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The Canadian police in Windsor, Ontario, began making arrests on Sunday morning near the Ambassador Bridge, clearing a roadway to a vital border crossing to the United States and one of the most visible sites of an anti-government protest movement that has roiled Canada for weeks.
For the moment, the bridge remained closed, but the authorities suggested that might soon change.
“Today, our national economic crisis at the Ambassador bridge came to an end,” the mayor of Windsor, Drew Dilkens, said on Sunday. “Border crossings will reopen when it is safe to do so and I defer to police and border agencies to make that determination.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of uniformed police officers approached the protesters, some of whom had left their vehicles parked at intersections leading to the bridge. A phalanx of police officers warned the protesters they would be charged with criminal mischief, before closing in the small crowd and making arrests. A tow truck was used to removed a pair of parked pickup trucks blocking the approach to the bridge.
“There will be zero tolerance for illegal activity,” the Windsor Police warned in a statement.
The authorities also urged members of the public to avoid the area — but at least some appeared to have other ideas. On Sunday, a Facebook group supporting the protesters issued “urgent announcements” calling on people to make their way to the bridge.
In ordinary times, the bridge, which spans the Detroit River, is a main avenue of international commerce, with goods moving steadily between the United States and Canada. The nearly weeklong blockade has cost American automakers, in particular, millions of dollars.
In a meeting with senior officials on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “stressed that border crossings cannot, and will not, remain closed, and that all options remain on the table,” according to a government statement.
Mayor Dilkens, too, said Sunday that some lines could not be crossed.
“Canada is nation that believes in the right to freedom of speech and expression,” he said, “but we are also bound by the rule of law.”
On Sunday, the police defended their patient approach.
“Police used discretion during the course of the demonstration to avoid creating an unstable situation and potentially putting the public at risk,” they said. “This exercising of police discretion should not be confused with lack of enforcement.”
Catherine Porter and Vjosa Isai contributed reporting.
— Vjosa Isai, Sarah Maslin Nir and Allison Hannaford
The arrests in Windsor on Sunday were the first major police action since truckers and other Canadians protesting vaccine mandates laid siege to the area around Canada’s Parliament three weeks ago, inspiring copycat demonstrations across the country and beyond.
But the police have done little to intervene where the movement began: Ottawa, Canada’s capital. On Saturday, the protest there swelled in both size and energy, giving the downtown streets the air of a giant — if illegal — party as vastly outnumbered police officers stood by and watched.
Thousands of protesters flooded the streets so thickly that it became almost impossible to move. Music played on various corners, and people danced in intersections. Vendors set up along the edges of the crowd, making quick sales of small Canada flags and T-shirts that rudely told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where to go. Calls of “freedom” rang out repeatedly.
A day earlier, the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, announced a state of emergency and warned of steep new penalties for protesters — but few police officers could be seen at the Ottawa demonstration.
Those officers who were present, dressed in neon-yellow vests, strolled in groups past protesters who were openly violating the law. Some carried gas cans, presumably to supply the truckers parked in the streets, though the Ottawa police had said they would crack down on anyone giving “material aid” to the demonstrators. And despite a court injunction obtained last week by a neighborhood resident, truck drivers were blasting their horns without ceasing.
On Saturday, frustrated Ottawa residents took the streets themselves, holding a sizable counterprotest to call for an end to the demonstration. Many residents have complained of being intimidated by protesters, who have forced businesses in the area to close and hampered the police’s ability to respond to 911 calls.
The unrest was not limited to Ottawa and Windsor.
Other protests were continuing in at least a dozen Canadian cities, drawing crowds of varying sizes. They included a modest demonstration in Saskatchewan, where a small convoy of truckers parked on a plot of land near a border crossing, according to reports. A larger demonstration in Alberta caused the Canada Border Services Agency on Saturday to temporarily suspend service at the Coutts border crossing, according to its website.
In a meeting with senior officials on Saturday, Mr. Trudeau “stressed that border crossings cannot, and will not, remain closed, and that all options remain on the table,” according to a government statement.
— Vjosa Isai, Sarah Maslin Nir and Allison Hannaford
Weeks after protesters spread across much of Canada to deliver an unruly message to a government they see as overreaching, counterprotesters are taking to the streets with their own message: “Just go home.”
Each weekend, Ottawa has been swollen with thousands of supporters who jam the streets with dance parties, bonfires, even inflatable hot tubs. Protesters pour into local stores without masks — violating provincial orders — shoot off fireworks, flout jugs of diesel fuel and lean on truck horns at all hours of the day.
The police response has been all but invisible. Even after the premier of Ottawa’s province, Ontario, ordered a state of emergency, giving officers the authority to detain and steeply fine the protesters, there have been just a handful of arrests.
And so on Saturday, thousands of counterprotesters decided to take action. Using a network of social media groups ordinarily dedicated to subjects like dog-walking and barbecues, they passed the word and residents took the streets.
Suzanne Charest, a semiretired communication specialist who turned out for the march, still has trouble recognizing her newly upside-down world,
“I think: did we really just do this?: she said. “It’s surreal that it’s gotten to this point It feels like a bad dream that has lasted for two weeks.”
Any sympathy the residents may have once felt for fellow citizens frustrated by a long pandemic and seemingly unending restrictions has worn away under the roar and fumes of diesel engines running without pause.
Some have far more serious concerns. One counterprotest organizer, Alex Silas, said the idea was born out of fear, pointing to what he called “alt-right fascists at the core, with dangerous intentions”
On Sunday, tensions raised as the counterprotesters returned to the streets, with hundreds of local residents forming a human blockade and trying to prevent more than 30 trucks from gaining access to the downtown core.
The counterprotests are not limited to the capital. According to organizers, the same day more than 3,000 people rallied in Ottawa against the occupation, a sizable group gathered outside the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Many Canadians say they are exhausted by the constant disruption caused by the government protests, and they have started gathering across the country. Twitter hashtags like #convoygohome, #GoHomeFluTruxKlan and #GoHomeDipshits make clear the frustration of many Canadians.
— Allison Hannaford
The numbers of truck drivers protesting vaccine mandates in Canada has swelled since the drivers first gathered last month. Blockades in some places, like the Ambassador Bridge — a vital link for the automobile industry that connects Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit — have disrupted the flow of goods between the United States and Canada. An Ontario court ruled late Friday that protesters must clear the bridge.
After first disrupting traffic in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, almost three weeks ago, truck drivers subsequently staged protests in other cities, including Toronto, Quebec City and Calgary, Alberta. As of Friday afternoon, four border crossings were blocked: Windsor; Sarnia, Ontario; Emerson, Manitoba; and Coutts, Alberta.
With the turmoil in Canada only intensifying from a protest movement that has shut down the urban cores of several cities and blocked crucial highways into the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has mostly sought a quiet path through the tumult.
Mr. Trudeau hinted at a harder line on Friday, announcing, “Everything is on the table because this unlawful activity has to end.” But he has refrained from exerting greater federal authority to end the truck blockade and the protests, frustrating some Canadians who are impatient with the disruptions, as well as political voices on the Canadian left and in Washington.
His initial restraint may make more sense in the context of Canada’s tenuous political balance, in which Mr. Trudeau leads an unpopular minority government and the right-wing establishment is publicly trying on an embrace of populist methods it long disdained.
By holding back, Mr. Trudeau has avoided turning the protests into a referendum on his leadership, which has the approval of only 42 percent of Canadians, or on his pandemic policies in general, which have also polarized voters.
Allowing the protests to enter their third weekend has increased the toll on the economy and on daily life. But it has also kept the public and the political focus trained on the protesters themselves.
The demonstrations shaking the nation’s capital began as a protest against the mandatory vaccination of truck drivers crossing the U.S.-Canada border. They have morphed into a battle cry against pandemic restrictions as a whole, and the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Trudeau, who is isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, has sought to downplay the scope and influence of the protesters, calling them a “small fringe minority,” and lashing out at them for desecrating war memorials, wielding Nazi symbols, spreading disinformation and stealing food from the homeless during protests in Ottawa.
During the pandemic, repeated polls have shown that a majority of Canadians support public health measures to contain the pandemic, but the number of Canadians who would like to see restrictions end has risen in recent weeks, and the demonstrations have tapped into pandemic fatigue across the country after months of lockdowns.
More than two-thirds of Canadians said they had “very little in common” with how the Ottawa protesters see things, while 32 percent said they had “a lot in common,” according to a survey conducted last week by Abacus Data, a research firm.
Police and analysts say the protests, which have galvanized thousands of demonstrators in Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, among other places, have no single leader, but encompass an assortment of people, many of them on the political right.
A key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” that arrived in Ottawa last week is Tamara Lich, who was previously secretary of the relatively new Maverick Party, a right-of-center group that was started to promote the separation of Canada’s three western Prairie Provinces from the rest of the country.
Ms. Lich, a former fitness instructor who has sung and played guitar in an Alberta band called Blind Monday, played a leading role in organizing a GoFundMe campaign that raised about 10 million Canadian dollars, about $7.8 million, for the cause. But the online service has turned over only about 1 million dollars of that. After consulting the police, the company closed the campaign and is refunding the rest of the money to donors, citing “violence and other unlawful activity” during the demonstrations.
Ms. Lich has called for the federal government to strike down pandemic restrictions in Canada, such as provincial vaccine mandates and rules requiring masks. But Canada has a federal system in which provincial governments have considerable constitutional power, including over health care regulations.
“Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right, ending all mandates and restrictions on our freedoms,” Ms. Lich said at a news conference in Ottawa last week, during which she did not take questions. “We will continue our protest until we see a clear plan for their elimination.”
Another main organizer of the truck convoy is a group calling itself Canada Unity, which has published a “memorandum of understanding” calling on Canada’s appointed senators and Canada’s Governor General (the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada’s constitutional monarchy) to abolish all Covid-19 related restrictions and to allow all unvaccinated workers whose employment was terminated because of vaccine mandates to get their jobs back.
Members of the far-right People’s Party of Canada are also well represented among the protesters in Ottawa. The party has no seats in the federal Parliament. Its leader, Maxime Bernier, has denounced vaccine mandates and has previously railed against immigration and multiculturalism.
Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, described the protests not as a mass national movement but, rather as “the most extreme manifestation we have seen of frustration about pandemic restrictions.”
“To the extend that the convoy is anti-vax and anti-science,” he added, “it is on the margins of Canadian society.”
Under persistent snowfall on Saturday morning, protesters convened on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill — part of the weekend tide of out-of-towners, sympathizers and gawkers who have come to support the truckers camping downtown now for more than 15 days.
By afternoon the snow had let up, but all morning thick flakes covered the Canadian flags that protesters wore as capes, and bled the ink on handmade signs that were pinned to the iron railings of the Gothic-style parliamentary buildings. Undaunted by the weather, the posters rallied against vaccines, mask mandates and the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
In discussions, many demonstrators have emphasized that their cause is not tied to the nationalistic beliefs associated with similar protests elsewhere, particularly in the United States. But the American Confederate flag, the Gadsden flag (yellow with a snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”) and the Canadian Red Ensign, which experts say are symbols of white nationalism, have been spotted in Ottawa in recent weeks.
On Saturday, one of the few Black protesters in the crowd, a woman who gave only her first name, Sharon, because she said she mistrusted journalists, wore a sandwich board that read: “Do I look like a white supremacist?”
Sharon, a clinical social worker, has made the three-hour drive from her hometown to Ottawa to join the protesters over the past three weeks. “Do you know how hurtful it is to have your prime minister say we are a fringe minority with unacceptable beliefs?” she said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s characterization of the protesters this month.
“That is saying there are acceptable views to have, and unacceptable ones,” she said, adding that she believed such thoughts were the purview of communist systems, not democracies. “It is implying that what should be considered as Canadian is what he is thinking.”
As she stood on an esplanade in front of Parliament, people led the protesters in Christian prayers — “with a maple leaf in one hand and a cross in the other,” one prayer leader said — and called on Canadian saints to support their cause. Beside her two people animatedly discussed how the government might track people with social media, and a woman wore a T-shirt with a QR code (a symbol for the Canadian government’s vaccine pass) crossed out in red.
On Wellington Street, as pop music played, a man knocked on the door of a truck and asked the driver to autograph his Canadian flag, which was covered in signatures.
Karl Braeker, 93, sat on an orange wool blanket at the Centennial Fountain under a dusting of snow. Originally from Germany, Mr. Braeker said he had served in the German military as a teenager under the Nazis, and emigrated to Canada in 1951.
“It is very deep what brings me here: I grew up under Hitler in Germany,” he said. He had come in person concerned over reports that the protesters shared white nationalistic or Nazi sentiments. From his vantage point on the fountain, he said, he felt they did not.
Watching the protests, he said, had “brought back all of my P.T.S.D.” from serving in Hitler’s army. He said that he had not slept for days when the protest first began — particularly after hearing that swastikas had been seen on flags. He asked his son to drive him here to see for himself. “I’ve always loved Canada for the freedom,” Mr. Braeker said. “I had to come here to see.”
Mr. Braeker is not vaccinated but is not against others getting vaccinated. He said he opposed mandating that people receive the shot. He found he sympathized with the protesters’ demands. In fact, he said, he felt like the mandates had echoes of the totalitarian regime under which he had grown up.
“My member of Parliament told me that these are just a bunch neo-Nazis and malcontents that are trying to disturb things — but it’s the other way around,” he said. “These are Canadians that I have known since the day I landed in Halifax in 1951, and I love this country.”