What are the protests about?
The so-called Freedom Convoy protests, which began about two weeks ago in Ottawa, were sparked by a mandate that requires Canadian cross-border truckers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But they are less a reaction to last month’s mandate and more a reflection of the general frustration with the pandemic-related restrictions of the last couple of years. Restrictions have been imposed and then lifted in ways that haven’t always made a lot of sense to the public. To be fair to Canada’s federal and provincial governments, those restrictions have helped the country keep its COVID-19 death rate at about one-third of the United States’. So from a public health perspective, they’ve been quite successful. But there are an awful lot of Canadians who are frustrated with the continued restrictions.
Even if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were to cave tomorrow and lift the federal vaccine mandate for truckers, a U.S. vaccine mandate for foreign truckers that was imposed in January would keep them from crossing the border. Additionally, truckers have been mostly exempt from the U.S.-Canada border restrictions throughout the pandemic because they are considered essential workers. So the vaccine mandate is mostly symbolic, rather than central, to these protests.
How is this affecting U.S.-Canada trade?
The blockade of the Ambassador Bridge (which connects Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario) is by far the biggest disruption. About a quarter of all U.S.-Canada trade comes across that bridge, and there are no good alternative routes. The auto industry has depended on trade across that border since 1965. Rather modest delays in the transportation of parts can be sufficient to shut down plants that operate on a “just-in-time” basis; indeed, there have been some disruptions already. There are also other border protests, including in Coutts, Alberta, which is a major route for cattle trade, but the Ambassador Bridge closure is the most consequential. That caused the United States to get involved, because the closure is having significant economic consequences in the United States as well. President Joe Biden and Trudeau spoke about the issue by phone on Friday.
The big concern for Ottawa is Canada’s reputation. Canada is worried about its role in the emerging supply chains of the future. Trudeau’s government is wary of the Biden administration’s “Buy American” mandates, as well as the possibility that heavy subsidies for U.S. production of electric vehicles and batteries would cut out Canadian factories. So Canada is deeply worried about its reputation as a reliable supplier. It does not want to give the United States the slightest excuse to question its reliability. The threat to Canada’s economy is so enormous, that it’s compelling governments there to act.
What options does the Canadian government have?
The plan is to try to stop the protests using provincial and municipal police forces—not the military—with national police backup as needed. In what was clearly an olive branch to the protesters, the premier of Ontario, where the Ambassador Bridge is located, announced that he is set to end vaccine requirements for restaurants and other indoor venues. The fist under the velvet glove is that he declared a state of emergency in the province. He’s asking the protesters to go home peacefully but threatening them with huge fines and jail time if they refuse. His hope is that the threat will be sufficient, but if the protests don’t break up in the next twenty-four hours or so, there will likely be arrests.
Should other countries be concerned about similar protests?
There’s a significant risk of that happening. Sympathetic right-wing U.S. media coverage and Freedom Convoy–inspired protests in Australia, New Zealand, and other places indicate that Canada has become a role model for the pro-Donald-Trump right-wing internationally, and the convoys are seen as an effective tactic for pressuring governments. There’s absolutely a danger of copycats. It’s happening already.
The good news is that other governments know the playbook now. In the United States, governments at the federal, state, and local level are prepared to crack down on any convoys before they really get established. Most countries, including the United States and Canada, have laws against blockading public roads.
There should also be a more outspoken effort by the Biden administration to shore up other countries as they try to take sensible steps to move beyond the pandemic. Hopefully, other Western governments would mirror Biden’s lead. There’s now opposition to sensible health measures, especially vaccination, in countries around the world. The vast majority of the world’s people favor these measures, and the governments that represent them need to be more proactive in speaking up and supporting one another. The U.S. government is late to this party. The Biden administration should have spoken out earlier and more forcefully against what was taking place in Ottawa and supported the Canadian government taking stronger action. That would have helped.