The premier of Canada’s Ontario province declared a state of emergency on Friday as an international blockade by truckers protesting COVID-19 vaccine requirements entered its fifth day, and a two-week-old blockade of the capital Ottawa continued.
Premier Doug Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to enact orders that make it “crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and service along critical infrastructure”.
“Let me be as clear as I can – there will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe,” he said in a Friday announcement.
“This is a pivotal, pivotal moment for our nation.”
Truckers have slowed or halted border transit causing parts shortages that shut down car plants in both the United States and Canada.
A demonstration that began in January as a convoy, traveling across Canada in protest against COVID vaccination requirements for truckers has morphed into broader complaints about the Liberal government and attracted proponents of the anti-vaccination movement.
The capital of Ottawa is under siege “I call it a siege because that is what it is. It’s an illegal occupation. This is no longer a protest. With a protest, you peacefully make your point and you go back home, ”Ford said.
The Ontario leader pledged new legal action against protesters, including fines and potential jail time for non-compliance with the government’s orders.
The city of Windsor, on the US border, meanwhile, planned to seek an injunction at an afternoon court hearing against members of the self-proclaimed “Freedom Convoy” who have used dozens of trucks to bottle up the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to the US city to Detroit.
Federal, provincial, and local authorities have hesitated to forcibly remove the protesters, reflecting a lack of manpower by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fears of potential violence. But pressure to open the border crossings is mounting, with Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda closing plants or canceling shifts.
The Biden administration has urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to use its powers to end the blockade. Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday called on Canadian authorities to quickly resolve the standoff.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest US-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25 percent of all trade between the two countries. The standoff came at a time when the car industry is already straining to maintain production amid shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain disruptions.
“American legislators are freaking out, and rightfully so,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto told the Associated Press. “Pressure is now being exerted by the White House on Trudeau to act more decisively.”
Hundreds of demonstrators in trucks have paralyzed the streets of downtown Ottawa for almost two weeks, and have closed three border crossings in all: at Windsor, opposite Detroit; at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana; and at Emerson, Manitoba, across from North Dakota.
“This is an unprecedented demonstration. It has significant levels of fundraising, coordination, and communication. They have command centers established here and across the country and beyond this country, ”Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said.
On Friday, amid signs that authorities might be prepared to get tough, police in Windsor and Ottawa awaited reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police force.
Ottawa’s mayor has asked for 1,800 additional police officers, nearly doubling the manpower available to the city’s police force, which has 2,100 officers and civilian members.
Canadian trucker Harold Jonker told Al Jazeera the vaccine mandate, which requires truckers to be vaccinated or comply with quarantine rules, has shut down half of his company’s business.
“Mandates and lockdowns are harmful to society. They have been harmful for two years. When they go, we’ll go, ”said Jonker, one of the truckers protesting in Ottawa.
Until now, the Canadian government reaction to the protests has been marked by disagreements over who is in charge. Canada’s emergency preparedness minister said this week that Ontario has ultimate responsibility, while the province’s transport minister said it is the federal government’s job to secure the border.
“The problem is stretched police forces for all three levels of government,” Wiseman said. “If anyone ‘takes responsibility’, they will be charged with failure when things are not resolved quickly or if things go badly.”
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has reported in detail that the convoy was organized by known far-right figures.
In Canada, about 85 percent of drivers are vaccinated, according to the Canadian Trucking Association.
Leaders of the Conservative Party opposed to Trudeau have supported the truckers as the continuing blockade escalates into a political problem for the prime minister. The Freedom Convoy has been promoted and cheered on by Fox News personalities and has attracted support from former President Donald Trump.
The protests have spread outside Canada, as well. Demonstrators angry about pandemic restrictions drove towards Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars, and trucks on Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security has warned that truck protests may be brewing in the United States. The agency said the protests could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington, DC, around Biden’s scheduled State of the Union address to Congress in March.