Ottawa’s interim police chief said on Monday that the participants in a biker rally scheduled for the weekend would be met with road closures and a heavy police presence to help deter any occupation of the city’s streets.
“We always have a concern (that the rally could turn into an extended protest),” interim chief Steve Bell said. “Every indication we have so far doesn’t indicate that that’s the intention of what’s happening, but what I can tell you is our planning — our planning cycle, our planning teams — is set up specifically to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
The biker rally, which is being promoted online as “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” in support of veterans, is set to begin Friday evening with a gathering on Parliament Hill and continue on Saturday with a ceremony at the National War Memorial.
The rally, which organizer Neil Sheard insisted was not a protest in a post on the event website, has evoked memories of the “Freedom Convoy” protests that turned into an occupation that ensnared downtown Ottawa for weeks.
At the monthly Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on Monday evening, Bell fielded questions from concerned board members and the public who were worried that the “Rolling Thunder” rally could evoke the noisy spectre of the “Freedom Convoy” occupation.
“My issue is the continuation,” said Ryan St-Jean, a community member who outlined some concerns he and others had about the impending rally. “If it goes into Monday, it’s a problem. They’re going to have fun Saturday and maybe go home. They might be here Sunday, which is concerning but not illegal. If they’re still here Monday, they’re here to cause problems.”
But Bell told reporters that the Ottawa police had learned from the “Freedom Convoy” and would approach this rally differently. Reinforcements from the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would be joining Ottawa officers on the first day of the rally to be “on the ground, ready to respond,” Bell said.
He also reiterated that the vehicles tied to the rally would not be allowed into key areas of the downtown core, particularly near Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial.
“You’re going to see road closures over the weekend and you’re going to see quite a heavy police presence as we look to manage the event,” he said.
“We’re working now to identify an appropriate route that they can follow that will bring them into and out of the area where they’re pooling back onto the highway. We’ll continue to discuss with them; we’re looking to make this event as safe as possible for everyone. Safe for the people that are participating, safe for pedestrians, safe for our community.”
The police service will begin outlining which roads will be closed to vehicles and which ones will be open as early as Tuesday. In a YouTube video, Sheard responded to the police decision to bar vehicles from some downtown streets, warning that it could lead to a “free-for-all” and become a safety issue unless police reconsider.
Sheard also posted what he said were his responses to Ottawa police liaison officer communications where he notified the OPS that he had “no legal authority to tell people what to do.
“All I can do is encourage attendees and try and steer them in the right direction with my ‘calming influence,’” he wrote in a message posted to the “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” website.
Sheard wrote that he was offended by the Ottawa Police Service’s qualification of the “Freedom Convoy” protest and occupation as an “illegal occupation.” “The only thing unlawful in (the) Ottawa protest was the beating and trampling of peaceful veterans and Canadian citizens by your ‘Jack boots.’”
Bell said the OPS was asking the rally participants to be respectful and understanding of what Ottawa residents had been through.
“Communities were damaged by what occurred in February,” he said. “There cannot be a repeat of that. Our community is tired of these events, so be respectful when you come, follow the directions that we provide to you so that you can and do your rally and leave while you’re being respectful to a community that is growing extremely tired of these events.”