Canadian officials move to block funding of protests against COVID-19 rules with sweeping new financial measures

Feb 15, 2022, 6:18 AM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 3:18 pm

(CNN) — The Canadian government aims to cut off financial support for protesters staging costly blockades at U.S. border crossings over COVID-19 measures by invoking for the first time ever the country’s Emergencies Act.

“This is about following the money. This is about stopping the financing of these illegal blockades,” Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland said Monday in describing how the government will use the law to go after those funding protests that have taken a $500 million toll daily at border crossings.

Even with traffic restored after a weeklong blockade of the vital Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and Michigan, protesters are still obstructing crossings at Emerson, Manitoba, and Pembina, North Dakota, and at Coutts, Alberta, and Sweet Grass, Montana, near where long guns, body armor and high-capacity magazines tied to a group within the protest were seized Monday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said.

Financial institutions will now have the power to freeze personal or corporate accounts they believe are being used to fund the illegal protests, Freeland said.

The government is also taking action on crowdfunding sites and the payment service providers they use, requiring them to register with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada and report any large suspicious donations, including digital payments and with cryptocurrencies. Some sites have raised millions of dollars.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time since it became law in 1988 to blunt the impact of the “Freedom Convoy” protests.

The rallies began when a group of truckers moved into Canada’s capital on Jan. 29, clogging streets surrounding the Parliament building and other parts of Ottawa’s downtown in opposition to a new mandate requiring them to be fully vaccinated when crossing the Canadian-U.S. border or face a two-week quarantine.

They have been joined there and at border stops and cities across the nation by others who want an end to other COVID-19 mitigation measures, like mask mandates, lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings. Still, protesters are a vocal minority, with about 4 in every 5 Canadians fully vaccinated and nearly 90% of Canada’s truckers fully vaccinated and eligible to cross the border, according to the government, the government says.

“These illegal barricades are doing great damage to Canada’s economy and to our reputation as a reliable trading partner,” Freeland said.

The blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, which was cleared Sunday, impacted about $390 million worth of commerce a day, the minister said. The combined impact of blockades at border crossings, including those in Alberta and Manitoba, has been $500 million each day, she added.

“These costs are real. They threaten businesses, big and small,” Freeland said. “The Canadian economy needs (truckers) to be doing legitimate work, not to be illegally making us all poorer.”

While the Emergencies Act allows for the use of the military, the government will not take that step, Trudeau noted. The measure can also temporarily suspend citizens’ rights to free movement or assembly, but Trudeau said the government is not overriding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a part of the Canadian Constitution that lays out “rights and freedoms that Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society,” according to a Canadian government website.

“We are not preventing people from exercising their right to protest legally,” Trudeau said during a news conference in Ottawa, adding that the law will be limited geographically, in scope and in time.

Ambassador Bridge owner issues ‘call to action’

The reopening of the Ambassador Bridge was “a win for Michigan’s working families who are just trying to do their jobs and for businesses who can get back to shipping their products and produce,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement Monday.

The vital crossing that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, carries nearly 30% of annual trade between Michigan and Canada, Whitmer said.

That blockade, which caused supply chain issues for automakers on both sides of the border, ended when Canadian authorities moved over the weekend to clear pedestrians and vehicles that had been blocking access to the bridge.

Whitmer thanked U.S. and Canadian border officials and business leaders for their work in getting the situation resolved and said it was important to “ensure that this does not happen again.”

The company that owns the bridge echoed that sentiment and issued a “call to action” to prevent future closures.

“We must join together to come up with an actionable plan that will protect and secure all border crossings in the Canada/U.S. corridor and ensure that this kind of disruption to critical infrastructure will never happen again,” Matt Moroun, the chairman of Detroit International Bridge Company, said in a statement.

“They are critical pipelines that supply the goods we need to keep our factories going, our neighbors working and our economies thriving,” Moroun said.

Near the Coutts border crossing, 11 people were arrested, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Monday. The RCMP seized 13 long guns, handguns, multiple sets of body armor, a machete and a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity magazines connected to a small, organized group within a larger protest at the crossing, it said.

“The group was said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade,” the statement said. “This resulted in an immediate and complex investigation to determine the extent of the threat and criminal organization.”

Ontario to loosen pandemic restrictions

Trudeau’s announcement on invoking the Emergencies Act came the same day Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he plans to lift the province’s vaccine passport requirements March 1 if hospitalization rates continue to improve.

Capacity limits will also be eliminated in all indoor public settings starting March 1, though masking requirements in Ontario will remain in effect “just a little bit longer,” Ford said.

The changes are not a result of the protests, Ford stressed.

“Let me be very clear, we’re moving in this direction because it’s safe to do so,” he said. “Today’s announcement is not because of what’s happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it.”

He also vowed “serious consequences” for those who cause disruptions while demonstrating in Ontario.

“To those who are still there, to those of you who are there with the sole objective of causing disruption and chaos, there’ll be serious consequences for this lawless activity,” Ford said. “We will continue to raise the consequences against those who are holding millions of jobs and people hostage.”

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Canadian officials move to block funding of protests against COVID-19 rules with sweeping new financial measures