send employees home. Brian Kingston, head of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, said Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Stellantis NV have all cut production.
Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday that it did not expect its auto plants in Ontario to produce vehicles for the rest of the week because of supply problems stemming from trucking protests and other factors.
“This can’t be allowed to persist. The blockades need to be removed,” Mr. Kingston said.
Mark Sciberras, a Unifor union leader at Ford’s Oakville assembly plant, said employees’ shifts have been cut in half because of the parts shortage.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that he is “very preoccupied” with the Ambassador Bridge blockade. “We need to stop the blockage of supply chains, jobs are being affected,” he said.
Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem warned at a press conference that if the blockades in the country last much longer, they could “start to have a measurable impact on economic activity.”
“We’ve already got a strained global supply chain. We don’t need this,” he said. “Canadians are looking to buy goods, Canadian businesses are looking to export goods, and I think the sooner we can get this resolved, the better.”
Mr. Dilkens and Windsor police Chief Pam Mizuno told reporters on Wednesday that they are trying to negotiate with the protesters, but are having trouble identifying who the leaders are. Mr. Dilkens said he has had many calls from area residents and businesses demanding that the protesters be forcibly removed, but “such action may inflame the situation and cause more folks to come and join the protest.”
Chief Mizuno declined to outline the tactical plan to clear the protest, which on Wednesday included 50 to 75 vehicles and 100 people. She said police issued four tickets on Monday for “moving violations.”
“Our goal is to open all lanes of traffic … and to do that, we are taking a diplomatic approach,” she said.
At a federal press conference on Wednesday, Liberal ministers called the border blockades illegal and a serious economic threat, but other than offering resources to local police, they outlined no possible solution.
“They’re essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians. They’re cutting off essential supply lines and goods and services,” Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said. But he added that the province has “ultimate responsibility for policing.”
Given the severity of the situation, Mr. Blair was asked why the government is playing a support role rather than a leadership role. In response he said: “All three orders of government have a responsibility.”
Asked if the government and police were still in control, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said “the answer is yes.”
“We trust our law enforcement to do their job. We know they’re working very hard, and there will be a restoration of those lanes and those supply chains,” he said.
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen, who has supported the protesters blockading downtown Ottawa, has not commented publicly on the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge. Conservative MP and transport critic Melissa Lantsman on Wednesday said blockades at bridges and highways are illegal and need to move.
In a statement, Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday called for the blockades to stop.
“I remain confident that our police forces in Ontario, along with Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canada Border Services Agency, will take the appropriate steps to address the evolving situations in our cities and bring them to an end,” he said.
As a growing number of business groups complained about the loss of the most important link to Canada’s biggest trading partner, Mr. Dilkens said he is seeking additional resources from the federal and provincial governments, and supports the “moderate approach” of the Windsor police.
Some of the protesters have openly stated that “they feel such a passion for this particular cause that they are willing to die for it,” Mr. Dilkens said. “If you have people who hold that sentiment, the situation can escalate and get very dangerous for police and those members of the public in very short order.”
Southern Ontario is home to Canada’s auto industry, which employs more than 100,000 people, in addition to a large food and beverage sector, which is Canada’s largest employer.
At Windsor-based Cavalier Tool & Manufacturing Ltd., sales manager Tim Galbraith said the closing of the Ambassador Bridge is “killing us.”
The company makes tools for multiple sectors, including the auto and agriculture industries, and ships about $5-million worth of goods per month across the Ambassador Bridge.
Already, the protests elsewhere in Canada were making shipping companies nervous, and in one case led to the near doubling of shipping costs, he said. After the Ambassador Bridge was shut down, at least one shipping company said they just wouldn’t pick up the part at all.
“We’ve got tools sitting here that we need someone to carry and there’s just no one willing to take the chance,” he said. Shipments that are still going are being done at a premium and with up to an eight-hour delay as trucks divert to other border crossings.
“We will figure it out, but it’s going to be late, it’s going to give us a black eye.”
Chris Conway, head of Food and Beverage Ontario, said the blockade of key export routes is the ”latest in a series of shocks,” coming on the heels of already soaring costs because of the pandemic and the B.C. floods.
As food producers are forced to halt production or cannot reach stores and distribution centres, shoppers will feel the impact shortly, he said.
“It will affect consumers,” Mr. Conway said. “They will go to the store and there will be stuff missing, and it will be more expensive.”
Similar concerns were echoed by other industry and business groups. Gary Sands with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers said existing supply chain snarls had already slowed produce deliveries and those products with a short shelf-life may not tolerate the added slowdown in shipments.
“If this continues, we’d start to see some serious shortages,” Mr. Sands said.
Rocco Rossi, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, described the blockades as a “hostage-taking” and said beyond the immediate supply impact, the blockades risk permanently damaging Canada’s reputation as a place to do business.
“When illegal blockades are put in place, people are going to decide to do business elsewhere,” Mr. Rossi said. “None of this is a good look.”
With reports from Irene Galea, Mark Rendell, Susan Krashinsky Robertson, Jeff Gray, Kelly Cryderman and Reuters
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.