Ottawa police and residents are bracing for protesters to descend on the capital for Canada Day as the city prepares to celebrate in person for the first time in three years.
There was a heavy police presence downtown on Thursday as officers worked to prevent a repeat of the chaos that came to the capital in the winter when protesters demonstrating against COVID-19 measures blocked the city centre, blared their horns and frightened residents.
Interim police Chief Steve Bell said earlier this week that his department had developed a plan for dealing with Canada Day that took account of the “unlawful protests” in February, the subsequent “Rolling Thunder” biker convoy and the “lingering trauma” in the community. Police were criticized for how the force handled the protests in February, with residents saying they felt abandoned. The police failure led chief Peter Sloly to resign.
Ottawa Police tweeted on Thursday afternoon that they had arrested someone for breaching their bail conditions, which included not entering Ottawa. By about 5 p.m., Ottawa police said they had towed 59 vehicles that were in a vehicle-control zone set up for Canada Day events and demonstrations.
Police also arrested four people in downtown Ottawa after Canadian Forces veteran James Topp, who was charged in February with speaking out against COVID-19 vaccination requirements while in uniform, led a procession into the city and delivered a speech on “freedom” to hundreds of supporters.
Mr. Topp had marched from British Columbia to Ottawa.
He reached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Thursday evening, marking the end of his journey. The event appeared non-violent as he met with his supporters and posed for photographs. But not long after, police said they were responding to a “situation” in the area and arrested four people over incidents including assaulting police officers.
Earlier in the day, Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre joined Mr. Topp for a stretch of his walk.
Mr. Poilievre told CTV News that “people should have the freedom to make their own decisions with their own bodies and that’s why, I think, he’s walked across the country – and that’s why I thought I would give him a greeting, and give him a hearing, and see if he has any thoughts to share with me.”
The Ottawa MP later tweeted: “Today I walked alongside military veteran, James Topp, who has travelled the country by foot for free choice. End all mandates. Restore our freedoms. Let people take back control of their lives.”
Mr. Topp has said he has no plans to lead an occupation, and invited Ottawa police to help facilitate his march through Ottawa and to the National War Memorial. However, an organizer for a group calling itself Veterans 4 Freedom said in a YouTube video that it plans to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa and hold events in the city all summer.
Mr. Topp marched because he is protesting against federal mandates that require “vaccination, testing, quarantine and/or isolation” as a condition for employment, according to the website canadamarches.ca.
The website appears to have been set up to support Mr. Topp’s march, and claims to be partnered with other groups opposed to vaccine mandates, including Veterans 4 Freedom.
The website says Mr. Topp has stepped forward to speak on behalf of those employed by the federal government or who have been denied employment and access to services, who have lost income and suffered from damaged relationships “due to the imposition of a medical procedure.” It also says he’s speaking on behalf of those who have “through the introduction of false constructs surrounding choices and consequences, been pressured into taking part in medical procedures that they would not otherwise have accepted.”
Earlier Thursday, a former leader of the convoy that clogged downtown Ottawa for weeks in February, Tamara Lich, had a brief court appearance for allegedly breaching one of her bail conditions. Ms. Lich is facing charges including mischief and obstructing police and will remain in custody until her bail hearing next week.
Canada Day celebrations have been moved away from Parliament Hill because of construction work and festivities will be held at LeBreton Flats, which is west of downtown. Chief Bell said earlier this week that visitors and residents would see a significant police presence, required, in part, to support the ability of the police to “swiftly control” downtown Ottawa.
“We are prepared to take decisive and lawful action to deal with threats, occupation attempts and other unlawful behaviour that we observe,” he said.
He said Ottawa police officers have met with community groups in the city that were affected by the “illegal occupation” in the winter and take the harm and trauma residents have suffered seriously. He said police liaison officers have also tried to reach out to protest organizers about expectations for lawful protests.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said at a news conference that protests that hurt the economy, trade relationships and make life challenging for people in any city are not acceptable.
“It was unacceptable in February and the government took the necessary action to end it. The local authorities today have been very clear they will do what is necessary to prevent protests that impede the peaceful celebration of Canadians who deserve to be celebrating Canada Day peacefully in Ottawa,” Ms. Freeland said.
With reports from The Canadian Press