OTTAWA — A vital U.S.-Canada border crossing was reopened Sunday night, marking the end of a six-day blockade by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” which disrupted traffic and millions of dollars of trade a day. But in Canada’s capital, the city and protesters remain at a standoff, with an illegal blockade by a fringe group of truckers and their supporters protesting public health restrictions and the government still paralyzing Ottawa for a third week.
Police arrested at least two dozen protesters Sunday while clearing the Ambassador Bridge, the country’s busiest land border crossing and a key supply route linking Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. Also on Sunday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he brokered a tentative agreement with Tamara Lich, a key protest organizer, to make the demonstrations less disruptive to residents in exchange for a meeting and designating a short-term spot for the protests.
But prospects for a breakthrough in the capital were immediately cast into doubt, with Lich tweeting that no “deal” had been made.
The back-and-forth is the latest chapter of a saga that has pitted Ottawa’s law enforcement against protesters since a convoy of truck drivers opposed to vaccine mandates illegally parked by Parliament in Ottawa on Jan. 28.
The protests, which have continued for three straight weekends, have inspired similar demonstrations across the globe — from New York to New Zealand — by people fed up with pandemic policies, angry at their governments and, in some cases, driven by extremist views and calls for insurrection.
Across the Atlantic, Freedom Convoy protesters were set to arrive Monday in Brussels even after authorities there banned them from entering the city. A similar ban from Parisian authorities did not stop a French convoy from temporarily blocking parts of the Champs-Élysées on Saturday, disrupting traffic on the capital’s most recognizable street and marking the first major European emulation of Canada’s anti-government and anti-vaccine-mandate movement.
In Israel, a convoy of trucks briefly blocked the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as it made its way toward Israel’s parliament in a copycat protest over coronavirus public health measures and other political grievances.
The Ottawa mayor’s office released letters on Sunday that Watson sent Lich, president of Freedom Convoy 2022, one of the organizing bodies for the protests, the previous day outlining a deadline of noon Monday for “clear evidence” that the core convoy of over 400 trucks will depart residential areas. Lich, in her letter also dated Saturday and released by Watson, said that “we look forward to working with authorities to ensure the safe movement of our trucks to their new locations” and that she would “be working hard over the next 24 hours to get buy-in from the truckers.”
Lich, however, later denied that there was any agreement.
The exchanges underscored divisions within the protest leadership and between groups unified under the Freedom Convoy slogan.
David, a media liaison for the convoy’s logistics hub, a highly organized operation in the parking lot of Ottawa’s baseball stadium, told The Washington Post the proposal “does not reflect the majority of truckers.” He spoke on the condition his last name not be used since he was not authorized to speak on this issue.
He implied the letter was “crafted without the buy-in from the rest of the board” and that “our objectives do not lie with Ottawa but with the federal and provincial governments.”
Demonstrators at Ottawa’s protests have presented a wide range of demands, from the removal of vaccine and mask mandates on local and national levels, to disinformation about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and fringe theories about how to orchestrate his ouster.
While Canadian law enforcement’s efforts to clear protesters from the Ambassador Bridge were successful, disruptions continued to plague other vital cross-border arteries over the weekend, including in Coutts, Alberta, which connects to Montana, and the crossing from Surrey in British Columbia to Washington state.
Canadian border authorities said Saturday in a statement that services at the Coutts port of entry are “temporarily suspended.” Police in Surrey blocked off an area surrounding the Pacific Highway Border Crossing in response to protests Saturday and said the next day that four people were taken into custody.
The statement Sunday said that “some of the vehicles and protesters who stayed overnight Saturday have now packed up and left the area,” but the crossing remained closed, with law enforcement blocking the border area.
In Ottawa, well-funded Freedom Convoy protesters have remained despite being threatened with fines, prison time and the loss of their driver’s licenses. Though local and provincial officials declared states of emergency, loud dance parties with illegal fireworks and alcohol raged in the blockaded streets throughout the weekend as police largely stood by.
More than 4,000 protesters occupied downtown Ottawa on Saturday, according to police, who warned in a statement of “aggressive, illegal behaviour by many demonstrators” and “limited police enforcement capabilities.”
Police have aimed to contain protests and minimize harm to officers and residents, but “it doesn’t work … where the organizers have the objective of being as disruptive as possible to the Canadian government and economy until their political demands are met,” said Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.
Ottawa police have cited the presence of children, who they say are in about 100 of the 400 trucks parked in the city, as a major concern. Highly combustible red and yellow cans of fuel for trucks and heaters are also constantly circulating throughout Ottawa’s “red zone” of blockaded streets.
This has led to a backlash among residents who say police aren’t doing enough to protect their quality of life amid protests they say have been loud, disruptive and at times violent.
Ottawans have in some cases taken matters into their own hands, with a 21-year-old downtown resident filing a lawsuit alleging that Freedom Convoy organizers and some protesters have used dangerous levels of noise as a protest tactic. On Friday, the city of Ottawa, responding to frustrated residents, filed an injunction against demonstrators violating city bylaws.
Meanwhile, counterprotests have cropped up from Ottawa to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, where on Saturday pedestrians and cyclists briefly prevented the convoy from crossing a road to reach downtown.
Bryan Pietsch in Seoul and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.