Ottawa is bracing for the arrival of another convoy of protesters this weekend, just four months after the so-called “Freedom Convoy” began a weeks-long blockade of the capital’s downtown core.
The “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” event will see hundreds of bikers and other demonstrators march through downtown streets and stage several rallies on Parliament Hill starting Friday evening.
Local and federal authorities have prepared for the convoy’s arrival, closing off roads to vehicles and increasing the number of police officers in the area — intending to avoid another incident like February’s trucker protest, which officials have called an “occupation.”
Here’s what we know about the “Rolling Thunder” event and how authorities are responding.
What is 'Rolling Thunder Ottawa'?
Ottawa police say at least 500 motorcyclists are expected to participate in the weekend-long event, though organizers have said the number could exceed 1,000 bikers.
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.”
Organizer Neil Sheard said in a YouTube video posted on Sunday that the biker convoy — which includes several military veterans — is focused on holding a service at the National War Memorial, which he says was “desecrated” by police during the Freedom Convoy protests in February.
Police erected barricades around the memorial after multiple incidents were reported in the early days of the demonstration, including protesters urinating on the site and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Protesters, many of whom appeared to be veterans, later tore the fencing down.
Sheard said in a video posted Wednesday that the ceremony planned for this weekend is meant to allow those veterans, who were later removed from the memorial when police cleared the blockades on Feb. 18 and 19, to “give back dignity” to the site and lay a wreath.
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.
Sheard said in Wednesday’s video that Rolling Thunder is not affiliated with Freedom Fighters Canada, but added his group supports freedom of speech and “any group that wants to fight for the freedom of all Canadians.”
What's being planned?
According to the schedule posted on the Rolling Thunder website, members of Freedom Fighters Canada plan to march and hold a rally on Parliament Hill Friday evening, followed by an afterparty.
On Saturday morning, the Rolling Thunder group intends to lead a convoy of bikers through the streets of downtown Ottawa around Parliament Hill before holding its service at the National War Memorial.
Freedom Fighters Canada are then set to hold another march and rally on Parliament Hill Saturday afternoon, featuring Chris Sky as a “special guest.”
Sky, also known as Chris Saccoccia, has been involved in several protests against COVID-19 mandates across the country and has been arrested in Ontario and Manitoba for violating public health orders.
He was also charged by Toronto police last for year for uttering death threats, which court documents revealed were against multiple politicians including Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other premiers.
Sheard said Wednesday he and the Rolling Thunder group are not affiliated with Saccoccia or anyone else speaking at the Freedom Fighters rallies, but again emphasized his support for freedom of speech.
The weekend is set to wrap up with a church service for the bikers on Sunday morning.
How police are responding
Ottawa police said Monday they will not allow vehicles in the area around Parliament Hill or the National War Memorial as part of any protest, including Rolling Thunder.
Sheard warned Sunday of a “free for all” if the bikers are not able to access the streets around Parliament Hill, adding the safety of his group and the citizens of Ottawa was at stake. He also said he expects the protest will be peaceful and dignified.
Interim police chief Steve Bell said the police service is “considerably concerned” that not all members of the convoy will follow the organizer’s plans, and have prepared for the possibility protesters try to entrench themselves for days or weeks like they did in February.
“Our planning response is set up specifically to make sure that doesn’t occur,” Bell told reporters on Monday.
Additional officers will be present to enforce the road closures and to arrest protesters if necessary, along with members of the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and other city police services.
On Wednesday, the Ottawa Police Services Board approved a request to appoint 200 additional RCMP officers to support local efforts if needed, as well as to re-appoint 631 officers who were given special constable status during the Freedom Convoy protests.
Signs of the enhanced enforcement appeared on Thursday, when police said a person had been arrested and charged after they attempted to drive into Ottawa, allegedly in “preparation” for the Rolling Thunder event.
The charges included driving without insurance and driving on a prohibited highway, along with having cannabis “readily available.”
Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the Rolling Thunder convoy won’t be a “replay” of the Freedom Convoy protests in January and February.
“We’re going to provide the tools and the resources that are necessary for law enforcement to uphold the law,” he said.
“We do not want to see anything in the form of an illegal occupation again here in Ottawa.”
Sheard said in a statement posted to the Rolling Thunder website Monday that the group does “not support blockades, obstruction of police performing their duties, damage to property, or hate & vitriol directed to the residents in Ottawa.”