Politics

Covid-19 protests grow in New Zealand as truck blockade continues in Canada


More protesters arrived outside New Zealand’s parliament on Friday, calling for an end to a vaccine mandate, despite arrests by the police, as the US urged Canada to use its federal powers to end the truck blockade by Canadians protesting the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s been four days since several thousand protesters in New Zealand, inspired by truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, occupied the parliament lawns in the capital Wellington, and blocked surrounding streets with their trucks, cars, camper vans and motorcycles.

On Thursday, the police arrested 120 people as they attempted to forcefully remove the protesters, but were seen falling back later in the day as the campers refused to move.

The police said in a statement on Friday that there were no incidents of note overnight at the parliament grounds, although two more people were arrested for “alcohol-related behaviour”.

“Police continue to take a measured approach to the protesters, who are trespassing on the grounds of parliament and have been repeatedly asked to leave,” Superintendent Corrie Parnell said in the statement.

There are a range of different causes and motivations among the protesters, making it difficult to open clear and meaningful lines of communication, the police said, adding that misinformation, particularly on social media, has been identified as an issue.

More tents and even a gazebo went up on the lawn as more protesters arrived from across the country on Friday. But the crowd was peaceful, singing and dancing, unlike the angry demonstrations seen on Thursday.

“At the moment it looks more like a festival here,” one of the organisers said on the microphone.

“Does anybody see a mob here?”

A small number of protesters were also reported to have gathered in other cities like Nelson and Christchurch in solidarity.

The protesters ignored calls from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern to “move on”. The continuing stand off is mounting political pressure on Ms Ardern, whose approval ratings taking a hit in recent opinion polls.

Despite garnering plaudits for keeping the country virtually virus-free over the last two years, the strict restrictions that are still in place have become unpopular.

Canada

In Canada, for the fourth straight day, scores of truckers taking part in what they dubbed the “Freedom Convoy” blocked the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, disrupting the flow of auto parts and other products between the two countries.

The blockade is happening at a bad time for the US auto industry. Supplies of new vehicles already are low across the nation because of the global shortage of computer chips, which has forced automakers to temporarily close factories.

“The disruptions we are seeing at the US-Canada border — at the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge and at other crossings — are adding to the significant supply chain strains on manufacturers and other businesses in the United States, ” the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable said in a joint statement.

“We respectfully urge the Canadian government to act swiftly to address the disruption to the flow of trade and its impact on manufacturers and other businesses on both sides of the border.”

The White House said Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke with their Canadian counterparts and urged them to help resolve the standoff.

Federal public safety minister Marco Mendicino said Royal Canadian Mounted Police reinforcements are being sent to Windsor, Ottawa and Coutts, Alberta where another border blockade is happening.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau met virtually with leaders of Canada’s opposition late on Thursday and said he spoke with Windsor’s mayor. Mr Trudeau’s office said there is a willingness to “respond with whatever it takes” to end the blockades.

Conservative Ontario premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, moved to cut off funding for the protests by successfully asking a court to freeze millions of dollars in donations to the convoy through crowd-funding site GiveSendGo. Mr Ford has called the protests an occupation.

With political and economic pressure mounting, Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens announced the city will seek a court injunction to end the occupation.

“The economic harm is not sustainable and it must come to an end,” he said.

In the US, authorities braced for the possibility of similar truck-borne protests inspired by the Canadians, and authorities in Paris and Belgium banned road blockades to head off disruptions there, too.

The US Department of Homeland Security said in a bulletin to local and state law enforcement agencies that it has received reports that truckers are planning to “potentially block roads in major metropolitan cities” in a protest against vaccine mandates and other issues.

The agency said the convoy could begin in Southern California as early as this weekend, possibly disrupting traffic around the Super Bowl, and reach Washington in March in time for the State of the Union address, according to a copy of Tuesday’s bulletin obtained by The Associated Press.

The White House said the department is “surging additional staff” to the Super Bowl just in case.

The protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other Covid-19 restrictions and are railing against Mr Trudeau, even though many of Canada’s precautions, such as mask rules and vaccine passports for getting into restaurants, theatres and other places, were enacted by provincial authorities, not the federal government, and are already rapidly being lifted as the Omicron surge levels off. – Reuters/AP



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