As protesters swarmed Canada’s capital of Ottawa for the third weekend in a row to vent their anger about pandemic restrictions, the police in Windsor, Ontario, struggled to tame a blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, a crossing with the United States that is vital to the supply chains of the global automotive industry.
By late Saturday afternoon, the police in Windsor had partly pushed back the protesters at the bridge, and some of the trucks had left. But the demonstrators remained in place and the crowd swelled as the day progressed. The police showed no sign of forcing the protesters to leave.
“We don’t have a time frame actually, that’s something that we’re not imposing on our ground command staff,” said Deputy Chief Jason Bellaire of the Windsor in an interview outside a police command center bus Saturday afternoon. “They are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and they are pacing themselves.”
The unrest in Canada began two weeks ago, when a loosely organized convoy of truck drivers and others descended on Ottawa to protest the mandatory vaccination of truck drivers crossing the US-Canada border. But the demonstrations have transformed into a broader cry of frustration against the Canadian government’s pandemic restrictions – which are among the most stringent in developed economies – and against the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Over the past two weeks, protesters have blocked roads leading to the US border at four points – Windsor; Sarnia, Ontario; Emerson, Manitoba; and Coutts, Alberta.
On Saturday in Ottawa, steps from Canada’s Parliament buildings, the streets morphed into a huge festival.
Thousands of people flooded downtown streets, sometimes making them difficult to navigate. Some people draped themselves in Canadian flags; others blared pop music. Some were young. Others were in their 90s. They danced and chanted “freedom.” They railed against vaccine and mask mandates and Mr. Trudeau’s leadership. Vendors made quick sales of small Canada flags and T-shifts that rudely told the prime minister where to go.
Though Ontario Premier Doug Ford had declared a state of emergency the day before – and stiff penalties for protesters that included arrest, the few police visible in Ottawa were not seen handing out fines or enforcing the law. They were terribly outnumbered.
“They don’t have an easy job,” said Scott Spenser, 36, looking up from a drum concert on Sparks Street, as a phalanx of six officers marched by. “Hopefully this all ends peacefully and they lift the mandates and we all get back to living.”
Protests also erupted in Montreal, Toronto and elsewhere in the country.
In Windsor, a court order calling for protesters to disband or face stiff fines or prison went into effect on Friday at 7 pm
While one intersection leading to the Ambassador Bridge was cleared by the early afternoon on Saturday, two other intersections remained blocked by pick up trucks and cars, and protesters moved freely between the two.
After the police pushed back the crowd, more local residents arrived on foot to add to their numbers, honking and yelling in what resembled a party atmosphere.
Joanne Moody, a personal support worker from Chatham, Ontario, yelled at police officers on Saturday morning as they formed a line to push the crowd down the street. She remained at the demonstration into the afternoon, as the earlier tense mood grew festive, with people dancing and waving Canadian flags. Ms. Moody, who spent the last two weeks at the movement’s original demonstration in Ottawa, said she wanted to see an end to mandated health restrictions.
Deputy Chief Bellaire of the Windsor Police Service would not disclose the number of officers detailed to clearing the blockade, citing operational sensitivity. He said five other police forces were assisting his department, as well as tow trucks sent across the border by authorities in Michigan.
On Saturday there were also concerns about protesters blocking the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ontario, which connects Southern Ontario and Buffalo, NY Trucks use that bridge to transport automotive and agricultural products between the countries.
Constable Philip Gavin, of the Niagara Regional Police Service, said by email that the police were working to manage a convoy that had traveled toward the bridge, and that Ontario Provincial Police had closed the Fort Erie-bound lanes of the Queen Elizabeth Highway.
Automakers have been particularly affected by the partial shutdown of the Ambassador Bridge, which normally carries $ 300 million worth of goods a day, about a third of which are related to the auto industry. The blockades have left carmakers short of crucial parts, forcing companies to shut down some plants from Ontario to Alabama on Friday.
The protests have attracted the attention of far-right and anti-vaccine groups globally, raising millions of dollars and inspiring copycat protests in, France, New Zealand and Australia. Organizers of a US convoy announced a protest in Washington, DC, on March 5.
“We know that the best solution to unlawful blockades is that people decide for themselves that they’ve been heard, that they have expressed their frustrations and disagreements, and that it is now time to go home,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting from Ottawa.