WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) — Police moved in to clear and arrest remaining protesters near the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing on Sunday, trying to end a protest against COVID-19 restrictions that have hurt the economy of both nations even as they stood back from a crackdown on a larger protest in the capital, Ottawa.
Local and national police have formed a joint command center in Ottawa, where protests have paralyzed downtown, infuriated residents fed up with police inaction and increased pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The protests have reverberated across the country and beyond, with similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The US Department of Homeland Security has warned that truck convoys may be in preparation in the United States.
Windsor police said multiple arrests were made and several vehicles were towed away just after dawn near the Ambassador Bridge that connects their city – and many Canadian auto plants – to Detroit.
It was not immediately clear when the bridge might be open, but Windsor’s mayor said he hoped it would be Sunday.
“Enforcement will continue in the demonstration area and there will be zero tolerance for illegal activities. The public should avoid the area,” Windsor Police said.
Only a few protesters had remained after police persuaded protesters on Saturday to move their vans and other cars they used to block a crossing that sees 25% of all trade between the two countries.
In Ottawa, the ranks of protesters swelled to what police said were 4,000 protesters on Saturday. The city has seen similar expansions over the past weekend, and loud music played as people crowded downtown where anti-vaccine protesters had camped since late January.
“The whole town is furious to be abandoned by those who are supposed to protect us. They have completely abandoned the rule of law. @OttawaPolice has lost credibility. #OttawaPoliceFailed,” tweeted Artur Wilczynski, a senior government national security official at Communications Security Establishment Canada.
A former Trudeau cabinet minister also blamed her former federal colleagues as well as the province and city for failing to end the protests.
“Surprisingly, it’s not just Ottawa. This is the nation’s capital,” Catherine McKenna tweeted. “But no one – not the city, not the province, not the federal government can seem to unite to end this illegal occupation. It’s appalling. … Get together. Now.”
Trudeau has so far rejected calls to use the military, but said “all options are on the table” to end protests that have slowed industries on both sides of the border. Trudeau called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society. Federal and provincial politicians have said they cannot direct police what to do.
Ottawa police said in a statement Saturday that a joint command center has been established with the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They said it would bolster law enforcement capabilities that had been limited by “security issues – resulting from the aggressive and unlawful behavior of many protesters – limited law enforcement capabilities.”
Police earlier issued a statement calling the protest an illegal occupation and saying they were waiting for reinforcements before implementing a plan to end the protests.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency for the capital last week, where hundreds of trucks remained outside the Parliament Buildings and protesters set up portable toilets outside the Prime Minister’s office where Trudeau’s motorcade usually parks.
Even after protesters’ vehicles were pulled out early Saturday, hundreds more arrived to reinforce the crowds and settled into a confrontation with police about two blocks away, waving flags and shouting.
Friday, a judge ordered the lifting of the blockade mostly vans and cars, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency, authorizing fines of C$100,000 and up to a year in jail for anyone who illegally blocks roads , bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
With the bridge closed, car factories on both sides were forced to shut down or reduce production. The standoff came at a time when the industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced computer chip shortages and other supply chain disruptions.
“We are protesting the fact that the government is taking away our rights,” said Windsor resident Eunice Lucas-Logan. “We want the restrictions removed. We have to wait to find out.
The 67-year-old has been supporting the protest for four days. She said she appreciated that the police were patient.
In Ottawa, Stephanie Ravensbergen, 31, said she came to support her aunt and uncle who have parked their tractor-trailer in the streets since the protest began. She opposes vaccine and mask requirements and said it was important that schoolchildren could see their friends’ faces and emotions.
“We want the right to choose,” Ravensbergen said. “We want the right to be able to do what anyone can do.”
Across the country, protesters halted operations at another border crossing between Surrey, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington, but officials said it was not blocked . A border crossing in Alberta also remained closed.
As protesters decry vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada’s public health measures, such as mask rules and vaccination passports to enter restaurants and theaters, are already falling as omicron’s thrust stabilizes.
Pandemic restrictions there have been much stricter than in the United States, but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the death rate from COVID-19 is one-third that of the United States.
Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writer Ted Shaffrey in Ottawa, Ont., contributed to this report.
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