Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood firm against an easing of the country's COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday in the face of mounting pressure from protesters using trucks to blockade the capital and U.S. border crossings, including the economically vital bridge to Detroit.
A growing number of Canadian provinces have moved to lift some of their precautions as the Omicron surge levels off, but Mr Trudeau defended the measures the federal government is responsible for, including the one that has angered many truck drivers: a rule that took effect Jan. 15 requiring truckers entering Canada to be fully vaccinated.
“The reality is that vaccine mandates, and the fact that Canadians stepped up to get vaccinated to almost 90%, ensured that this pandemic didn't hit as hard here in Canada as elsewhere in the world,” Mr Trudeau said in Parliament in Ottawa.
The country has been beset in recent weeks by protests against COVID-19 restrictions and against Mr Trudeau himself.
A blockade by people mostly in pickup trucks entered its third day at the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Traffic was prevented from entering Canada, while some U.S.-bound traffic was still moving.
The bridge carries 25% of all trade between Canada and the U.S., and Canadian lawmakers expressed increasing worry about the economic effects.
“They are essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians,” Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Federal Bill Blair said. “They are cutting off essential supply lines.” Also, protesters have been blocking the border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, for a week and a half, with about 50 trucks remaining there Wednesday. And more than 400 trucks have paralyzed downtown Ottawa, Canada's capital, in a protest that began late last month.
While protesters have been calling for Mr Trudeau's removal, most of the restrictive measures around the country have been put in place by provincial governments. Those include requirements that people show proof-of-vaccination “passports” to enter restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and sporting events.
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Prince Edward Island announced plans this week to roll back some or all of their precautions, with Alberta, Canada's most conservative province, dropping its vaccine passport immediately and getting rid of masks at the end of the month.
Alberta opposition leader Rachel Notley accused Alberta Premier Jason Kenney of allowing an “illegal blockade to dictate public health measures.” Despite Alberta's plans to scrap the public health measures, the protest there continued.
“We've got guys here -- they've lost everything due to these mandates and they're not giving up, and they're willing to stand their ground and keep going until this is done,” said protester John Vanreeuwyk, a feedlot operator from Coaldale, Alberta.
He added: "Until Trudeau moves, we don't move,” As for the Ambassador Bridge blockade, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said police had not removed people for fear of inflaming the situation and causing a larger protest. But he added: “We're not going to let this happen for a prolonged period of time.” Police said the demonstration involved 50 to 74 vehicles and about 100 protesters. Some of the protesters say they are willing to die for their cause, according to the mayor.
“I'll be brutally honest: You are trying to have a rational conversation, and not everyone on the ground is a rational actor," Dilkens said. “Police are doing what is right by taking a moderate approach, trying to sensibly work through this situation where everyone can walk away, nobody gets hurt, and the bridge can open.” At a news conference in Ottawa that excluded mainstream news organizations, Benjamin Dichter, one of the protest organizers, said: “I think the government and the media are drastically underestimating the resolve and patience of truckers.” “Drop the mandates. Drop the passports," he said.
The “freedom truck convoy” has been promoted by Fox News personalities and attracted support from many U.S. Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who called Mr Trudeau a “far left lunatic” who has “destroyed Canada with insane Covid mandates.” Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. Canada's COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the U.S.
About 90% of truckers in Canada are vaccinated, and trucker associations and many big-rig operators have denounced the protests. The U.S. has the same vaccination rule for truckers entering the country, so it would make little difference if Trudeau lifted the restriction.
Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said in Parliament that countries around the world are removing restrictions and noted that Canadian provinces are, too. She accused Mr Trudeau of wanting to live in a “permanent pandemic.” “Many of the reasons previously used to keep Canadians under restrictions to are vanishing before our eyes,” she said. “The prime minister needs to put his ego aside. He needs to do what's right for the country. He needs to to end the mandates. He needs to end the restrictions.” Ontario, Canada's largest province with almost 40% of the country's population, is sticking to what it calls a “very cautious” stance toward the pandemic, and the deputy premier said it has no plans to drop vaccine passports or mask requirements.
Garrett Buchanan drove 10 hours from High Prairie in northern Alberta to join the protest and said he is staying until their demands are met.
“Yeah — until the mandates get dropped, and if they can work on getting (Trudeau) out, I'd stay longer for that, too," he said.