The nation’s capital is bracing for a Canada Day set to draw large crowds after two years of virtual celebrations — just months after an unprecedented illegal demonstration that police say is still causing “lingering trauma” among Ottawa residents.
In normal years, Canada Day festivities draw thousands to the lawns and streets around Parliament Hill for concerts, fireworks and parties. COVID-19 forced celebrations to be virtual instead, in 2020 and 2021.
This year, the party is back live and in person after two years of lockdowns, but it won’t be taking place against the familiar backdrop of the parliamentary precinct.
Instead, official celebrations will be based at LeBreton Flats, the festival grounds roughly a 20-minute walk west of Parliament Hill, as the parliamentary precinct battens down.
It’s all part of an effort to prevent a repeat of the three-week truck convoy demonstration by anti-governmental and anti-vaccine individuals that police as well as federal and municipal officials have called an “occupation.”
“Given what we know and what we are faced with, we have taken an enhanced and extended posture that starts well before the 1st of July and extends well past to ensure we properly protect our city,” said interim Ottawa Police Services chief Steve Bell.
“This will be no small task but together we will do everything within our power to keep our city and residents safe.”
What are police doing?
As of 8 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, Ottawa police are enforcing a motor vehicle control zone in the core.
That zone will stay in effect until July 4 and will see police and bylaw authorities banning on-street parking and limiting access into the blocks immediately around Parliament Hill.
The zone will run along Wellington Street in the north to Laurier Avenue in the south, and from the Rideau Canal in the east to Booth Street in the western edge.
A number of major streets and bridges extending from the zone outwards into the core are also being treated as part of that zone, though many of the heavily residential areas hit hard in the demonstration this spring are not being included.
To enforce the zone, police have set up barricades, heavy equipment and police vehicle check points to “filter lawful traffic onto those streets.”
That lawful traffic will include “residential and business traffic, as well as pedestrians, cyclists and public transit,” according to City of Ottawa bylaw services.
Vehicles taking part in any demonstrations will not be allowed in, and Ottawa bylaw officials have already issued several tweets showing staff towing vehicles and removing structures being set up in the zone.
Bell noted that residents should expect to see “a significant police posture and presence throughout the city” and that public order units, traffic teams, tow trucks and quick response teams are in place.
“This is necessary to support our ability to swiftly control the core for public safety reasons or support the city’s vehicle control zone,” he said.
“We are prepared to take decisive and lawful action to deal with threats, occupation attempts and other unlawful behaviour that we observe.”
As well, Bell said authorities are prepared “to enter public and private property on behalf of the property owner to remove anyone attempting to occupy or set up structures.”
Will police be ready?
There remains significant community frustration and anger at how Ottawa police handled the so-called “Freedom Convoy” that blockaded the downtown core for weeks earlier this year.
Much of the anger has focused on the decision by police to let big rigs and other heavy vehicles encamp on downtown streets, set up infrastructure to support a prolonged presence, and a lack of enforcement for the repeated violations of traffic rules, noise bylaws and threatening or harassing behaviour.
In community forums such as Reddit’s r/Ottawa, many users have described plans to leave the core for the upcoming weekend in order to avoid a potential repeat of the convoy.
Police defended their lack of action during the initial convoy blockade in the core by suggesting crowds were hostile and that police were not equipped to remove vehicles or people without a threat of harm to themselves or to residents.
The operation to successfully remove the convoy saw a massive influx of law enforcement from jurisdictions across the country, and Bell said the force has already called in support in anticipation of a need for more assistance this weekend.
“Multiple police services including the OPP and the RCMP are coming forward with support,” he said.
“While we are receiving support, to staff this plan we have had to take unprecedented measures to ensure every available officer and police member is deployed.”
He says police are prepared for “multiple scenarios.”