Protests grow in Canada’s capital as Ontario police fight to end bridge blockade

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Canadian police working to eliminate protesters in Ontario

A group of police lined up to move protesters blocking access to an economically vital bridge in Windsor, Ontario. This is the third week of protests which began as a protest against Canada’s vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border.

[Crowd chatter] “They want everyone, like everyone else, out of here.” “You are all better. Each of you is better.

A group of police lined up to move protesters blocking access to an economically vital bridge in Windsor, Ontario. This is the third week of protests which began as a protest against Canada’s vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border.CreditCredit…Geoff Robins/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As protesters swarmed Canada’s capital, Ottawa, for the third straight weekend to express their anger over pandemic restrictions, police in Windsor, Ont., struggled to tame a blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, a crossing at the US border that is vital to global automotive industry supply chains.

Saturday evening, the bridge was still closed. Police had chased away some protesters in the morning, forming a line to push them back, but others stayed, and the crowds grew as the day went on, despite freezing temperatures.

“We don’t have a deadline actually, it’s something we don’t impose,” Windsor Police Deputy Chief Jason Bellaire said Saturday afternoon. “They are professionals, they know what they are doing and they follow their rhythm.”

The unrest in Canada began in late January, when a loosely organized convoy of truck drivers and others descended on Ottawa to protest a Covid vaccination mandate for truck drivers crossing the Canada-US border. Most Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and trucking organizations have spoken out against the protests.

But the protests have turned into a broader cry of frustration at Canada’s pandemic restrictions – which are among the strictest in the developed world – and at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership.

Over the past two weeks, protesters have blocked roads leading to the US border in several places, including Windsor; Sarnia, Ontario; Emerson, MB; and Coutts, Alta. Automakers have been particularly hard hit by the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge, which normally carries $300 million worth of goods a day, about a third of which is related to the auto industry. Automakers ran out of crucial parts, forcing companies to close some factories from Ontario to Alabama on Friday.

During a meeting with senior officials on Saturday, Trudeau “stressed that border crossings cannot and will not remain closed, and that all options remain on the table,” according to a government statement.

Saturday in Ottawa, just steps from the Canadian Parliament Buildings, the streets turned into a huge festival even as temperatures plunged.

Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Thousands of people flooded downtown streets, making them difficult to navigate at times. Some draped themselves in Canadian flags; others were blaring pop music. Some were young. Others were over 90 years old. They danced and chanted “freedom”. They railed against mandates for vaccines and masks and against Mr. Trudeau. Vendors were quickly selling small Canadian flags and t-shirts that roughly told the prime minister where to go.

Despite Ontario declaring a state of emergency the day before — and tough penalties for protesters, including jail time — the few police officers visible in Ottawa were not seen handing out fines or to apply the law. They were terribly outnumbered.

“They don’t have an easy job,” said Scott Spenser, 36, looking up from a concert of drums on Sparks Street as a phalanx of six officers marched past. “Let’s hope this all ends peacefully and they lift the warrants and we all get back to life.”

Ottawa police said more than 4,000 protesters made their way to the city on Saturday. “Security concerns – resulting from the aggressive and illegal behavior of many protesters – have limited policing capabilities,” they said in a statement.

They said they have implemented an “integrated command center” that would “result in a significantly improved ability of our police service to respond to the current situation.”

Demonstrations also took place in Montreal, Toronto and other cities, drawing crowds of varying sizes.

The Canadian protests have captured the attention of far-right and anti-vaccine groups globally, raising millions of dollars and inspiring counterfeit protests in France, New Zealand and Australia. Organizers of a US convoy said a protest would take place in Washington, DC on March 5.

In Paris on Saturday, police fired tear gas after dozens of cars mimicking Canadian protests escaped police checks. Thousands of cars, motorhomes and trucks carrying protesters from across France have traveled to Paris in recent days to protest against France’s vaccination pass and other government policies.

But Paris police deployed more than 7,000 officers to the capital over the weekend to prevent any blockades, and many protesters’ vehicles were prevented from entering the city. By noon, police had issued more than 280 fines, authorities said.

Credit…Benoit Tessier/Reuters

In Windsor, after police chased away many protesters on Saturday, others arrived on foot to increase their numbers, honking and shouting in what looked like a party atmosphere.

Joanne Moody, a personal support worker from Chatham, Ont., yelled at officers as they formed a line to push the crowd into the street. She stayed into the afternoon, as the tense early atmosphere turned festive, with people dancing and waving Canadian flags. Moody, who had spent the past two weeks at the movement’s initial protest in Ottawa, said she wanted to see an end to mandatory health restrictions.

Aurélien Breedon contributed reporting from Paris and Allison Hannaford from North Bay, Ontario.