Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a stern warning to protesters who have set up truck blockades to express their opposition to government mandates regarding COVID-19, saying, “We’ve heard you. It’s time go home now.”
“You don’t want to end up losing your license, end up with a criminal record, which will impact your job, your livelihood, even your ability to travel internationally, including to the US,” Trudeau said Friday.
“We’ve heard your frustration with COVID, with the measures that are there to keep people safe. We’ve heard you. It’s time to go home now.”
Trudeau’s remarks came as Ontario’s premier declared a state of emergency in reaction to the border blockade, and a judge in the province issued an injunction ordering truckers to clear an international bridge by 7 pm local time (midnight GMT) on Friday. Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened heavy penalties against those who interfere with the free flow of goods and people.
Ford said he will convene the provincial cabinet on Saturday to enact orders that make it “crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and service along critical infrastructure”.
“Let me be as clear as I can – there will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe,” he said in a Friday announcement.
“This is a pivotal, pivotal moment for our nation.”
Truckers have slowed or halted border transit, causing parts shortages that shut down car plants in both the United States and Canada.
Trudeau spoke with US President Joe Biden on Friday about the border obstructions, saying they “are having significant direct impacts on citizens’ lives and livelihoods”, White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Trudeau “promised quick action in enforcing the law,” the White House said.
A demonstration that began in January as a convoy travelling across Canada in protest against COVID-19 vaccination requirements for truckers crossing the US-Canada border has morphed into broader complaints about the Liberal government and attracted proponents of the anti-vaccination movement.
Demonstrators have shut down the centre of the Canadian capital, Ottawa, with more than 400 vehicles blocking streets.
“I call it a siege because that is what it is. It’s an illegal occupation. This is no longer a protest. With a protest, you peacefully make your point and you go back home,” Ford said.
The Ontario leader pledged new legal action against protesters, including fines of up to 100,000 Canadian dollars ($78,000) and potential jail time for non-compliance with the government’s orders.
The city of Windsor, on the US border, had sought the injunction against members of the self-proclaimed “Freedom Convoy” who have used dozens of trucks to bottle up the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to the US city to Detroit.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court said during a virtual hearing that the order would give protesters time to leave. Windsor police immediately warned that demonstrators blocking the streets could be subject to arrest and their vehicles may be seized.
The blockade has cost Canada’s automotive industry hundreds of millions of dollars, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association said in a court filing.
Federal, provincial, and local authorities have hesitated to forcibly remove the protesters, reflecting a lack of resources by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fears of potential violence. But pressure to open the border crossings is mounting, with automakers Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda closing plants or cancelling shifts.
The Biden administration has urged Trudeau’s government to use its powers to end the blockade. Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday called on Canadian authorities to quickly resolve the standoff.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest US-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25 percent of all trade between the two countries. The standoff comes at a time when the car industry is already straining to maintain production amid shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain disruptions.
“American legislators are freaking out, and rightfully so,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto told the Associated Press news agency. “Pressure is now being exerted by the White House on Trudeau to act more decisively.”
Hundreds of demonstrators in trucks have paralysed the streets of downtown Ottawa for almost two weeks, and have closed three border crossings in all: at Windsor, opposite Detroit; at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana; and at Emerson, Manitoba, across from North Dakota.
“This is an unprecedented demonstration. It has significant levels of fundraising, coordination, and communication. They have command centres established here and across the country and beyond this country,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said.
On Friday, amid signs that authorities might be prepared to get tough, police in Windsor and Ottawa awaited reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the federal police force.
Ottawa’s mayor has asked for 1,800 additional police officers, nearly doubling the resources available to the city’s police force, which has 2,100 officers and civilian members.
Canadian trucker Harold Jonker told Al Jazeera the vaccine mandate, which requires truckers to be vaccinated or comply with quarantine rules, has shut down half of his company’s business.
“Mandates and lockdowns are harmful to society. They have been harmful for two years. When they go, we’ll go,” said Jonker, one of the truckers protesting in Ottawa.
Until now, the Canadian government reaction to the protests has been marked by disagreements over who is in charge. Canada’s emergency preparedness minister said this week that Ontario has ultimate responsibility, while the province’s transport minister said it is the federal government’s job to secure the border.
“The problem is stretched police forces for all three levels of government,” Wiseman said “If anyone ‘takes responsibility’, they will be charged with failure when things are not resolved quickly or if things go badly.”
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has reported in detail that the convoy was organised by known far-right figures.
In Canada, about 85 percent of drivers are vaccinated, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, an industry body that does not condone the protests.
Leaders of the Conservative Party opposed to Trudeau have supported the truckers as the continuing blockades escalate into a political problem for the prime minister. The Freedom Convoy has been promoted and cheered on by Fox News personalities and has attracted support from former US President Donald Trump.
The protests have spread outside Canada, as well. Demonstrators angry about pandemic restrictions drove towards Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars, and trucks on Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security has warned that truck protests may be brewing. The agency said the protests could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend and spread to Washington, DC, around Biden’s scheduled State of the Union address to Congress in March.