Windsor officials seek injunction to end Ambassador Bridge blockade

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

As the Canadian truckers' blockade of the Ambassador Bridge moved into its fourth day, Windsor City Council sought an injunction Thursday to end a standoff that threatens auto production, layoffs and more economic pain over the standstill at North America's busiest border crossing.

The action seeks "to bring about an end to this illegal occupation," said Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens during a news conference, calling the situation a "national crisis." "The individuals on-site who are trespassing on municipal property will be removed if need be to allow for the safe and efficient movement of goods across the border.

"Yesterday I spoke to the importance of a peaceful resolution, and I still remain hopeful that goal can be achieved."

The threat comes as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on Canadian authorities to resolve the dispute at the vital border crossing connecting the industrial heartlands of the United States and Canada. Dilkens said Whitmer has offered heavy equipment, security and other resources to assist in ending the blockade, as well.

“My message is simple: Reopen traffic on the bridge," Whitmer said in a statement.

Windsor and Ontario Provincial officers are staged on Wyandotte Street West near the Ambassador Bridge entrance to the United States. Protesters have blocked access and there is no traffic on the bridge.

The Biden administration urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to use its federal powers to end the truck blockade.

The White House said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke with their Canadian counterparts and urged them to help resolve the standoff. Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Royal Canadian Mounted Police reinforcements are being sent to Windsor, Ottawa and Coutts, Alberta, where another border blockade is happening. 

A federal government official said they are not ruling out any options. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly. Trudeau met virtually with leaders of Canada’s opposition late Thursday and said he spoke with Dilkens. He said it is causing real harm to workers and economies on both sides of the border.

Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, moved to cut off funding for the protests by successfully asking a court to freeze millions of dollars in donations to the convoy through crowd-funding site GiveSendGo. Ford has called the protests an occupation.

More than a quarter of all trade between the United States and Canada happens over the Ambassador Bridge, particularly of automobiles and their components. Since Monday, a group of protesters known as the Freedom Convoy has prevented travel into Canada, forcing drivers to reroute to the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, resulting in two-hour waits and delays for commercial travelers.

Access into the United States over the Ambassador Bridge remains open, according to Windsor Police, though the department has recommended all motorists avoid all access points because of the demonstrators. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is open, but it cannot accommodate large semis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it has extra personnel on the ground and all available lanes processing traffic.

“In Michigan, our economy continues to grow because of our hardworking people and innovative small businesses," Whitmer said. "Now, that momentum is at risk. Commercial traffic is at a standstill at the Ambassador Bridge and heavily backed up at the Blue Water Bridge."

Matt Moroun, chairman of the Detroit International Bridge Co. that owns the Ambassador, called on Trudeau to end the blockade whether by repealing the federal mandate on truckers or removing the vehicles blocking the road.

"After the blockade is cleared," Moroun said in a statement, "we need to shift our thinking and recognize that these crossings are too important to be subjected to politics and short term thinking that compromises the ability of commerce to flow and jeopardizes our jobs and our shared economy."

Dilkens expected the city could appear before the Superior Court for the injunction this week. Trudeau has maintained vaccination mandates are the best way to protect Canadian residents, roughly 90% who are vaccinated, amid the pandemic.

"The blockades in Windsor and Ottawa are endangering jobs, impeding trade, threatening the economy, and obstructing our communities," Trudeau said in a tweet on Wednesday evening. "They must stop."

But the Freedom Convoy has gained steam across the country since first appearing in Ottawa on Jan. 28, paralyzing the capital's business district. Even as some provinces drop pandemic-induced restrictions, protesters blocked a second crossing in the Alberta province late Tuesday and a third between North Dakota and the Manitoba province on Thursday. Similar protests also have appeared in Australia, New Zealand and France, according to reports.

“I know there’s concern: what about the businesses losing money, but I say, what about two years of lockdowns? That also hurt our economy,” said Adnan Ben, one of about 100 protesters at the bridge on Thursday who told the Windsor Star he's been unemployed from the pandemic. “When we do something, we’re hurting the economy. You guys have been doing it for two years. What’s the difference?”

Last month, Canada started to turn away unvaccinated U.S. truckers. The United States has imposed the same requirement on truckers entering its border.

Windsor Police Chief Pam Mizuno on Wednesday emphasized efforts to negotiate with the protesters over the illegal blockade, but that's difficult to do with the leaderless grassroots effort. Dilkens' comments on Thursday represent a possible escalation in enforcement. Additional personnel from the Ontario Provincial Police are assisting with negotiations.

"They have a fundamental right to their views and their opinions," said Dilkens of the truckers. "They don't have the right to affect you or your family's ability to earn a living, and they've gone too far."

Autos impact

Whitmer and other lawmakers emphasized the Ambassador Bridge's crucial role in supporting Michigan communities and its automotive, manufacturing and agriculture businesses.

"I support peaceful protests and demonstrations. However, I’m concerned about the essential workforce that travels between the U.S. and Canada; emergency access for truck drivers and emergency personnel; and the delay of life-saving pharmaceutical drugs and other critical goods and services," said U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, in a statement.

"I strongly urge our national and provincial Canadian leaders to reach a safe and quick resolution that allows for seamless commerce to continue on the Ambassador Bridge.”

General Motors Co. on Thursday canceled the first and second shifts at its Lansing Delta Township Plant, where the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs are made. Workers on the first shift at Flint Assembly Plant, which makes heavy-duty Chevrolet and GMC trucks, also were sent home early. The second shift started up on a normal schedule.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said the company is working with its suppliers and "exploring all options to alleviate parts shortages." Generally, that may include air charters when the automaker is facing parts shortages, he noted.

Other border entrances may elongate delivery times, which is a challenge for an industry that relies on deliveries arriving just as they are needed. “There are no great options other than air,” said Dan Hearsch, a managing director in AlixPartners LLP’s automotive and industrial practice, noting that flying parts over the border is more costly than hauling them over by truck.

On Thursday, Ford Motor Co. was running its Oakville Assembly Plant and Windsor Engine Plant in Ontario at reduced capacity. Much of the Dearborn automaker's North American manufacturing footprint already was idling this week because of the year-long global semiconductor shortage.

"This interruption on the Detroit-Windsor bridge hurts customers, auto workers, suppliers, communities and companies on both sides of the border that are already two years into parts shortages resulting from the global semiconductor issue, COVID and more," spokeswoman Kelli Felker said in a statement. "We hope this situation is resolved quickly because it could have widespread impact on all automakers in the U.S. and Canada."

Stellantis NV on Thursday had to cut first shifts short at Toledo Assembly Plant, home of the Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator; at Windsor Assembly Plant, where the Chrysler Pacifica minivan is built; and at other U.S. plants that weren't specified, spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said.

"We continue to work closely with our carriers to get parts into the plants to mitigate further disruptions," she said in a statement. "The situation at the Ambassador Bridge, combined with an already fragile supply chain, will bring further hardship to people and industries still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope a resolution can be reached soon so our plants and our employees can return to normal operations."

Julie Fream, CEO of the Southfield-based Original Equipment Suppliers Association, warned auto suppliers are on the brink of a production crisis.

"As automotive assembly plants are forced to curtail or stop production due to component shortages, all suppliers supporting these assembly plants are impacted by the production interruptions," she said in a statement. "This is regardless of whether they are directly impacted by the border issue or not."

Whitmer added: "It’s hitting paychecks and production lines. That is unacceptable."

Anderson Economic Group, a consulting firm based in East Lansing, estimates lost wages in Michigan alone could total more than $51 million if the blockade lasts for a week, with costs accelerating if prolonged.

"Even if it ended today, which it's not going to, but if it ended today," AlixPartners' Hearsch said, "I expect at least a week and probably two of ripple-effect problems at different plants.”

Brian Kingston, CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association, which represents the Detroit Three, emphasized there is no replacement for the Ambassador Bridge's traffic capacity.

"Last year, we witnessed production down almost a million vehicles in Canada," he said. "We're starting to emerge from that production is increasing, and now we are faced with this very unfortunate situation where this bridge has been blocked."

Demands for end of blockade

Rakesh Naidu, CEO of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the blockage is costing some companies millions of dollars per day and potentially more in penalties for delayed shipments.

James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, denounced the actions of the protesters.

"Our members are some of the hardest workers in the country and are being prevented from doing their jobs," he said in a statement. "The Teamsters call on the organizers of this action to end this protest and instead, engage in meaningful political discourse with the Canadian government to find a solution.”

Whitmer called for Canadian local, provincial and national governments to address the situation and end the blockade.

"They must take all necessary and appropriate steps to immediately and safely reopen traffic," Whitmer said, "so we can continue growing our economy, supporting good-paying jobs, and lowering costs for families.”

The Republican Governors Association used the dispute to slam Whitmer for "incessantly" praising Trudeau and President Joe Biden and causing friction in Michigan's relationship with Canada in her efforts to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline.

"Whitmer," RGA spokesman Chris Gustafson said in a statement, "must work with Biden and repair her relationship with Trudeau, to ease the burden on Michigan businesses, and put an end to the shutdowns that have been brought on by out of touch federal mandates."

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he was in touch with the Canadian government about a resolution: "Autoworkers in my district have endured a tough year due to pandemic-related supply chain issues and semiconductor shortages. We must keep the border between the United States and Canada open to allow goods, including auto parts and agricultural products, to freely move between our two countries."

Added U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, in a statement: "I support the right to protest, but we can do so without impacting our economy and our workers in Michigan and beyond."

The Detroit Three weren't the only automakers experiencing challenges with the traffic delays. Toyota Motor Corp. said operations in Kentucky and Canada have been affected by the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge.

"We expect disruptions through the weekend, and we’ll continue to make adjustments as needed," spokeswoman Kelly Stefanich said in a statement. "While the situation is fluid and changes frequently, we do not anticipate any impact to employment at this time.”

Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s plant in Alliston, Ontario, suspended manufacturing on one production line Wednesday evening. The automaker also will temporarily suspend manufacturing on one production line on the Friday day shift there. As of late Thursday, Honda operations in the U.S. were still scheduled to run production on Friday.   

If the situation isn't resolved quickly, it potentially could affect the outlook of doing business in Canada, experts noted.

"If an original equipment manufacturer or distributor is heavily reliant upon a certain country, sometimes we do ... find a different provider for that so they can get consistent shipping and distribution," said Bobby Harris, CEO of Tampa, Florida-based BlueGrace Logistics, which works with more than 5,000 companies. "That can mean long-term impacts if that is the case."

That's especially critical as the auto industry undergoes a transformation to electrification and other new technologies that puts billions of dollars in investment up for grabs — and at jeopardy.

"North America is competing with other jurisdictions, whether that's Asia, whether that is Europe," the chamber's Naidu said. "We have competition. Unless North America as a whole competes together, we will be left behind."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Staff Writer Jordyn Grzelewski, Washington Bureau Chief Melissa Nann Burke and Associated Press contributed.