Truckers blocking a key bridge between Canada and the United States over vaccination rules have defied a judge’s order to leave, with the protests piling pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau has assured President Joe Biden of quick action to end the crisis, and on Friday a Canadian judge ordered an end to the four-day-long blockade of the Ambassador Bridge, North America’s busiest land border crossing.
The order came into effect at 7pm (00:00 GMT), but five hours after the deadline, some 100 protesters were milling around the entrance to the bridge, waving Canadian flags.
While the number of protesters and police dropped as the night progressed, demonstrators continued to block the bridge with trucks and pick-up vans, preventing any flow of traffic in either direction.
Protesters sang the Canadian national anthem at midnight, as some shouted “Freedom!”
Police, who started to gather in a parking lot a few blocks away from the protesters, began handing out pamphlets that outlined penalties under Ontario’s emergency order, which took effect at midnight.
Superior Court Justice Geoffrey Morawetz on Friday approved the request by auto industry associations and Windsor city authorities hoping to end the protests. Occupying access roads leading to the bridge on Friday, protesters voiced defiance and there was little sign of them backing down.
“Canada is supposed to be a free country,” Liz Vallee, a protester from Chatham, Ontario, told Reuters news agency. “When that freedom is threatened, we must stand up.”
Vallee said she and others would stay until all pandemic mandates are lifted.
The “Freedom Convoy” protests, started by Canadian truckers opposing a vaccine-or-quarantine mandate for cross-border drivers, are also occupying areas outside the government buildings in the national capital, Ottawa, and have blocked two smaller US crossings.
East of Ottawa, people were expected to gather in Fredericton in the province of New Brunswick for a weekend demonstration. Local police said officers were stationed at entrances to the city to ensure traffic can continue. Canada’s financial capital Toronto was also bracing for more weekend demonstrations.
Adding to calls for action by US officials and business leaders, Biden expressed concerns over auto plant closures and production slowdowns during a phone call with Trudeau, the White House said in a statement.
“The two leaders agreed that the actions of the individuals who are obstructing travel and commerce between our two countries are having significant direct impacts on citizens’ lives and livelihoods,” the statement said.
The actions have already had a significant economic impact, with automakers forced to cut production on both sides of the border, triggering fears it could undermine Canada’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Ambassador Bridge is used daily by more than 40,000 vehicles, along with trucks carrying $323m worth of goods on average, about one-quarter of all Canada-US trade. Companies have diverted cargo to stem losses amid production cuts by companies including Ford.
While authorities are under increasing pressure to crack down on the demonstrations, federal, provincial, and local authorities have hesitated to forcibly remove the protesters, reflecting a lack of resources by local police, Canada’s reverence for free speech, and fears of potential violence. But the pressure to open the border crossings is mounting, with automakers Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda closing plants or cancelling shifts.
Speaking to reporters in the capital, Trudeau reiterated that calling in the military was a distant final resort, and “something to avoid having to do at all costs”.
“This unlawful activity has to end and it will end,” the prime minister said, adding that it was up to the police to “enforce the law and protect public order”.
Ottawa police have said they are “not in a position” to end the demonstration without reinforcements.