Ottawa’s mayor and interim police chief say a key aim of the city’s planning for a massive motorcycle rally in the capital this weekend is to regain the trust of downtown residents who were traumatized by the trucker convoy protest earlier this year.
Interim Police Chief Steve Bell told reporters the Rolling Thunder rally, which he said could involve up to 400 motorcycles, will be required on Saturday to stay on a predetermined route that starts east of downtown Ottawa and makes its way into the core. Speaking at city hall Thursday morning, Chief Bell said a heavy police presence, backed up by tow trucks and physical barriers, will be in place along the route. The police have been in contact with rally organizers, but the Chief did not say if demonstrators have agreed to stay on the route.
Chief Bell said his goal for the weekend is to ensure public safety, while also rebuilding faith in the police force.
“We do know that there’s been a fracture in trust between our community and the police service as an outcome of the occupation in February,” he said. “One of the things we’ve been very focused on through this is making sure that we listen to and hear our community’s concerns about these events and roll out a plan that takes those into account.”
“Our hope is … that we start to rebuild that trust with our community, because it’s vitally important to us as a police service.”
Ottawa residents harshly criticized local police for the force’s seemingly slow, hands-off approach to the trucker convoy demonstration in February. The crisis eventually resulted in the resignation of police chief Peter Sloly. City councillors have expressed concern that downtown residents and businesses are still traumatized from the month-long protest, during which people opposed to pandemic restrictions occupied Parliament Hill and the surrounding area with trucks and other vehicles, harassed residents and blared deafening air horns.
Mayor Jim Watson, who was also present at the Thursday news conference, likewise referenced an erosion of public trust. He said there’s no question the public is frustrated following the “brutal” demonstration in February. The city, he added, wants to ensure it is not “plagued” again by people who want to cause harm to residents and businesses.
“I feel much more confident today with the plan in place and the preparatory work that’s been undertaken by the police and our different departments to help slowly but surely regain the confidence in the public that when these kinds of events happen on a go-forward basis – and they will – we’re better preparing to deal with it, firmly but fairly,” Mr. Watson said.
Chief Bell has repeatedly told rally participants that they will be held accountable for their actions before, during and after the weekend, and that threatening or intimidating behaviour, including hate crimes, will not be tolerated. The city has also vowed to enforce bylaws related to parking and excessive noise.
The Rolling Thunder organizers have not been clear about the rally’s objective, aside from an intention to “peacefully celebrate our freedom.” In an online statement on Monday, organizer and military veteran Neil Sheard encouraged all participants to obey the law.
The Ottawa Police plan also includes an “exclusionary zone” around Parliament Hill, where vehicles involved in the demonstration will be prohibited. Barricades, heavy equipment and police vehicles will be positioned at controlled access points around the zone, which will remain open to drivers, pedestrians and cyclists who are not participating in the rally. Mr. Watson said local residents should still expect some disruption and traffic delays this weekend.
Part of the zone is the National War Memorial, which rally organizers have vowed to reclaim after police fenced off the monument during the trucker convoy to keep participants away. Mr. Sheard said in a video posted to YouTube that veterans want to visit the Cenotaph to lay a wreath.
Police will also monitor a church in the Vanier neighbourhood east of downtown and a rural property west of the city centre, where rally participants are expected to gather over the weekend.
Chief Bell said the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and other local police officers will join Ottawa police this weekend. The Ottawa force would not say exactly how many officers will be deployed, citing safety reasons.
The Ottawa Police Services Board met on Wednesday evening to approve allowing up to 200 RCMP officers to assist local police with the rally response. The board also authorized the appointment of another 631 Mounties if more support is needed, and granted authority to its chair and vice-chair to approve more officers without calling a full meeting this weekend.
When convoy protesters refused to leave downtown earlier this year, Ottawa police quickly became overwhelmed and requested additional support. The federal government invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act, and then, days later, in one of the largest law-enforcement operations in Canadian history, RCMP, OPP and local police officers from across the country descended on the capital to clear downtown streets.
It’s unclear how much this weekend’s rally will cost Ottawa taxpayers, but the city’s general manager of emergency and protective services said the daily price will be similar to the trucker convoy response. The city says its federal partners have said that all convoy costs will be reimbursed, up to an estimated $35-million.
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