There’s fencing on Parliament Hill, an exclusion zone around several blocks downtown and hundreds of extra police officers on call as Ottawa braces for the arrival of “Rolling Thunder” motorcyclists Friday afternoon.
The 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.”
It’s expected hundreds of motorcyclists will arrive Friday ahead of a gathering Saturday morning. They plan to do a loop around the downtown, with a stop at the National War Memorial and march to a rally on Parliament Hill.
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Vehicles involved in the rally won’t be allowed into a zone that includes the war monument and Parliament, police say, nor will they be allowed to stop along the route, but participants can walk through the area.
“We aren’t going to prevent protesters from attending the nation’s capital to have their voices heard,” said Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, during a briefing Thursday.
Neil Sheard, one of the organizers, previously warned of a “free-for-all” if police don’t let the group bring their bikes onto the streets around Parliament Hill. Sheard has been involved in earlier protests against COVID-19 restrictions
Bell said this week that people displaying symbols of hate, including swastikas, will be charged. A few such symbols were seen during the “Freedom Convoy” protest earlier this year.
It is not actually illegal to display a swastika in Canada. Police did not immediately respond Friday to a question about what charges would be laid against those wielding hateful imagery.
In February, NDP MP Peter Julian reintroduced a private member’s bill that would amend the Criminal Code to explicitly ban the selling and displaying of such symbols. The Liberal government has not signaled whether it will support such legislation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday his government will always defend Canadians’ rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
“It is not legal to incite violence or propagate hateful messages,” he said at a news conference in Montreal. “We trust the police to enforce the laws as necessary, when it comes to this weekend, when it comes to any given day.”
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He said his government stands with Canadians to protect them from harassment and hateful conduct, pointing to plans in the federal budget to outlaw denying the Holocaust.
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“We certainly will work across the government, across parties, across orders of government, to ensure that we’re making that very clear for all Canadians,” he added.
Brian Begbie, the principal of Elgin Street Public School in downtown Ottawa, sent a memo to parents Thursday from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board saying the board has been in contact with police to ensure school safety concerns are addressed.
“We understand that many families had a difficult experience in February, and may be concerned about another demonstration in the downtown core,” the memo read, directing parents to links to community support organizations.
The protesters say they plan to leave the city on Sunday.
That’s led to criticism that they may disrupt a planned cycling fundraiser for the Ottawa’s children’s hospital, CHEO, scheduled for the same day. “Rolling Thunder” organizers have added a link to their website and are encouraging supporters to donate to CHEO.
Police have said there will be no tolerance for a long-term protest like the one that occupied the downtown for weeks in February, and any encampments will be dismantled.
The actions of Ottawa police have also been under intense scrutiny since February. Chief Peter Sloly resigned his position, and Bell said the service has learned a lot from the experience.
Police have also confirmed that a woman who danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the “Freedom Convoy” protest will not be charged.
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In a statement, police said the woman, who lives outside Ontario, showed remorse for her actions and after a “thorough investigation,” they are confident she will not reoffend. Her name is not being released because no charges were laid.
“Suffice to say, the investigation into the woman videotaped standing and yelling on the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier impacted people across the country,” police said, adding the inspector who oversees criminal investigations is a veteran and understands the importance of the “sacred monument .”
The earlier occupation of Ottawa, which prompted the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time, ended after hundreds of police officers moved in to disperse the crowds, making dozens of arrests. For three weeks, the protest disrupted traffic, closed businesses and led to complaints of harassment, intimidation and hateful conduct.
The “Rolling Thunder” organization is partnered with several groups apparently linked to the “Freedom Convoy.”
A statement on the group’s website attributed to Sheard says they do not support “blockades, obstruction of police performing their duties, damage to property, or hate and vitriol directed to the residents of Ottawa.”
The statement also encourages supporters to follow the laws, and says police will be held accountable in court for their actions during the event.
“Lastly, as seen during the lawful protest in Ottawa, spread as much peace, love and patriotism to your fellow Canadians as possible,” the statement says.
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