Police in Windsor, Ont., were locked in an apparent standoff with protesters clogging a key trade artery between the United States and Canada on Saturday, even as demonstrations against COVID-19 public health measures continued in Ottawa and other cities across the country.
Officers with the Windsor Police Service, the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and others began moving in on protesters near the Ambassador Bridge around mid-morning after a court-ordered deadline for clearing the site passed — and was largely ignored — on Friday evening.
Shortly before noon on Saturday, a line of police officers slowly advanced on the protesters who had gathered at an intersection at the foot of the bridge, forcing the demonstrators farther away from the site.
The officers were supported by two RCMP armoured vehicles and several police cruisers in a show of force that the roughly 200 protesters greeted with renditions of “O Canada” before falling back.
Yet police soon halted their advance before standing nose to nose with the demonstrators, whose ranks grew as hundreds more arrived throughout the afternoon. The resulting impasse continued to block traffic from crossing the bridge.
By late afternoon, hundreds of protesters continued to occupy a stretch of road near the bridge, with efforts to clear the area having ground to a standstill.
Windsor resident Wesley Dippoliti, who chose to get vaccinated but believes others should be able to choose not to without fear of consequences, said he’s willing to stay “as long as it takes.”
“The way I see it, in the past, people have fought wars and died for their freedoms, freedoms of their people and the things they believe in,” he said. “And if coming out here and fighting for my freedoms means simply standing around and having a coffee and having these conversations, then that’s all that matters.”
Jason Bellaire, deputy chief of operations for the Windsor Police Service, said officers were doing what they could, in a “reasonable way,” to try and resolve the situation. Police were trying to negotiate with the demonstrators to protect the safety of all involved, he added.
The blockade at the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit has stemmed the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in cross border trade, prompting entreaties from U.S. President Joe Biden and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for Canadian officials to reopen the crossing.
The blockade of Canada’s busiest border crossing followed nearly two weeks of protests that first started in Ottawa but have since spread to other cities and ports of entry here and around the world.
The Canada Border Services Agency announced Saturday that services at the border crossing at Coutts, Alta., have been temporarily suspended after two weeks of protests at the normally busy port.
While the agency was directing commercial traffic to other crossings North Portal and Regway in Saskatchewan, and Rooseville and Kingsgate in British Columbia, it recommended travellers continue to check for updates “due to evolving circumstances.”
Federal, provincial and municipal politicians of all stripes are calling for an end to the blockades, whose original stated aim was to protest vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers.
The demonstrations have since evolved into a catch-all movement opposed to all public health restrictions and sometimes calling for the unlawful overthrow of democratically elected governments.
While the protests have disrupted businesses and trade in different parts of the country, concerns have also been raised about the presence of far-right extremists and hate groups using the demonstration to advance their ideological agendas.
The police action in Windsor is arguably the strongest law enforcement response to the mass protests to date, and came as demonstrators continued to cause disruptions in other parts of Canada.
Hundreds of people and dozens of trucks remained dug in along Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill and around downtown Ottawa, where many have been parked since the end of January.
The mood on the streets resembled a carnival or Canada Day celebration as hundreds of people, including some families with children, streamed toward the seat of Canada’s democracy, many carrying Canadian flags.
Yet amid the revelry was an uneasy vibe.
Mingled amid the Maple Leafs were other flags and placards, many bearing vulgar words and messages attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other political leaders.
Protesters tore down a fence around the National War Memorial, which had been set up after some participants stood and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the memorial during the first weekend of demonstrations.
Police stood by and watched as the fence was removed and protesters, including some veterans, started to gather around the monument dedicated to Canada’s war dead. It wasn’t immediately clear where the fence had gone.
“Completely unacceptable,” Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay tweeted in response. “Fences were put up to prevent the flagrant desecration and disrespect of our sacred monuments. This behaviour is disappointing and I’m calling on protesters to respect our monuments.”
Police were also seen parked one block away from Parliament, where demonstrators had taken over a parking lot and were blasting music while passersby danced. The officers did not respond when trucks began honking their horns, in contravention of a court order.
Demonstrators were also seen filling jerry cans from a fuel tank in the back of a large pick-up truck only a couple of blocks away from Parliament and within eyesight of several other police officers.
The Ottawa Police Service, which has been criticized for not taking a harder line with the protesters, reported some demonstrators “exhibited aggressive behaviour” by refusing to follow directions and even overwhelming officers.
“All available officers were deployed last night,” the force said in a statement.
“We have a plan to end this unlawful occupation and await the necessary reinforcements to do so.”
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Friday the biggest limitation on his force’s ability to end the crisis is a lack of officers, adding he’d received no response to his request for 1,800 personnel from the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police.
Trudeau previously said the RCMP and OPP had reviewed the request, adding “what is needed is being provided to be able to move through this in a peaceful, responsible way.”
Trudeau has refused to speculate on when the current crisis might end, and antigovernment protesters railing against COVID-19 measures seemed unfazed by the latest efforts to rein them in.
Jurisdictional battles and partisan tensions also appeared to be hindering collaboration on resolving the disruptions.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency Friday that will allow his cabinet to impose $100,000 fines and up to one year in jail as punishments against people who continue to illegally block roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure.
More demonstrations were underway or being planned this weekend in other parts of the country, with blockades continuing at the border crossings in Alberta and Manitoba and another planned in Saskatchewan.
Protesters gathered in Edmonton continued honking their horns in violation of a court injunction obtained by the city to address the noise.
Demonstrator Lois Hyatt said she felt the noise was a fair price to pay in order to “get our freedoms back.”
“Honk away!” she said over the noise of horns.
Meanwhile, hundreds assembled outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto, where crowd members of all ages waved Canadian flags and cheered as a speaker declared the event to be about freedom.
Diane Elms, a homeopath from Hagersville, Ont., was on hand with her grandchildren. She said she felt it was important to show them the importance of fighting for their rights to choose whether or not to get a vaccine and argued governments should not require inoculations.
“Since this has all started even common sense has not prevailed in this country anymore,” the 62-year-old said. “We have the right to stand up and say this is wrong.”
In Quebec, thousands gathered at one of Montreal’s largest parks on Saturday in solidarity with other convoys.
Among them was the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier.
“The wind is turning around,” he told the crowd. “We don’t want a reopening plan, we want it to be over now, today.”
With files from Noushin Ziafati in Windsor, Ont., Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa, Virginie Ann in Montreal, Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton and Ross Marowits in Toronto