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Truckers blocking the Canada-U.S. border could seriously impact supply chain

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Canada has seen a wave of protests against the country's COVID-19 mandates over the past several days. Trucks have blocked streets in Canada's capital, Ottawa, and tractors have joined the movement in other provinces. Demonstrators recently brought their grievances to Canada's border with the U.S. And as Eli Newman of member station WDET reports, the protests shut down one of the busiest international crossings in North America.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: Earlier this week, the so-called Canadian Freedom Convoy began to block the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit, Mich., to Windsor, Ontario. The bridge carries 25% of all trade between the U.S. and Canada. Goods between the two countries are ferried by Canadian truck drivers like at Ed Schiefer, who lives in Essex County about 30 minutes from the border. But now he's stuck in the states waiting for the bridge to reopen.

ED SCHIEFER: At least I can see the country from here, and I can almost hear my wife yelling at me from here.

NEWMAN: Schiefer parked his rig along a street in Detroit leading up to the bridge next to Jeff Wigfield, who's trying to head home after delivering greenhouse produce to Alabama and Georgia. Wigfield could drive to one of Michigan's other border crossings, but that's problematic, too.

JEFF WIGFIELD: I got a friend down there - four hours and he's moved a half a mile. Now the blockade is supposedly down there blocking that off. So sign - you're closed, this closed. Where do you go?

The other option is you want to run 700 miles out of route and go to Buffalo, cross and come all the way back to Windsor. That's the only other option.

NEWMAN: Even though Wigfield and Schiefer have been inconvenienced by the blockade, they say they sympathize with the protesters over Canada's handling of the pandemic restrictions.

WIGFIELD: Canadians have had enough. They're tired of the government telling them, this is what you're going to do, end of discussion.

SCHIEFER: They're not giving us no options at all. Like I say, they're putting everybody out of business. It's ridiculous. Like I say, it's almost like being communist. Do you have your papers? You got to have your papers to go into a restaurant. You couldn't - you can't go in there unless you've got your shots.

NEWMAN: Canada's COVID-19 public health measures have been generally stricter than those in the U.S., though both countries started to require proof of vaccination for those crossing the border by land. Wigfield and Schiefer are both vaccinated. Nearly 90% of Canadian truckers are. But Jeff Wigfield disagrees with the policies on international travel.

WIGFIELD: COVID started, weirdly, in centrals. They wanted us to work. They wanted us to keep the economy going. We run back and forth across the border and did everything. Now, we got to do everything. We got to be their puppets.

NEWMAN: While commuters and truck drivers wait for the bridge to reopen, Canadian officials are trying to de-escalate the standoff without forcibly removing the protesters. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens says if they don't move soon, the blockade could have a lasting impact on the local economy, especially for the automotive and agricultural sectors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DREW DILKENS: If Canada becomes known as a difficult jurisdiction to do business with, to move goods in and out of, for example, that supply chains will evolve and reconfigure to remove this element of risk and avoid cities and communities like Windsor-Essex.

NEWMAN: The delays have already caused auto plants to cancel shifts, threatening layoffs on both sides of the border as far away as Tennessee. Convoy organizers have received funding from opponents to pandemic health orders in both countries. GoFundMe recently shut down a fundraiser that raised millions of dollars for those organizing the protests. While those protests have attracted their share of genuine supporters, those who track Canadian right-wing extremist groups say the protests present an opportunity for them, too.

Dr. Carmen Celestini as a researcher with the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University. She says the group Canada Unity helped organize the convoy and initially wanted to reform the country's government to push out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Others joined the call to end the pandemic orders.

CARMEN CELESTINI: We have, in fact, with QAnon and we have other people who are involved in neo-Nazi or white supremacist, white nationalist groups, who are using this to sort of engage with people.

NEWMAN: Celestini says the groups are watching American populism as well. Like others on Fox News, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson have dedicated hours to covering the protests. Celestini says Trump-like slogans like Make Canada Great Again appear throughout the convoy.

CELESTINI: And because we were locked down, our social groups are on social media and there are no borders on social media, right?

NEWMAN: While the protesting truckers in Ottawa and Windsor can't deliver goods now, they say their broader message has already been delivered to the Canadian government.

For NPR News, I'm Eli Newman in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.