Ambassador Bridge blockade could have ‘enormous’ impact on Canadian trade, experts say

The Ambassador Bridge that connects Windsor, Ont., with the United States is a crucial trade link between the two countries, so its blockade has the potential to affect businesses and consumers across the country, experts say.

The bridge sees about one-quarter of all the goods that go between the two countries every day, according to Statistics Canada, with roughly $300 million worth of goods passing over it under normal circumstances.

That’s about as much as Canada ships to countries like South Korea, Brazil, Switzerland or Australia in a typical month, and it’s been brought to a grinding halt in recent days, occupied by protesters demanding an end to restrictions implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19.

About $50 million worth of auto parts alone goes over the century-old bridge every day, and those in that Canadian industry say the current situation simply cannot last.

Lack of parts

On Wednesday, that impact came to a head with automaker Stellantis announcing that its minivan-making factory in the area is feeling the pinch.

“Stellantis confirms that the Windsor Assembly Plant had to cut short its first and second shifts on Tuesday due to parts shortages,” a spokesperson for the company that owns the Chrysler brand told CBC News. “We continue to work closely with our carriers to get parts into the plant to mitigate further disruptions.”

The system that enables vehicle production across North America is what’s known as a “just in time” supply chain that means, for the most part, components aren’t mass-produced and then stored somewhere for future use. They are manufactured and shipped to where they are going within days, saving time and money for all involved.

That system has been stretched to the breaking point in recent days, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Auto Parts Manufacturing Association.

WATCH | Protests are slowing the flow of goods to a crawl:

Protests slow Canada’s busiest border crossing to a crawl

A second day of protests on the Ambassador Bridge near Windsor, Ont., has slowed traffic to a crawl, angering locals and sparking concern about how they will impact the flow of goods. 3:02

There’s a contingency of about a day or two where factories on both sides can hold things together. “After that, it starts to become a real problem,” he said.

“If I’m making trucks in a Michigan plant and I can’t get seats from London, well, I won’t make those trucks,” he told CBC News in an interview. “And if I don’t make those trucks, I’m not going to then take deliveries from all the other parts suppliers from all over the U.S. that supply to that Michigan plant.”

GM, Ford, Toyota report interruptions

The shortages forced General Motors to cancel the second shift of the day at its midsize-SUV factory near Lansing, Mich. Spokesman Dan Flores said it was expected to restart Thursday and no additional impact was expected for the time being.

Ford said late Wednesday that parts shortages forced it to shut down its engine plant in Windsor and to run an assembly plant in Oakville, Ont., on a reduced schedule.

“This interruption on the Detroit-Windsor bridge hurts customers, auto workers, suppliers, communities and companies on both sides of the border,” Ford said in a statement. “We hope this situation is resolved quickly because it could have widespread impact on all automakers in the U.S. and Canada.”

Also Wednesday, Toyota spokesperson Scott Vazin said the company will not be able to manufacture anything at three Canadian plants for the rest of this week due to parts shortages. A statement attributed the problem to supply chain, weather and pandemic-related challenges, but the shutdowns came just days after the blockade began Monday.

“Our teams are working diligently to minimize the impact on production,” the company said, adding that it doesn’t expect any layoffs at this time.

Paradoxically, it is because the situation is so damaging to both countries’ economies that Volpe is confident the worst-case scenario — an extended, full blockage — won’t come to pass.

“The fact that it’s so acute also lends to the argument today that I think this is going to be resolved rather quickly.”

WATCH | Mayor of Windsor says something must be done: 

Windsor mayor says federal, provincial intervention will be needed to resolve protest near U.S. border crossing

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens says the Ontario and federal governments will need to get involved in order to resolve protests blocking a major Canada-U.S. border crossing in his city. 5:47

Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said auto parts are only one part of the equation.

Everything from food to medical supplies moves along that bridge every day, which is why “the consequences both for Canadian families and for Canadian business are enormous,” he told CBC News in an interview.

Supply chains are stretched as it is, and the situation in Windsor will do nothing to ameliorate that, he said.

“To do this and take down the most important commercial crossing in North America can only exacerbate that problem.”

Food supply under stress

When combined with a similar blockade at the border in Coutts, Alta., Beatty says the food system in particular will become strained.

The Canadian Meat Council told CBC News in an emailed statement that Coutts is “the most important border crossing point for meat products,” but the Ambassador Bridge situation will also have a major impact.

“While it may seem obvious that if one border point is blocked there are many other options, when it comes to meat exports, the product has to pass an inspection at the U.S. border,” the group said. 

While local officials are driving as much traffic as they can to other crossings less than an hour from the Ambassador Bridge, in the case of Coutts, the nearest facility that can inspect food is a 13-hour drive away. 

A truck convoy of anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators blocks the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., earlier this month. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“The blockage of trade at our borders is self-defeating and the Canadian Meat Council, on behalf of our members, is asking that these important infrastructure blockages be cleared up as quickly as possible,” the group said.

Beatty said beyond the direct impacts, a major problem with the situation in Windsor is that it causes people to lose faith in the system.

“There’s the fundamental question of the rule of law,” he said. “Our rights and freedoms are protected by the respect for the law.”

While the protests that have gripped many locations across Canada in recent weeks have been led by truckers, the industry has been quick and forceful in distancing itself from the actions of protesters, with the Canadian Trucking Alliance repeatedly noting that 90 per cent of its members are vaccinated against COVID-19 and noting their support of the mandate governing that policy on both sides of the border.

Volpe agrees with that assessment, saying that anyone trying to get their message across at the expense of the broader economy needs a rethink.

“Enforce the law, allow people to protest, go to city hall, go to Queen’s Park, go to Parliament Hill, do it peacefully and safely and as long as you want, but don’t get in the way of the economy,” he said.

“If you’re there with your Hyundai Tucson and a hockey stick with a Canadian flag on it, you’re certainly not hauling a load and I’m not sure that you’re a trucker.”

Back To Top