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Ontario introduces bill aimed at tackling border blockades

Truckers and supporters block the access leading from the Ambassador Bridge, linking Detroit and Windsor, as truckers and their supporters continue to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, in Windsor, Ont., Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ontario has introduced legislation with measures aimed at tackling blockades at international border crossings like one at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor that disrupted trade with the U.S. last month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ontario introduced legislation Monday with measures aimed at tackling blockades at international border crossings like the one at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor that disrupted trade with the U.S. last month.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones introduced the Keeping Ontario Open for Business Act in the provincial legislature on Monday, as Premier Doug Ford headed to Washington to polish his province's image as a reliable trade partner with the U.S.

Ford highlighted the provincial legislation in a speech to the Canadian American Business Council, saying the U.S. can rely on Ontario despite "upheaval and uncertainty" around the world. 

"Recent events have proven the need to secure the cross-border supply chains that have been built over decades, (tying) our economies together," Ford said. 

"Investors can have confidence that Ontario is open for business. We will not accept any attempts to block our borders or interrupt our economy."

Jones said the bill – which would make permanent several emergency measures the province introduced to dispel anti-vaccine mandate protesters in Windsor and Ottawa – would protect jobs that depend on trade and shield the economy from disruptions like facility closures and supply chain issues if similar situations arise in the future.

Announcing the measures earlier in the day, Jones acknowledged that Ontario's reputation "took a hit" during the Windsor blockade, which prompted the White House to call on Canadian partners to find a swift resolution. 

The Ambassador Bridge protest was one of several that sprung up at Canada-U.S. border crossings. Those protests rallying against a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for truckers eventually evolved into a broader movement against pandemic restrictions. The cause also sparked a weekslong occupation in downtown Ottawa that the federal and provincial governments enacted emergency measures to disperse. 

Ontario's new bill would give police the ability to impose roadside suspension of drivers’ licences and vehicle permits, seize licence plates when a vehicle is used in an illegal blockade and remove and store objects making up an illegal blockade.

Jones said the measures are "scoped narrowly" and won't impact people's rights to peaceful protest. 

Text of the bill said the police powers would apply to blockades at "protected transportation infrastructure," which is defined as land or water border crossings between Ontario and the U.S., airports with regular flights between Ontario and countries other and Canada and "other transportation that is of significance to international trade."

The move in Toronto came as Ford was in Washington, D.C. to discuss trade with U.S. business leaders and officials. A statement from Ford's office said he aimed to "re-affirm that Ontario is a safe and reliable jurisdiction for investment and business" on his trip.

Ford and Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli were to meet with Canada's ambassador to the U.S., the under secretary of commerce for international trade and the assistant U.S. trade representative for the Western Hemisphere, to discuss protecting jobs and "an integrated economy." 

The pair also joined discussions at a Canadian American Business Council event. In his speech to the council, Ford also urged the U.S. to "share the same commitment to removing obstacles" to the two jurisdictions' trade relationship, pointing specifically President Joe Biden's protectionist push to strengthen his country's Buy American rules. 

Also on Monday, Ontario announced $96 million to go toward enhanced training for public order policing, strengthening Ontario Provincial Police emergency management, establishing a permanent OPP emergency response team, and buying tow trucks.

The government said the new legislation would allow the province to respond to disruptions to critical border infrastructure in the future without declaring a state of emergency.

Ford declared the emergency on Feb. 11, nearly two weeks after the Ottawa protest began and days into the shutdown at the critical trade route between Windsor and Detroit.

He pledged at the time to enact orders that would fine people up to $100,000 for blocking critical infrastructure and authorize the removal of licences if people didn't comply, and said he aimed to make the measures permanent at some point. 

Opposition politicians were skeptical Monday of whether the anti-blockade bill and Ford's trip south of the border would be enough to restore the confidence of residents and international partners, accusing him of waiting too long to take action during the disruptions in Windsor and Ottawa.

"It wasn't until (Ford's) back was against the wall that he did something," Liberal House Leader John Fraser said shortly before the bill was introduced. "I'm not sure that the premier going down to Washington will come close to repairing the damage that was done over two weeks."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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