'Freedom Convoy' trucker protests could spread to US and beyond

'This is a worldwide event now,' Canadian lorry driver says as protests spring up in other countries

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The “Freedom Convoy” lorry driver protests that have brought chaos to parts of Canada and interrupted the flow of goods across the US border could soon spread, authorities said on Thursday, as copycat movements gathered steam as far afield as Europe and New Zealand.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a bulletin that drivers in Southern California could be gearing up for a protest as soon as this weekend, possibly with the goal of disrupting traffic around Sunday's Super Bowl.

A copy of the bulletin, obtained by AP, said drivers may then head to Washington in time for President Joe Biden's State of the Union speech to Congress. It said the protest could be disruptive and tie up traffic but that there have been no calls for violence.

The bulletin to local and state police agencies said the DHS had received reports that lorry drivers are planning to “potentially block roads in major metropolitan cities” in a protest against vaccine mandates and other issues.

In France, thousands of drivers inspired by the Canadian protests planned on Friday evening to converge on Paris, with some aiming to move onwards to Brussels.

In an attempt to head off the disruptions, authorities in Paris and Belgium are banning road blockades and threatening prison time for protesters.

Protests also reached New Zealand, where police in Wellington clashed with demonstrators near Parliament, arresting more than 120 people on Thursday.

Police surround protesters in Wellington, New Zealand, on Thursday. Anti-vaccine and Covid-19 mandate protesters had gathered for three days outside Parliament. Getty Images

In Ottawa, which has become ground zero for the Freedom Convoy, lorry drivers welcomed the idea of their American counterparts initiating a similar movement in the US.

“It's a great thing. It's about time we get on with our life,” said Daniel Doucet, 45, who lost his driving job because he refused to be vaccinated and take routine tests.

“This is a worldwide event now.”

Jason Robitaille, who said he hadn’t used any form of medication in the past 25 years, liked the idea of US lorry drivers resisting the mandates.

“It's good to see that people are standing up against being forced or coerced into putting something into their body that they are not interested in,” said Mr Robitaille, 37, who is a small business owner in Ontario.

Hundreds of demonstrators in lorries have paralysed the streets of central Ottawa for almost two weeks and dozens more have blocked the border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, protesting against vaccine mandates for cross-border drivers and other Covid-19 restrictions.

At the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit in the US state of Michigan, a bumper-to-bumper protest in its fourth day has severely disrupted the flow of car parts and other products over the border.

The bridge is the busiest US-Canadian border crossing, carrying 25 per cent of all trade between the two countries, and the effects of the blockade there were quickly felt.

Ford said its Windsor, Ontario, engine plant reopened on Thursday after being shut on Wednesday because of a lack of parts. But the factory and the company’s assembly plant in Oakville, Ontario, near Toronto, are operating at reduced capacity, the carmaker said.

“This interruption on the Detroit-Windsor bridge hurts customers, auto workers, suppliers, communities and companies on both sides of the border,” Ford said in a statement.

“We hope this situation is resolved quickly because it could have widespread impact on all automakers in the US and Canada.”

The White House on Thursday said US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had spoken with their Canadian counterparts and urged them to help resolve the standoff.

A protester blocks access to the Ambassador Bridge. AP

The lorry protests have been promoted and cheered on by many right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, and have attracted support from the likes of former president Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a major target of the protesters' ire, has said the demonstrations are undermining democracy, and the country's public safety minister has told US Republicans to stay out of Canada's domestic affairs.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said on Wednesday that police had not removed protesters there for fear of inflaming the situation. But he added: “We’re not going to let this happen for a prolonged period of time.”

Protesters have been calling for Mr Trudeau’s removal, but most of the restrictive measures around Canada have been put in place by provincial governments. Those include requirements that people show proof-of-vaccination “passports” to enter restaurants, gyms, cinemas and sporting events.

Many provinces announced plans this week to remove or relax those restrictions after the surge in Omicron cases began to decline in the country.

Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the US, but Canadians have largely supported them. Canada’s Covid-19 death rate is one third that of the US, where the virus has killed nearly one million people.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: February 11, 2022, 3:50 AM
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