Ottawa police promise a heavy presence in the capital and zero tolerance for hate as a second convoy prepares to descend on the city this weekend, this time involving hundreds of motorcycles instead of trucks.
Interim police chief Steve Bell told Ottawa city councillors Wednesday that his force has no intention of letting the “Rolling Thunder Convoy” turn into another illegal occupation, and that officers will act quickly when they see any wrongdoing.
“Threatening or intimidating behaviours will be addressed with all appropriate enforcement action,” Bell said.
“Investigative teams, including our hate crime unit, are in place focused on gathering evidence and laying charges where appropriate. The display of symbols of hate like swastikas will result in charges.”
The police chief also sought to reassure residents still shaken by the “Freedom Convoy,” in which hundreds of protesters occupied the downtown core for three weeks to protest COVID-19 restrictions and demand the Liberal government resign.
The occupation disrupted traffic, forced businesses to close, and sparked complaints of intimidation, harassment and hateful conduct. Relentless honking of air horns from big rigs disturbed residents for days. Police chief Peter Sloly resigned after many residents criticized police for not taking a harder line with the protesters.
The demonstration, which also disrupted several border crossings with the United States, ended after the federal Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act, and police moved in to detain and arrest dozens of people.
In a message directed to Ottawa residents, Bell said the police won’t “allow for unsafe or unlawful conditions that could lead to another protest.”
“We’ve heard your concerns,” he said. “We know that you are still healing from the disruption and criminality.”
The Rolling Thunder group has not been clear about the cause they’re rallying for, except to say that they will be in Ottawa to “peacefully celebrate our freedom.”
The website for “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” said it is partnered with the groups Veterans for Freedom and Freedom Fighters Canada, both of which appear to have links to the Freedom Convoy.
Veterans for Freedom describes itself on its website as a group made up of Canadian veterans working to “restore fundamental freedoms for all Canadians” and “uphold Canadian laws.”
The members of that group’s steering committee all have ties to the earlier protests, including one who was among the convoy’s spokespeople. Others appeared in YouTube videos supporting convoy demonstrators.
Freedom Fighters Canada’s website says it is an organization “demanding the end of all government mandates” and the end of “tyrannical legislation.” Some of its organizers also attended or supported the earlier protests publicly.
Bell told councillors that police are in touch with the Rolling Thunder organizers, who expect more than 500 motorcycles to arrive in the city. The force is also working with the RCMP and intelligence agencies to identify potential threats.
“Residents will see a large police presence, including bylaw and parking enforcement officers,” he added. “There will be a significant increase in officers from the Ontario Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other municipal police jurisdictions.”
Convoy organizers have said they plan to do a loop around the city, with a stop at the National War Memorial as well as a march and rally on Parliament Hill where speeches will be delivered.
Police won’t let protesters bring their bikes onto the streets around Parliament Hill, setting up a potential conflict, but Bell told councillors there is currently no plan to erect a fence around the National War Memorial.
Freedom Convoy protesters were heavily criticized for standing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and parking their trucks on the memorial site during the first week of the occupation. Fences were installed but later torn down by demonstrators.
“There’s been no request to actually fence off that area,” Bell said. “We will have officers readily available in and around the area on foot, as I’ve indicated before, ready to respond to any sort of incident that would occur.”
In response to Bell’s presentation, several councillors representing areas around the downtown core raised concerns about reports convoy participants plan to set up in or ride through different neighbourhoods, and what police plan to do about it.
There were also concerns about the ride interfering with a major bicycle fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, which is scheduled for Saturday.
Bell indicated police would be keeping close tabs on the Rolling Thunder convoy during its ride through the city, backed up with tow trucks and physical barriers. Police also plan to have “quick response teams” ready to respond to emergencies, he said.
Downtown Ottawa councillor Catherine McKenney told Bell that residents are nervous and “they’re also fed up. And residents that I’m hearing from are not going to take any incursion into their neighbourhoods by white supremacist, racist, extreme groups of people.”