The Ontario government introduced a bill on Monday that would make permanent some of the emergency powers it enacted in the face of February’s blockade of the Ambassador Bridge to the U.S., including giving police the right to temporarily seize vehicles and suspend driver’s licences.
The bill was unveiled while Premier Doug Ford was in Washington, where he was meeting with U.S. trade officials and business leaders, seeking to repair the damage to his province’s reputation as a reliable trading partner done by the trucker protests that shut down the busy bridge in Windsor, Ont., for six days.
The blocking of the Ambassador Bridge disrupted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of daily trade and forced closings or shift reductions at several auto plants, which were starved for parts that could not cross Canada’s single most important trade link with the U.S. Some warned the blockade could make U.S.-based auto manufacturers reconsider Canada as a place for auto plants or a source for parts.
Beside the blockade issue, Mr. Ford had another goal in Washington: the withdrawal of U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Buy American” proposal that would restrict new tax rebates to consumers who buy only U.S.-made (and union-made) electric vehicles, which threatens to undermine the Premier’s recent push to attract battery plants and new EV manufacturing jobs to Ontario. In brief remarks to the Canadian American Business Council in Washington on Monday, the Premier cited his new proposed anti-blockade legislation and linked the two issues.
“We will do everything in our power to keep two-way trade flowing, and we will call on our American friends to share the same commitment to removing obstacles,” Mr. Ford said. “That means rejecting ‘Buy American’ measures that hurt us both and embracing policies that benefit a strong North American partnership.”
Monday’s bill, dubbed the Keeping Ontario Open for Business Act, is narrower in scope than the province’s original emergency order, issued last month at the height of the crisis and still in effect for a few more days. The order said those blocking highways, roads or other “critical infrastructure” could face $100,000 fines, jail terms and the temporary seizure of vehicles, driver’s licences, plates and commercial operator licences.
The new legislation would only apply to those blocking international border crossings, including airports. The government had pledged at the time to make the initial emergency orders permanent.
Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones, speaking Monday at an event at Toronto’s Pearson Airport to trumpet the new legislation, said it is aimed at protecting trade and not meant to stop legitimate protests.
Ontario also announced $96-million for law enforcement, including enhanced “public order” training for police officers, improving Ontario Provincial Police capabilities in “emergency management and investigations and intelligence” and for the purchase of heavy tow trucks “that are necessary to keep borders open.” Some tow-truck companies had refused police requests to remove trucks at the blockades.
Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada under president Barack Obama, said while Mr. Ford’s visit to Washington is important, it will take much more to dent the current bipartisan consensus on measures meant to help U.S. manufacturing.
Business leaders, he said in an interview, will need reassurances to keep investing in Ontario after the blockade. And politically, he said, the bridge blockade provided more fuel for the protectionist sentiment nurtured under former president Donald Trump and exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Shutting it [the bridge] down now just added a new narrative for the people, both Republicans and Democrats, to say ‘See? Here’s another reason why we should be building at home’,” said Mr. Heyman. “It’s not the only reason. But it definitely contributed to that dialogue.”
Canadian international trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said the federal government, not just Ontario, should have acted sooner to clear the Ambassador Bridge, given its status as the most important trade artery with the U.S. That failure, he said, has cost Canada dearly in Washington.
“The blocking of the bridge, I think, had a devastating impact on Canada’s reliability reputation,” Mr. Herman said.
During the Ambassador Bridge blockade in February, Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin said the supply chain disruption highlighted an overreliance on products from Canada and called for increased manufacturing within the state.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s an adversary or an ally – we can’t be this reliant on parts coming from foreign countries,” she said in a Twitter post.
Political critics at Queen’s Park said the move to make the emergency powers permanent Monday was too little too late. Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford should not have delayed his move to issue an emergency order to clear the bridge last month.
“This government decided they weren’t going to do anything for far too long and that exacerbated the situation,” Ms. Horwath told reporters before the bill was unveiled.
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