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Rolling Thunder protesters and police clash during a protest on Friday, April 29, 2022, in Ottawa.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he trusts police to enforce laws prohibiting the incitement of violence and propagation of hate this weekend as a motorcycle rally descends on Ottawa.

The rally, which police have said could involve up to 400 motorcycles, was expected to begin in the capital Friday evening ahead of demonstrations this weekend.

In a tweet Friday night, Ottawa Police said “several people” had been arrested on Rideau Street, and police would remain on the scene “to maintain safety.”

Earlier this year, Ottawa was severely disrupted by a month-long trucker convoy in which protesters displayed hate symbols, such as Confederate flags and swastikas.

Explainer: The ‘Rolling Thunder’ motorcycle convoy is in Ottawa. What is it, and how is the city responding?

Speaking to reporters in Montreal on Friday, Mr. Trudeau said that while freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly are a “cornerstone of our democracy,” violent or hateful behaviour are not tolerated in Canada.

“It is not legal to incite violence or to propagate hateful messages. There are laws against that. And we trust the police to enforce the laws as necessary when it comes to this weekend,” Mr. Trudeau said.

As of Friday afternoon, a small number of people had gathered on Parliament Hill and the nearby National War Memorial, which rally organizers have vowed to reclaim after police fenced off the monument during the trucker convoy. The monument was not barricaded Friday. Some people were seen carrying Canadian flags and calling out “freedom.” There were a number of police vehicles parked in the area on standby.

By evening, crowds had gathered on Parliament Hill. Police said on social media there was also an “aggressive crowd” on Rideau Street downtown and additional officers had been deployed to assist.

Ottawa Police said officers were wearing shields and helmets for their protection.

The service also said several vehicles “attempted to occupy” a downtown parking lot and all but one left the area. The remaining vehicle was towed, police added.

Unlike during the trucker convoy this winter, police now have access to tow trucks to remove vehicles.

Images on social media also showed dozens of vehicles with flags gathered in Kaladar, Ont., less than two hours away from Ottawa on Friday.

Vehicles involved in this weekend’s demonstration will not be allowed in an “exclusionary zone” around the Hill, including the War Memorial. Organizers of the rally, dubbed Rolling Thunder, have not been clear about the gathering’s objective, aside from an intention to “peacefully celebrate our freedom.”

Interim Ottawa police Chief Steve Bell has told rally participants they will be held accountable for their actions, warning hate crimes will not be tolerated.

The government is facing renewed calls to ban hate symbols after the trucker convoy. NDP MP Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill banning hate symbols in February.

Mr. Trudeau said his government will work with other parties to make sure Canadians are protected from hate, but did not say whether the Liberals would support the NDP’s Bill C-229.

“We’ve seen a really concerning increase in antisemitism, in anti-Black racism, in anti-Asian racism, in Islamophobia everywhere across the country,” he said. “We will always stand with Canadians to defend their basic rights, to make sure that they are free from harassment and hateful actions and speech.”

This week, members of the House of Commons heritage committee had their first meeting looking into the history and current display of hate symbols in the country. The committee heard from anti-hate and hate education groups, who said legislation banning hate symbols would be an important first step.

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Police say the rally could involve up to 400 motorcycles. Participants descended on Ottawa ahead of demonstrations this weekend.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of policy at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, said she works with police almost every day responding to individual hate crimes. She said a more explicit law on hate symbols would remove any ambiguity for law enforcement.

“They’re very reluctant to investigate. They’re reluctant to lay charges. They don’t know whether it will stand up in court,” she said.

Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits hate speech, but there are no laws banning the display of hate symbols.

Although certain symbols such as the Confederate flag and swastika are widely accepted as expressions of hatred, the fluidity of symbols can make them difficult to recognize, said Daniel Panneton, manager of the online hate research and education project with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.

Mr. Panneton said although a ban on hate symbols would be effective, symbols such as the swastika would likely still appear in new forms and be enshrouded in different ways. On top of criminalization, Mr. Panneton said he would like to see Canada invest in education and anti-hate resources.

The sight of someone openly waving a Nazi flag during the trucker convoy brought feelings of horror to the Jewish community, Richard Marceau, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, told the heritage committee.

“Simply banning these symbols would be tantamount to putting a plaster on an open wound.”

In an interview, Cara Zwibel, director of fundamental freedoms for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said hate symbols, like hate speech, can be subjective. She said it’s important to protect freedom of expression, and legislation such as Bill C-229 does little to address root causes of hatred.

For instance, she said banning someone who believes in Nazi ideology from waving a swastika doesn’t make them any less of a Nazi.

Some members of the 'Rolling Thunder' motorcycle convoy arrived in downtown Ottawa on Friday night where a large police presence was already in place.

The Globe and Mail

With reports from Michelle Carbert and Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

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