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Ottawa will not tolerate another occupation, interim police chief warns biker convoy

Ottawa's interim police chief is warning that the city will not tolerate any sort of longer-term occupation of the capital as hundreds of motorcyclists prepare to descend on the city starting Friday.
A sign indicates a road closure near Parliament Hill, Wednesday, April 27, 2022 in Ottawa. Ottawa's interim police chief is warning a planned biker convoy that the city will not tolerate any sort of longer term occupation of the capital. Interim police chief Steve Bell delivered the warning this morning, as hundreds of bikers prepare to descend on the city starting Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ottawa's interim police chief is warning that the city will not tolerate any sort of longer-term occupation of the capital as hundreds of motorcyclists prepare to descend on the city starting Friday.

During a briefing on Thursday, interim chief Steve Bell told reporters that organizers of the “Rolling Thunder” convoy have said they plan to leave the capital by Sunday. If they don’t, he added, his officers are ready to act.

“We've been really clear: We're not going to tolerate any sort of unlawful activity that indicates any sort of longer-term occupation of any area of our city,” Bell said. “We will be very responsive and very proactive in identifying and dismantling any sort (of encampments).”

The warning came as Ottawa police and residents, many still shaken by the "Freedom Convoy" that occupied the city’s downtown core for more than three weeks in February, prepare for another round of disruptions and protests.

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.” However, the organization has partnered with several groups apparently linked to the "Freedom Convoy."

That occupation disrupted traffic, forced businesses to close, and sparked complaints of intimidation, harassment and hateful conduct. 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, saw protests against COVID-19 restrictions and demands that the Liberal government resign.

It ended after the federal Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act, and police moved in to detain and arrest dozens of people.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reflected Thursday on the last protest convoy in remarks at an event for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Earlier this year, our country and people around the world were shocked and dismayed to see Nazi imagery displayed in our nation’s capital," he said.

"For the Jewish community and for all Canadians, those images were deeply disturbing."

Bell, who has promised a heavy police presence this weekend, told reporters that the service has learned a lot from that experience. He said the hate crimes unit has already been involved in preparing for the event and anyone displaying hateful symbols will be charged.

He added officers will arrest any "Freedom Convoy" protesters ordered by the courts to stay away from the city as a condition of their release.

“Many of the individuals charged in the unlawful protest in February have conditions to not be in Ottawa,” he said. “Those individuals must respect those conditions set out by the court. If those conditions are breached, those individuals will be arrested and charged.”

Convoy organizers have said they plan to arrive on Friday before gathering on Saturday morning and doing a loop around the downtown core, with a stop at the National War Memorial as well as a march and rally on Parliament Hill.

One of the organizers of the convoy, Neil Sheard, who has been involved in protests against COVID-19 restrictions, had previously warned of a "free-for-all" if police didn’t let protesters bring their bikes onto the streets around Parliament Hill.

But Ottawa police have designated a large part of downtown as a no-go zone for vehicles, including several blocks around Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial. 

The anticipated route that the convoy will take on Saturday will skirt the edge of this “exclusionary zone” and come within eyesight of the War Memorial and Parliament Hill. However, vehicles will be prevented from getting to the two sites. 

Bell indicated convoy participants will be allowed to walk up to the two locations, but not bring their vehicles.

“We aren’t going to prevent protesters from attending the nation’s capital to have their voices heard,” he said. “What we are doing is we’re taking steps to make sure that there aren’t vehicles in a certain area while we manage foot-based protests.”

As for the actual motorcycle ride through the city, Bell said officers will be watching it closely, and participants will be forbidden from stopping or parking during the entire route.

Police will also be closely monitoring sites where convoy participants are planning to set up for the weekend, he said, including a church east of downtown and a more rural area to the west.

Downtown Ottawa Coun. Catherine McKenney earlier this week said many Ottawa residents who felt terrorized by the "Freedom Convoy" are fed up and prepared to take matters into their own hands if the "Rolling Thunder" convoy enters their neighbourhoods.

Bell acknowledged “that there’s been a fracture in trust between our community and the police service” because of what happened in February. But he urged residents to notify police if they see anything, and to avoid conflict with convoy participants.

“We see a lot of conflict online over this event,” he added. “Must of it from people in groups behind keyboards far away who want to drive discord.” 

“I absolutely do not want to see this conflict on our streets this weekend.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who was also at the briefing, at one point encouraged residents to continue about their business this weekend, saying: “We also encourage residents to continue to shop downtown, to continue to shop in the ByWard Market.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume and Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press