Ottawa and White House in talks to stop future trucker blockades, top U.S. envoy says

OTTAWA —Canada and the U.S. are in detailed security talks to ensure there’s no repeat of trucker blockades led in part by “right-wing extremists” who “wanted to overthrow the government,” says Washington’s envoy to Canada.

Ambassador David L. Cohen said the blockades, particularly at the Windsor-Detroit border in early February, raised “significant concerns” within the Biden administration and among American manufacturers about the reliability of cross-border supply chains.

Cohen strongly condemned the protests and voiced concerns they could happen again. He also said Canada and U.S. government officials are looking at how to eliminate jurisdictional snafus that complicated law enforcement efforts to stop the blockades, along with measures to tackle the disinformation that fuelled the protests in the first place.

In an April 8 meeting with the Star’s editorial board, U.S. Ambassador David L. Cohen said America appreciated the “reasonably prompt action” by the Canadian federal government to end the convoy blockade of the Ambassador Bridge.

In a wide-ranging discussion with the Toronto Star’s editorial board on Friday, Cohen cited reporting by the Star and others as well as “intelligence” that showed “notwithstanding what some of the truckers were saying, the trucker convoy was not really about vaccine mandates.

“That might have been a spark that led to the convoy. I think the roots of the trucker convoy were much deeper. I think they go to a right-wing extreme populism that exists in Canada and exists in the United States. It exists in democracies throughout the world,” he said.

“Let’s say exactly” what motivated many “high-level organizers” of the protests, the ambassador interjected at one point. “A desire to overthrow the government.

“I’m not being demeaning when I say it, but this is not some trucker from Alberta who decided to organize a bunch of his friends to come to Ottawa to overthrow the government.

“There were high-level organizers who — I think your reporting demonstrated and has been demonstrated through post-action intelligence and information — who had a pretty clear agenda that went far beyond the vaccine mandates.”

In an April 8 meeting with the Star’s editorial board, the U.S. ambassador said the so-called “Freedom convoy” was rooted in a right-wing extreme populism that is fuelled by disinformation.

There are reviews underway on both sides of the border of the events of late January and February that led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to declare a “public order emergency” on Feb. 14, in order to invoke a range of novel police and government powers using the Emergencies Act for the first time.

The Ambassador Bridge, the busiest international land crossing between the United States and Canada, was shut down from Feb. 7 to 13 when truckers sympathetic to the Ottawa protest that had begun a week earlier blocked access to the bridge.

But the fallout from the so-called “Freedom Convoy” remains high on the radar of the U.S. administration.

Cohen said top government officials discussed the protests during a cross-border crime forum in March — a binational security conference that was revived after a decade. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas met with Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti and Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino in Washington.

On the agenda was whether there is “legislation short of the Emergencies Act that would grant some level of government — maybe provincial police or local police — more powers to be able to prevent a trucker blockade or two from occurring,” Cohen said.

The U.S. has a stake in the lessons learned in Canada “because there could have been a trucker blockade on the United States side of the Ambassador Bridge that had the same effect as the trucker blockade on the Canada side,” he added. And in the U.S., the same jurisdictional complications might arise, Cohen said, when it comes to how local police, state police, National Guard and federal security forces should respond.

“You may need more collaboration, more communication, better intelligence coming out of this … those are the types of steps and learnings that we take out of the trucker convoy. So that if something bubbles up again, that Canada or the United States for that matter are better prepared to address it before it reaches the crisis proportions that this particular trucker convoy reached.”

Cohen said there is already one “big lesson learned” after the protests: that it is “appropriate to have some breakdown of the purportedly clear jurisdictional lines between local police, provincial police, RCMP.”

In an April 8 meeting with the Star’s editorial board, the American ambassador to Canada said that politicians in the United States have a shared interest in defending democracy despite their fierce partisan bickering.

In an interview with the Star, Mendicino confirmed the discussions and said he had been in touch throughout the convoy protests with Mayorkas, and that both countries have an interest in seeing well-designed policy solutions that can counter such law enforcement challenges.

He said the fact that Ottawa’s Wellington Street, in front of Parliament, “was and remains under the jurisdiction of the Ottawa Police Service” was a key challenge and “we need to take a look at that and understand better how we can transition more quickly from municipal to provincial to federal law enforcement authorities seamlessly, effectively, rapidly in the wake of the type of illegal obstructive blockades that we experienced in the months of January and February.”

The protests took hold on Jan. 28 in Ottawa and saw copycat protests pop up all across the country, in Quebec City, Windsor-Detroit, Fort Erie, Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., Winnipeg, and Surrey, B.C.

In Ottawa, the downtown occupation by hundreds of semis and pickup trucks lining the street in front of Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Senate and beyond lasted 23 days.

Cohen said “these types of demonstrations” have arisen in the U.K., Germany, Japan, and Brazil and that the populism at the root of it is “one of the great challenges of this time in global history. And it certainly still exists, this undercurrent of negativity toward institutions. And I think that’s what it is. It’s anti-government. It’s anti-large company. It’s anti-mainstream media.

“And it is fuelled by disinformation, primarily disinformation on social media. And I think it is a significant challenge for the world’s democracies … as to how to react to that and how to react to it in real time, how to be proactive in dealing with it.”

The federal Liberals have taken steps towards regulating what it calls online harmful content, but Mendicino said when it comes to the national security implications of disinformation, his department and the agencies responsible continue to look at ways to “detect, and where appropriate, take corrective actions online when it comes to disinformation.”

Mendicino said some of the questions Cohen raised are part of the parliamentary review of the government’s use of the Emergencies Act, now underway.

Cohen said while its use was controversial in Canada, for the Americans he was only “authorized” to use one word to describe the Biden administration’s reaction to Trudeau’s eventual use of federal emergency powers.

“I think in the end, there was gratitude,” he said, “for the way ultimately that Canada did resolve the trucker blockade.”

The RCMP cleared the blockades in Windsor at the Ambassador Bridge on the weekend before Trudeau resorted on Feb. 14 to the Emergencies Act. The powers were in force for a total of 10 days.

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