Independent Canadian truckers say they will blockade border crossings with the United States beginning tonight to protest Canadian trucking policies.
Wayne Whitney, unofficial leader of 40,000 non-union or independent Canadian truckers, said the Canadian policies are making it impossible for truckers to make a living while competing against U.S. truckers.
Canadian truckers hope to block 35 major crossings with the United States, including the Peace Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, beginning at 11:59 tonight.
But the four international highway bridges linking Erie and Niagara counties with Canada's Niagara Peninsula are expected to remain open for automobiles and buses this weekend.
"History and the truckers' own statements indicate that automobile and bus traffic should not be discouraged from using the bridges," said Allen Gandell, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. "The Rainbow Bridge and the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge will not be affected by a truck blockade, and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge will remain open for cars and buses even if there is a blockade."
Hubert J. Willis, operations manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, agreed that "it is our hope and our desire that any action by the truckers will not interfere with other traffic."
Police from both sides of the border met early today with Peace Bridge officials, Friendship Festival organizers and other agencies to plan a response to the blockade.
"We don't even know if it's going to happen yet," said Staff Sgt. J. Ernie Houghton of the Ontario Provincial Police. "If it does, we are prepared and hopefully everything will run smoothly."
Today's meeting at the Niagara Regional Police Detachment in Fort Erie, like a similar meeting late Wednesday in Niagara Falls, Ont., was designed to set up a communication network among the agencies.
"We felt it would be a good idea to organize this as best we can," said Houghton. "Hopefully, by the planning we've done, it will make it easier for everyone involved."
Police said they will try to keep traffic lanes open on the bridge this weekend but will also assist truckers in any way they can.
"The Peace Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge are the obvious targets," said Gandell of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. "But we expect non-commercial traffic to be normal for a summer holiday weekend, which means it will be heavy. After all, this is not a Tuesday in mid-October," when traffic normally would be light.
Sunday's Canada Day holiday celebration, the upcoming Independence Day holiday in the United States and this weekend's Friendship Festival in Buffalo and Fort Erie are expected to add to the normally heavy weekend traffic.
Organizers of the Friendship Festival, which starts Friday, are anxious as they watch the developments on the bridges, said spokeswoman Karen Wodarczak. "We are working with Peace Bridge officials to establish some sort of alternate routes or to assure cars will go through," she said.
She noted that festival organizers are encouraging people to cross the border to enjoy the activities in Fort Erie and Buffalo. This is the first year the festival is sponsoring the Can-Am shuttle, to take festival-goers to the two major sites.
"We are encouraging the use of the shuttle to avoid traffic congestion," she said.
Fort Erie municipal workers, who have been on strike for five weeks, also plan to protest at the Friendship Festival.
"We're going to go down in force to the opening ceremonies," said Jim Johnson, president of Local 714, Canadian Union of Public Employees. Fort Erie parks and recreational facilities also could be picketed next week.
The union, representing 50 of 71 town workers, has been unable to reach a contract agreement with the town in a dispute over sick time and other issues.
Mayor William S. Smeaton of Niagara Falls, Ont., said he was "very adamant that we don't want those bridges closed," but he added that Canada's "independent truckers have some very legitimate beefs."
Smeaton was a sales representative for a trucking company before he became mayor.
The Canadian truckers are protesting high taxes, insurance and fuel costs, which they say make it impossible for them to compete with haulers from the United States.
Canadian Transport Minister Doug Lewis met with Whitney and two other non-union truckers in Ottawa Wednesday morning, and later met with three union leaders representing 150,000 unionized truckers. The union leaders agreed to participate with federal and provincial governments and industry leaders in a task force study into the problems facing the industry.
Union leaders also agreed not to ask their members to participate in the blockade. Unions did not back the blockades last month, although some union drivers supported the independents anyway.
The task force was given until Aug. 13 to submit a formal report. Whitney, however, refused to participate because the time frame was too long.
"These truckers don't have that kind of time," he said.
During their meeting he presented Lewis with several demands, which Lewis later dismissed. Among them were several changes to the taxes paid by truckers to make them similar to those paid by U.S. truckers; low-interest loans to individual truckers; increasing the minimum number of hours truckers are allowed to drive per week; and a bond system to ensure independent truckers are paid for loads carried.
In May the non-union truckers stopped truck traffic between Canada and the United States for several days. Whitney promised to be at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., where he was in May when it was blocked by 700 trucks.
Earlier Wednesday, following Lewis' meeting with the union leaders, Lewis said the government would investigate ways of better enforcing the rules that prevent U.S. trucks from transporting goods between two points in Canada. A similar rule exists in the United States, but Canadian truckers complain that it is enforced, while in Canada the rule is not.
But the minister dismissed the other complaints as unproven.
The U.S. transportation industry was deregulated in 1980. Canada followed eight years later. Lewis suggested the problems facing Canadian truckers have more to do with a "shakeout" in Canadian industry than unfair competition with U.S. truckers.
Canadian truckers complain they have lost $50 million in contracts to leaner American firms. The tax system, including a much higher tax on fuel, makes operating costs 15 to 20 percent higher in Canada, they say.
Campbell Morrison of the News Ottawa Bureau and Niagara Bureau Chief Richard E. Baldwin contributed to this story.