But what may ultimately be necessary might not be prudent in Trudeau’s eyes. He warned last week about the risks of calling in the army.
“One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military situations in engaging Canadians,” Trudeau said at the time.
For now, the federal government seems content to delegate the tough decisions to provincial and local authorities. But police have made only a handful of arrests since thousands of protesters swamped downtown Ottawa, shuttered a border crossing in Coutts, Alberta, and closed the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. For the most part, the occupiers have yet to budget.
Pressure on Canada is ramping up now that a piece of critical infrastructure — the Ambassador Bridge — has been blocked for days.
At the end of a long day Thursday, news broke that Ontario was planning to impose major fines on protesters blocking the bridge. The Globe and Mail also reported that the province might seize vehicles and suspend commercial licenses.
“Everyone wants to know when are you going to move in?” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said earlier in the day as he announced that the city was seeking a court injunction to end the blockade. “We hope not to have to move in. We hope we can get the protesters to see the light of day and recognize that the easiest way out of this is for them to voluntarily get in their cars and drive away.”
He said the protest in Windsor is leaderless, making it tough to negotiate.
The bridge closure has jammed the flow of goods for the auto sector and other industries along a span that supports about 25 percent of US-Canada trade. It has also forced factories to cancel shifts in both countries, which has affected thousands of workers.
Phone calls and meetings
The economic impact has President Joe Biden’s attention.
US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg each pressed their Canadian counterparts to use federal powers to end the border shutdown, a White House official said Thursday.
“The President’s Cabinet and senior White House staff have been engaged around the clock to bring this to a swift end,” the official said.
representative Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) fired off a series of tweets that surely set off alarm bells in Ottawa, where there’s deep concern about Biden’s protectionist policies. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an adversary or an ally — we can’t be this reliant on parts coming from foreign countries,” she wrote.
Dilkens said that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office has offered to do whatever is required, including sending over heavy equipment to remove vehicles.
The Prime Minister’s Office said later Thursday that Ministers and officials have been in close contact with US representatives and officials “to align efforts to resolve this situation.”
Trudeau also announced that he convened an emergency committee of Cabinet, the Incident Response Group, to discuss solutions to what he called “illegal blockades and occupations.” He also said he spoke with Dilkens and briefed leaders of the opposition parties.
“We’ll continue to work closely with municipal and provincial governments to end these blockades, and to make sure they have the resources they need,” Trudeau tweeted.
But there are still no signs of a quick resolution.
Federal lawmakers in Canada have offered police and other resources to municipalities on the front lines, but they stress that ending the protests is not their jurisdiction.
In for the long haul
The “freedom convoy” demonstrations began as a movement against vaccine mandates for truckers who cross the Canadian border from the US But they have widened into a well-funded, highly coordinated campaign against all Covid-19 restrictions and Canada’s political establishment.
Organizers have said they plan to stick around until all provincial and federal Covid measures have all been removed; others say they won’t leave until Trudeau has stepped down.
The local police forces involved have asked provincial and federal resources to bolster their presence on the ground.
Dilkens has said he’s concerned an aggressive push by the police could lead to violence and his main focus is public safety.
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Thursday that officers, including those brought in from other cities, are starting to shrink the “footprint” of a convoy.
Sloly has been criticized for a slow response in the capital, where roughly 400 trucks are still blocking the streets. With the occupation about to enter its third week, he told a press conference that the department is still waiting for more support from other levels of government.
“Enforcement has and will continue to increase as resources become more available,” he said.
In defending his department, Sloly argued that the demonstration has significant levels of fundraising, coordination, communication and command centers across Canada and beyond.
The road map out
“No one wants to take responsibility for what may very well end up being a messy process,” Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert from Ottawa’s Carleton University, told POLITICO.
Carvin, an expert on terrorism and critical infrastructure protection, said an elegant way to deal with the convoys might be to enforce administrative law. She calls it the “Al Capone approach,” noting that the notorious gangster was finally arrested for mundane tax violations.
She said provincial authorities could revoke truckers’ drivers’ licenses for engaging in illegal activity. Police could also check whether their log books are up to date, if their air brakes are functional and whether fuel is being stored safely.
“Ottawa is the most bureaucratic city on the planet. This is a weapon that we can harness,” she said, noting that local authorities once shut down a lemonade stand because the girls running it didn’t have a permit.
Carvin said the extremist elements in the group likely want a clash. It’s important for authorities not to give it to them by finding nonviolent solutions, she said.
Security expert Wesley Wark, who advised former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told POLITICO that the convoys surprised authorities, who responded with soft policing.
“All levels of government are passing the buck but dressing it up as consultations and tables,” Wark, a senior fellow for the Center for International Governance Innovation, wrote in an email. “The hope for a peaceful end is based on nothing but hope and some inner sense of Canadian decency.”
Wark offered a road map for the way out.
First, he said the leaders of the occupations must be arrested, while being clear with the public that the movement was a “clownish effort at democratic subversion.” Wark said all protesters not viewed as extremists should be told to leave, with a deadline.
He recommends police and military separate the holdouts of the convoys into smaller components by using barriers, setting up very visible surveillance of the area and move against them step-by-step.
At the end, he said a national inquiry will be necessary.
“This is not a strategy for a peaceful end to the occupation but it is a strategy that might result in a largely peaceful end,” he said.