Winter 'Freedom Convoy' blockades cost billions to Canada's economy, inquiry hears

OTTAWA — Transport Canada estimates as much as $3.9 billion in trade activity was halted because of border blockades across the country related to protests against COVID-19 restrictions last winter, a public inquiry heard Wednesday.

The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is probing the Liberal government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, reviewed emails between staff for various federal ministers who were hearing from businesses frustrated with border blockades between Feb. 8 and 9.

Protesters rode big-rigs, pickup trucks and other vehicles decorated with Canadian flags to Ottawa and several border crossings to protest vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers, COVID-19 restrictions, and the Trudeau government.

At various points in early 2022, protesters blockaded border crossings in Windsor, Ont., the small town of Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and the Pacific Highway in Surrey, B.C.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the economic impact of the blockades and the undermining of Canada's economic and national security in the emergency declaration Feb. 14.

The emails show that in the lead-up to the decision, motor companies expressed concerns to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra's office about having to shut down their manufacturing plants because of the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor.

Metro, the grocery store chain, told Alghabra’s office that "if this goes on for longer it will have a more profound impact."

Several motor companies shut down or reported they were close to doing so because parts and staff could not get over the border at the Ambassador Bridge, Canada's busiest crossing.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, told Alghabra’s office that plants would have to shut down "if things get critical" and "there are concerns about items backing up on the U.S. side."

The six-day blockade of the bridge halted an estimated $2.3 billion in trade, the analysis by Transport Canada shows.

At one point, General Motors was planning to rent an icebreaker and ship vehicles and parts across the Great Lakes, at least according to a second-hand account in a Feb. 11 email from Julie Turcotte, a senior official with the Department of Finance.

Businesses were "very, very concerned about not having predictability about when they can move their products and where," Transport Canada's chief economist Christian Dea told the commission in his testimony Wednesday afternoon.

Dea crunched the numbers on the economic impact of the blockades throughout the protest. The impacts to Canada's GDP "seemed large" based on his analysis, Turcotte said in her Feb. 11 email.

Brendan Miller, a lawyer who represents the organizers of the "Freedom Convoy" protest in Ottawa, presented another, far rosier analysis released by Statistics Canada in April.

"Overall, the blocked border crossings appear to have had little impact on the aggregate values of Canadian imports and exports in February," the Statistics Canada report concluded.

The analysis showed that cross-border traffic fell in places where protests took place, but were offset by busier traffic at nearby crossings, as trucks took different routes to the United States to avoid the blockades.

Michael Keenan, the deputy minister of Transport Canada, told the commission that some of the costs to Canada's economy could not be measured.

Keenan said the blockades could not have come at a worse time, as several U.S. companies were deliberating over new investments in automotive plans in Ontario.

When Ford Canada shut down production at an Oakville plant during the Windsor border blockade, Alghabra's chief of staff noted the situation was being seen by U.S. parent companies as "just another reason not to invest in Canada."

"We were seeing a growing question as to whether Canada was a reliable trade partner and whether these trade corridors will stay open," Keenan told the commission Wednesday. "That’s really important because that affects investment decisions."

In the end, many of those major investment in new plants in Canada came through, but he called it a "near miss."

He told the commission the government should consider a national legislative regime to protect trade corridors, and better emergency plans that include all three levels of government.

Hearings in the public inquiry began in mid-October and are expected to conclude at the end of next week, with a final report due to Parliament in February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said Ontario Premier Doug Ford shut down production at an Oakville plane during the blockade at the border crossing in Windsor, Ont.