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Trucker protests against pandemic mandates are spreading beyond Canada

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Big-rig trucks and other vehicles shut down at least three border crossings between Canada and the U.S. in protest of pandemic health measures.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Truckers and like-minded demonstrators arrived in a convoy at Ottawa's Parliament Hill two weeks ago. They have been there ever since. Scott Bazinet drove 2,000 miles from his home in Edmonton to join the protest.

SCOTT BAZINET: In my 52 years of being on this planet, I don't think I've ever been as proud to be a Canadian as I am down here with these people.

MARTIN: Similar anti-government demonstrations are now being organized in other countries.

FADEL: Reporter Emma Jacobs is covering this and joins us now from Montreal. Hi, Emma.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what's the latest on these protests?

JACOBS: So in addition to Ottawa and a border crossing between Alberta and Montana that's been obstructed for the past two weeks, there are now two more border blockades. One is in Manitoba, and one is on the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. This is the busiest border crossing in North America. It carries more than a quarter of U.S.-Canada trade and is a key corridor for the auto industry. So plants on both sides of the border have had stoppages because they can't get parts. So even though the number of people involved in these demonstrations is relatively small, they're able to have an outsized impact that is now growing beyond Canada. So a convoy left from Nice in the south of France this week. Others could take place in Europe. And in the U.S., online discussions are growing about how a convoy could be timed to disrupt the Super Bowl.

FADEL: Now, only about 10% of eligible Canadians are unvaccinated. So where are these protesters getting their support from?

JACOBS: Well, again, they've figured out how to cause a lot of mayhem with small numbers, but beyond that, it seems like some Canadian activists who really come from the far right in some cases and some have some pretty extreme anti-government views, they've managed to tap into frustration of those who aren't vaccinated, some people really entrenched in conspiracy theories and maybe a little of the general fatigue with restrictions in Canada. Generally, measures have been much stricter than in the U.S. throughout the pandemic, but there's also clearly support coming from abroad. The convoy has raised a lot of money, more than it likely could from Canadians alone. In the U.S., there's been a lot of coverage on right-wing media and support from high-profile Republicans like former President Donald Trump. And this has probably helped drive donations and attention.

Now, two of the convoy's biggest fundraising campaigns have been halted. First, GoFundMe found the convoy was violating its terms of service and refunded all donations. The convoy then moved to another Christian fundraising site and raised millions more dollars. But yesterday, Ontario - a court froze those funds. Still, as one person said to me, these crowdfunding campaigns have almost become more about the crowds than the funding. They're symbols of support.

FADEL: So how does this end?

JACOBS: Unclear. Ottawa residents are upset about the lack of leadership. At the Ambassador Bridge, there's probably greater urgency because it is such a key link, and there's pressure on both the governments of Ontario and the federal government to step in.

FADEL: That's reporter Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Thank you so much for your reporting.

JACOBS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "THE ERASER")

FADEL: Big-rig trucks and other vehicles have shut down at least three border crossings between Canada and the U.S. in protest of pandemic health measures. Truckers and like-minded demonstrators arrived in a convoy at Ottawa's Parliament Hill two weeks ago and have been there ever since. Similar demonstrations are now being organized in other countries. Reporter Emma Jacobs has been covering the protests and joins us from Montreal. Good morning, Emma.

JACOBS: Good morning.

FADEL: So what's the latest on these protests? Where else are we starting to see them?

JACOBS: So along the border, and the biggest impact is being felt at the Ambassador Bridge, which is between Windsor and Detroit. That's led to Honda, Toyota and GM shutting down assembly lines. In Europe, Paris and Brussels say truck protesters won't be allowed in their cities. But in the U.S., organization is taking place for a convoy to D.C.

FADEL: On social media. Only about 10% of Canadians are unvaccinated, so given that, where are these protesters drawing support, and how are people reacting to their tactics?

JACOBS: In the wider population, there's a lot of discomfort that we've seen. You know, small numbers can have a big impact. There have been reports of a lot of harassment from the protesters. And they're refusing to accept decisions made by a democratically elected government. So there's concern that the support and even the style of the protests, that there's some U.S. influence there. I was in Ottawa this week, and this is what I was hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINES RUNNING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This gentleman has gas cards.

JACOBS: In a supply depot set up in a city parking lot to support the demonstrators, volunteers are discussing how to manage donated fuel. The night before, police had confiscated thousands of gallons here. The protesters have also assembled massive amounts of food and other supplies.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

JACOBS: Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly has insisted it's these resources, as well as the outsized vehicles, that have allowed a couple hundred remaining protesters to bring downtown Ottawa to a standstill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER SLOLY: The level of organization, funding and capability around this demonstration is probably one of, if not the most important factor that makes it unique, unprecedented and singularly risky in every aspect.

JACOBS: There's been a lot of speculation in Canada about the role of international support, particularly since a fundraiser on GoFundMe for the convoy raised $10 million Canadian, nearly $8 million U.S., in a matter of days.

CANDYCE KELSHALL: So we've got this really small pool of 10% of the population that are not vaccinated or vaccine hesitant, and yet there's this vast amount of money that's coming in.

JACOBS: Candyce Kelshall is president of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in Vancouver. One suspicion, which Kelshall says is backed up by tracing donations made in cryptocurrency, is that a lot of funds have come from the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way. They are...

REGINA BATESON: The moment that Donald Trump started talking about this, I thought, oh, boy, here we go.

JACOBS: Regina Bateson is an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

BATESON: This is going to lead to yet more escalation in the situation here on the ground. It's going to lead to more resources flowing into the group that's here occupying Ottawa.

JACOBS: Coverage in right-wing U.S. media, including Fox News, has included wildly inflated numbers of participants. The GoFundMe campaign was shut down after Canadian law enforcement objected. But then the Texas attorney general announced an investigation on behalf of Texas donors. Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, says organizers' anti-government tone makes the support from American politicians troubling.

BRUCE HEYMAN: Democracies are fragile, and we learned that on January 6, and we're still learning a lot more. Canada is learning that as well, that with this small group of people but, unfortunately, with outside influence from people from our own country that shouldn't be doing what they're doing.

JACOBS: The main convoy fundraiser has since moved to a Christian crowdfunding site where it raised more than a million dollars in the first day. Yesterday, an Ontario court froze the funds. It's hard to know how much donated money has reached the organizers or how it's being spent. But, says Stephanie Carvin...

STEPHANIE CARVIN: This crowdfunding is now almost more about the crowd than the funding.

JACOBS: Carvin, a former national security analyst for the Canadian government, now at Carleton University, says the fundraisers have become symbols of support.

CARVIN: Considering that the vast majority of Canadians don't approve of these methods or the convoys and that the support for any of these measures that the convoy is taking is actually declining, I think the international support is actually even going to matter more as this potentially goes on in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

JACOBS: She notes American flags have been seen in the crowd, even a Trump 2024 flag carried by a man on horseback. On a recent evening in Ottawa, most of the flags on display were Canadian. Others read F Trudeau, referring to the Canadian prime minister.

BAZINET: In my 52 years of being on this planet, I don't think I've ever been as proud to be a Canadian as I am down here with these people.

JACOBS: Scott Bazinet was put on leave from his job in the federal government after he refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for federal employees. He drove more than 2,000 miles to be here from his home in Edmonton.

BAZINET: Never in my wildest dreams would I ever think Canadians would start a revolution for freedom. If anything, our big brother, the States, you think them - you know, they're always so patriotic. You know, we're American. American, you know? We're proud. Here's little brother Canada, and we've started stuff in every country now in the world.

FADEL: Doesn't sound like someone who's ready to go home. Emma, what's the government doing? Is there any end in sight?

JACOBS: It's a good question. There are a lot of discussions between the different levels of government but no clear plan yet.

FADEL: Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Thank you.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.