Ambassador Bridge blockades will have ‘lasting effect’ on supply chain, experts say

Click to play video: 'Frustration rises as Canada-U.S. border blockade in Ontario forces diversions'
Frustration rises as Canada-U.S. border blockade in Ontario forces diversions
WATCH ABOVE: The Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan, remains partially blocked, as protesters continue to disrupt the crossing, calling for the end COVID-19 restrictions. As Sean O'Shea reports, frustration is mounting as truckers are forced to take a longer detour between borders, wreaking havoc on the supply chain. – Feb 9, 2022

A slew of consumer goods and time-critical supplies will be disrupted by even short-term blockades at the Ambassador Bridge, experts say, as the protests in solidarity with the so-called “Freedom Convoy” stretch into a third day.

Traffic delays continue Wednesday at the bridge connecting Windsor, Ont., to Detroit, Mich., as 50 to 70 vehicles are blocking off parts of the busy border crossing, though traffic into Canada from the U.S. resumed Tuesday.

Protests are also ongoing at the Coutts, Alta., border crossing and on highways surrounding Canada-U.S. border crossings in Ontario, as well as in downtown Ottawa.

Click to play video: 'Ambassador Bridge protesters continue to halt traffic'
Ambassador Bridge protesters continue to halt traffic

The Ambassador Bridge is a critical trade link for Canada and the U.S.

It’s the busiest land border crossing in North America with up to 10,000 trucks travelling across the bridge daily, representing a quarter of all commercial trade between the countries, according to Fraser Johnson, professor of operations management at the Ivey Business School.

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Daily, the Ambassador Bridge is responsible for $350 million to $400 million worth of goods, he says.

With such a significant volume of goods relying on the bridge, the impacts of a shutdown would be felt in every aspect of the economy, Johnson says.

That includes fresh produce grown in states such as California, which becomes increasingly critical in Canada’s cold winter months. Electronic and other consumer goods would also face delays.

“Everything that we touch as consumers would be affected,” he says.

While grocery stores likely still have inventory to put on the shelves this week, Johnson says there will be a “ripple effect” on producers and transportation companies as suppliers attempt to catch up from delays caused by even a few days of blockades at the border.

Click to play video: 'Same people selling ‘fake stories about empty shelves’ causing shortages amid blockades: Alghabra'
Same people selling ‘fake stories about empty shelves’ causing shortages amid blockades: Alghabra

The Ambassador Bridge is by no means the only border crossing in Ontario, but nearby bridges in Sarnia or Niagara are likely to face backups as transportation companies attempt to adjust their shipping routes.

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“You can’t take the 10,000 trucks a day that are going across the Ambassador Bridge and divert them to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, for example, and not expect to have capacity problems and long backups,” Johnson says.

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“This is a critical issue. It’s not easily resolved from a logistics standpoint … There will be a lasting effect of this over the next few weeks, certainly, even if it gets resolved quickly.”

Automotive hit hard

Among the sectors that rely most on the free flow of goods across the Ambassador Bridge is the automotive industry.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, tells Global News that “95 per cent of the Canadian auto industry is in a 400-kilometre corridor from Windsor to just east of the Greater Toronto Area.”

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Virtually all imports and exports critical to Canada-U.S. vehicle assembly lines flow across that bridge, he says.

The auto industry functions on a “just-in-time principle” that sees assembly lines run based on a meticulous schedule for parts coming to the factory right when they’re needed, Volpe says.

A Michigan assembly line for a pickup truck might hinge on the day’s delivery of seats from a London, Ont.-based plant, for example. Holdups at the border could see work shut down for the day and other deliveries pile up as knock-on effects from a single delay ripple through the supply chain.

A General Motors plant in Michigan shut down a second production shift over part shortages related to delays at the border, a local news station reported Wednesday.

“We’re looking right now, a day into this, at slowdowns and closures at manufacturing plants in the entire region. That’s Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,” Volpe says.

“It is breathlessly stupid for a group that wants to inspire people to join their movement, to put those same people out of work,” he says of “Freedom Convoy” supporters.

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U.S., Canadian officials concerned

Officials on both sides of the border signalled their concerns about protests stalling trade along the corridor on Wednesday.

“The Ambassador Bridge is a vital artery to our country … it is central to the functioning of our economy,” Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in a press conference.

“They’re essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians,” he said of protesters.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the U.S. is watching the blockade situation “very closely.”

Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transportation minister, pointed to the early concerns about supply chain impacts stemming from a vaccination mandate for cross-border truckers — the impetus for the convoy’s demonstrations, which have now evolved to cover a swath of anti-government sentiments — as a legitimate consequence of what he called “illegal blockades” at the Ambassador Bridge.

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“I find it ironic that the same people who were trying to sell Canadians fake stories about empty shelves are now the ones causing these shelves to go empty,” he said Wednesday.

Windsor’s mayor and chief of police called for support from the federal and provincial governments to end the blockade on Wednesday.

Alghabra, Blair and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino each called the Ambassador Bridge blockades “illegal” or “unlawful” on Wednesday, but said it was in the hands of law enforcement in the region to remove the protesters from the bridge.

“The existing authorities are in place in the law so that law enforcement can do the job,” Mendocino said.

Click to play video: 'Not up to the federal government to ask for injunction amid Windsor, Ont. blockade: Mendocino'
Not up to the federal government to ask for injunction amid Windsor, Ont. blockade: Mendocino

The trade disruptions caused by Canadian protests could be “ammunition” for economic nationalists on the other side of the border who are arguing against relying on their northern neighbours for goods and services, Johnson notes.

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“We’ve seen a lot of supply chain shortages and organizations are reevaluating their supply chain risks. And there’s a huge sentiment in the states about ‘Buy America,’” he says.

Though the economic value of Canadian contributions to the auto industry remains strong, Volpe says some U.S. officials might be concerned about a lack of leadership from Canadian officials.

“We’re not at that point yet where you question whether you should supply (auto parts) from Canada,” he says.

“The question isn’t whether there is a good infrastructure and great supply on the side of the border. It’s whether law enforcement on this side of the border takes laws that are on the books as seriously as the ones on the other side.”

— with files from Global News’s Amanda Connolly, Reuters

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