Judge orders truckers to end U.S.-Canada border blockade [UPDATE]

WINDSOR, Ontario — An Ontario judge on Friday granted an injunction to end the blockade of North America’s busiest international land border by protesters opposed to coronavirus restrictions.

The judge said the injunction would come into effect at 7 p.m. ET Friday to give individuals time to clear the area.

The blockade on the Ambassador Bridge, ongoing since Monday, has cost Canada’s automotive industry hundreds of millions of dollars, the plaintiff Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association said in its Feb. 10 submission to court.

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a provincial state of emergency, calling protests in Ottawa and Windsor a “siege.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. PREVIOUS STORY APPEARS BELOW.

WINDSOR, Ontario — Canada’s Ontario province declared a state of emergency on Friday, and Premier Doug Ford threatened fines and jail terms over anti-vaccine mandate protests that have drastically cut U.S.-Canada trade and disrupted production by automakers.

The “Freedom Convoy” by Canadian truckers opposing a vaccinate-or-quarantine mandate for cross-border drivers, mirrored by a similar U.S. requirement, began with the occupation of the Canadian capital, Ottawa. The truckers then blocked the Ambassador Bridge earlier this week, and shut down two other smaller border crossings.

In spite of the protests, a Canadian trucking trade group says that 90 percent of drivers have been vaccinated.

The closure of the bridge, North America’s busiest international land border crossing and a key supply route for Detroit’s carmakers, has halted some auto output and left officials scrambling to limit economic damage.

Canada sends 75% of its exports to the United States, and the bridge usually handles 8,000 trucks a day, representing a quarter of all cross-border trade, or about C$500 million ($392.56 million U.S.) per day.

About C$100 million worth of auto parts cross the border each day, with many shipments timed to arrive just as manufacturers need them.

Automaker disruptions

General Motors, Ford Motor Co, Chrysler parent Stellantis and Toyota have been impacted by the blockades.

Toyota said Friday the disruption had impacted production at its engine plants in West Virginia and Alabama. The shortages affected Toyota’s production of the RAV4 — the best-selling non-truck vehicle in the United States, Camry, Avalon, Lexus RX and Lexus ES, the automaker said.

“We expect disruptions through the weekend, and we’ll continue to make adjustments as needed,” Toyota said. The largest Japanese automaker said Thursday it would halt production at its Ontario and Kentucky plants through Saturday because of parts shortages tied to the protests.

General Motors, which halted work at a Michigan auto plant on Thursday because of the border issues, said Friday that all plants were running as scheduled. It was forced to halt production Thursday at a Michigan plant where it builds sport utility vehicles after the protests. The largest U.S. automaker said it had canceled a shift on Wednesday and two shifts Thursday at its Lansing Delta Township plant.

Shilpan Amin, GM’s vice president for global purchasing and supply chain, told suppliers that “although we may have intermittent stoppages, we intend to keep production running and meet current schedules at all of our manufacturing operations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.” GM was “encouraging suppliers to evaluate alternative options in order to sustain your operations to meet our production schedules.”

Ford said it was running its plants in Windsor and Oakville, another Canadian city, at reduced capacity. It added that it hoped for a quick resolution “because it could have widespread impact on all automakers in the U.S. and Canada.” Ford is looking at flying in some auto parts into Windsor, where it produces engines for popular models, a union official said.

Stellantis said some U.S. and Canadian plants cut short shifts on Thursday after many shortened shifts Wednesday night “due to parts shortages caused by the closure of the Detroit/Windsor bridge.” Stellantis said the situation, “combined with an already fragile supply chain, will bring further hardship to people and industries still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Honda said its Alliston, Ontario, plant temporarily suspended manufacturing on one production line Wednesday evening due to border delays but was back online.

And auto parts maker Magna International said on Friday disruptions at the bridge had forced some customers to idle or cut production requirements. Magna Chief Executive Officer Swamy Kotagiri discussed the situation on an earnings call.

“If the gridlock lasts for longer, it could affect big Canadian suppliers such as Magna and Linamar Corp, and it might affect Magna’s bottom-line numbers in the (current) quarter,” said Sam Fiorani, vice president at AutoForecast Solutions LLC.

U.S.-listed shares of Magna dropped nearly 4.3% to $77.42, while its Toronto stock fell 4.4% to C$98.50.

The protests have piled more pressure on a North American auto industry wrestling with a fragile supply chain and a global chip shortage that has wreaked havoc with production since the outbreak of the pandemic. Magna CEO Kotagiri warned of continued semiconductor supply constraints to impact production in 2022 during his earnings call. However, the company expects semiconductor availability to impact production more significantly in the first half of the year.

‘Severe’ consequences

Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency Friday in reaction to the truck blockades in Ottawa and at the U.S. border and said he will urgently enact laws to crack down on those who interfere with the free flow of goods and people.

Since Monday, scores of drivers protesting Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions and venting their rage against liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have bottled up the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, disrupting the auto industry on both sides of the border. And hundreds more truckers have paralyzed downtown Ottawa over the past two weeks.

Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to enact orders that make it “crystal clear” it is illegal to block critical infrastructure.

“Let me be as clear as I can — there will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe,” he said. “This is a pivotal, pivotal moment for our nation.”

Ford said violators will face up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000. The orders will also provide additional authority “to consider taking away the personal and commercial licenses of anyone who doesn’t comply,” according to his office.

Separately, the mayor of Windsor planned to ask for an injunction Friday afternoon to try to break up the bridge blockade.

Federal, provincial and local authorities have hesitated to forcibly remove the self-proclaimed Freedom Convoy protesters there and elsewhere around the country, reflecting apparently a lack of manpower by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fear of violence. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens warned earlier this week that some of the truckers are “willing to die.”

‘Freaking out’

But the political pressure to reopen the bridge appeared to be mounting along with the economic toll. The Biden administration has urged Trudeau’s government to use its federal powers to end the blockade, and Michigan’s governor likewise called for a quick resolution to the standoff.

“American legislators are freaking out, and rightfully so,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “Pressure is now being exerted by the White House on Trudeau to act more decisively.” 

In addition to the bumper-to-bumper occupation of Ottawa, protesters have now closed three border crossings in all: at Windsor; at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana; and at Emerson, Manitoba, across from North Dakota.

“We are now two weeks into the siege of Ottawa,” Ford said. “It’s an illegal occupation. It’s no longer a protest.” 

The Freedom Convoy has been promoted and cheered on by many Fox News personalities and attracted support from the likes of former President Donald Trump. 

“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,” embattled Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said. 

Who’s in charge?

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. 

The reaction to the protests has also been marked by disagreements over who’s 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.

Also, the leadership of the opposition Conservative Party on the federal level has openly supported the truckers, apparently happy to make this Trudeau’s problem. Ford, the Conservative premier of Ontario, acknowledged he was at his cottage last weekend, snowmobiling. He said he was taking calls about the siege. 

“The problem is stretched police forces for all three levels of government,” Wiseman said, adding: “If anyone `takes responsibility,’ they will be charged with failure when things are not resolved quickly or if things go badly.”

Copycats

Wiseman said the Canadian army should have been called in after a week of the Ottawa standoff. 

“Hesitancy by federal authorities to act decisively has emboldened the occupiers and copycat occupations,” he said. “Ottawa, I believe, will be compelled to use the army.”

The protests have spread outside Canada as well. Demonstrators angry over pandemic restrictions drove toward Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars and trucks Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.

And in a bulletin to local and state law enforcement officers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that truck protests may be in the works in the United States. The agency said the protests could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington around the State of the Union address in March.

Canada’s COVID response has worked

While the Canadian protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of the country’s infection measures are already rapidly being lifted as the omicron surge levels off.

Trudeau continues to stand firm against lifting vaccine mandates. The prime minister has called protesters a “fringe” who believe in conspiracy theories and wear “tinfoil hats.” It has only incensed them further.

Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 is one-third that of the United States. Canada lacks hospital capacity, so provinces have been quick to impose lockdowns when waves have hit. 

Includes material from AP.

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