By ROB GILLIES and COREY WILLIAMS
WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) — Police moved in to clear and arrest remaining protesters near the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing on Sunday, ending a protest against COVID-19 restrictions that have hurt the economy of two countries even as they held back from a crackdown on a larger protest in the capital, Ottawa.
The protest in Ottawa has paralyzed downtown, infuriated residents who are fed up with police inaction and ratcheted up the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who chaired a Cabinet meeting on Sunday night.
The protests have reverberated across Canada and beyond, with similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The US Department of Homeland Security has warned that truck convoys may be in preparation in the United States.
Windsor police said about 25 to 30 people were peacefully arrested and seven vehicles were towed away just after dawn near the Ambassador Bridge that connects their city – and many Canadian auto factories – to Detroit.
“Today our national economic crisis at the Ambassador Bridge ended,” said Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who expressed hope the bridge would reopen on Sunday. “Border crossings will reopen when it is safe to do so and I defer to the police and border agencies to make that decision.”
But the bridge remained closed as a snowstorm hit the area, and Windsor Police Chief Pamela Mizuno did not offer a timeline for when it would reopen.
“There are steps we need to take to reopen the roads so that we don’t have the same problem,” she told a news conference. “We have to make sure we are able to keep the traffic flowing.”
Only a few protesters remained after police persuaded protesters on Saturday to move the vans and cars they had used to block a crossing that sees 25% of all trade between the two countries.
US President Joe Biden’s administration on Sunday acknowledged the seemingly peaceful resolution of the protest, which it said had “widespread adverse effects” on “the lives and livelihoods of people” on both sides of the border. .
“We stand ready to support our Canadian partners wherever needed to ensure the resumption of the normal free flow of commerce,” Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall said in a statement.
In Ottawa, about 500 miles northeast of Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said Sunday the city has reached an agreement with protesters who have blocked downtown streets for more than two weeks, causing them to will leave residential areas in the next 24 hours.
Watson said he was willing to meet with protesters if they limited their demonstration to an area around Parliament Hill and moved their trucks and other vehicles out of residential areas by noon Monday.
The mayor shared a letter from one of the protest organizers, Tamara Lich, in which she said the protesters “accept your request” to concentrate activities on Parliament Hill. But Lich later denied there was a deal, saying in a tweet: “No deal done. No more warrants, no more passports. That’s why we’re here.”
Watson added in his letter to protesters that residents are “exhausted” and “on edge” due to the protests and warned that some businesses are on the verge of permanent closure due to the disruption.
The ranks of protesters had swelled to what police said were 4,000 protesters on Saturday, and a counter-protest by frustrated Ottawa residents trying to block the convoy of trucks from entering downtown emerged on Sunday.
Clayton Goodwin, a 45-year-old military veteran who was among the counter-protesters, said it was time for residents to stand up against the protesters.
“I’m horrified that other veterans are out there co-opting my flag, co-opting my service,” said Goodwin, who is the CEO of the Veterans Accountability Commission, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It’s a scam. The city was free. We are 92% vaccinated. We are ready to support our businesses.
Colleen Sinclair, another counter-protester, said protesters had had enough time to voice their displeasure and needed to move on — with the police, if it comes down to that.
“They are occupiers. People are afraid to go to work, too afraid to leave their homes,” she said. “That’s not how you make your voice heard. This is domestic terrorism and we want you to get out of our town. Go home.”
The city has seen similar expansions of the protest over the past weekends, and loud music played as people crowded downtown where anti-vaccine protesters have camped out since late January, to the frustration of protesters. local residents.
“I feel like I’m living in another country, like I’m in the United States,” said Shannon Thomas, a 32-year-old teacher. “It really makes me sad to see all these people waving Canadian flags and acting like patriots when it really is the saddest and most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Trudeau has so far rejected calls to use the military, but said “all options are on the table” to end the protests. Trudeau called the protesters a “fringe” of Canadian society. Federal and provincial politicians have said they cannot direct police what to do.
Major-General Steve Boivin, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said Sunday that two of his special forces soldiers were supporting the protests in Ottawa and were about to be “released” from service. Boivin said the activity goes against military values and ethics.
A judge on Friday ordered an end to the blockade at the Windsor crossing and Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency, authorizing fines of C$100,000 and up to a year in prison for anyone who unlawfully blocks roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.
Partial closures of the bridge began on February 7 and by midweek the disruption was so severe that automakers began shutting down or cutting production. The standoff came at a time when the industry is already struggling to maintain production in the face of pandemic-induced computer chip shortages and other supply chain disruptions.
“We are protesting the fact that the government is taking away our rights,” said Windsor resident Eunice Lucas-Logan. “We want the restrictions removed. We have to wait to find out.
The 67-year-old has been supporting the protest for four days. She said she appreciated that the police were patient.
On the other side of the country, a major truck border crossing between Surrey, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington, was closed on Sunday, a day after Canadian authorities said a few vehicles had broke through the police barricades and that a crowd had entered the area on foot.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said on Sunday afternoon that four people had been arrested for “mischief” during the protest. Some people who stayed overnight had packed their bags and left, but the border post and roads in the area remained closed.
A border blockade that began in Coutts, Alta., north of Sweet Grass, Montana, on Jan. 29 also remained in place. Police issued more than 50 tickets on Saturday and continued to issue more on Sunday, the RCMP corporal said. said Troy Savinkoff.
Officers also intercepted and disabled three diggers that were being brought to the protest, Savinkoff said.
“If these had reached the blockade, it would have only aggravated the unfortunate situation we are facing at the border,” he said.
As protesters decry vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada’s public health measures, such as mask rules and vaccination passports for entering restaurants and theaters, are already falling as omicron’s thrust stabilizes.
About 90% of truckers in Canada are vaccinated, and trucking associations and many large truck operators have denounced the protests. The United States has the same vaccination rule for truckers crossing the border, so it wouldn’t make a difference if Trudeau lifted the restriction.
Pandemic restrictions there have been much stricter than in the United States, but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the death rate from COVID-19 is one-third that of the United States.
Meanwhile, Biden, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on Sunday before the Super Bowl, struck a critical tone when asked about who might oppose the mask mandate at the championship game. of the NFL.
“I love how people talk about personal freedom,” he said. “If you’re exercising your personal freedom, but you’re putting someone else at risk, their health at risk, I don’t consider that to be very good with freedom.”
Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writers Ted Shaffrey in Ottawa, Ontario and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.