Ottawa is preparing for the arrival of a massive motorcycle rally this weekend, stirring up fear among residents and city councillors that the downtown core could again be subjected to the harassment and noise that disrupted the capital during the trucker convoy protest earlier this year.
Interim Ottawa Police chief Steve Bell said his force is working with the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and intelligence agencies to respond to a plan for more than 500 motorcyclists to descend on the downtown core for a rally called Rolling Thunder. Ottawa residents harshly criticized local police for their seemingly slow, hands-off approach to the convoy demonstrations in February that prompted the resignation of police chief Peter Sloly.
The Rolling Thunder organizers have not been clear about the rally’s objective, aside from an intention to “peacefully celebrate our freedom.”
Speaking to Ottawa city council on Wednesday, Chief Bell said that while police have “absolutely no ability” to prevent the motorcyclists from coming to Ottawa, officers backed up by tow trucks and physical barriers will be in place during what he called a planned “riot” Saturday afternoon.
“I want to be clear with both organizers and participants: You will be held accountable for your actions before, during and after events,” Chief Bell said.
“Threatening or intimidating behaviours will be addressed with all appropriate enforcement action. Investigative teams, including our hate crime unit, are in place, focused on gathering evidence and laying charges where appropriate. The display of symbols of hate, like swastikas, will result in charges.”
In an online statement on Monday, Rolling Thunder organizer and veteran Neil Sheard encouraged all participants to follow laws.
City councillors said downtown residents and businesses are still traumatized from the month-long convoy protests in which truckers occupied Parliament Hill and the surrounding area, harassing residents, blaring deafening air horns and polluting the air with headache-inducing diesel fumes.
“People are nervous, but they’re also fed up, and residents that I’m hearing from are not going to take any incursion into their neighbourhoods by white supremacist, racist, extreme groups,” Catherine McKenney, a city councillor for a downtown ward, said during Wednesday’s council meeting.
Chief Bell said those concerns informed the police plan for this weekend, which includes an “exclusionary zone” around Parliament Hill. Vehicles involved in the demonstrations will be prohibited from entering the area, reinforced by police and fencing.
Part of the exclusionary zone is the National War Memorial, which rally organizers have vowed to reclaim after police fenced off the monument during the trucker convoy. Mr. Sheard said in a video posted to YouTube that veterans wanted to go back to the Cenotaph to lay a wreath after it was “desecrated.”
Noise was a major concern during the convoy demonstrations, when truckers blew their horns at all hours of the day despite an injunction to silence them. Mx. McKenney urged police to inspect every motorcycle coming into downtown and bar those with noise-enhancing mufflers.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Wednesday that the convoy demonstrations of the winter remain fresh in the minds of many Ottawa residents and “we certainly do not want a repeat of the illegal occupation.”
When the truckers refused to leave downtown earlier this year, Ottawa police quickly became overwhelmed and requested additional support. 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.
Ottawa Police have been in touch with RCMP and OPP and both forces will help with the weekend’s events.
The Ottawa Police Services Board met on Wednesday evening to approve up to 200 RCMP officers to assist local police this weekend. The board also approved the appointment of another 631 Mounties if more support is needed.
Former Ottawa Police chief Charles Bordeleau, now a public safety consultant, said local police are sharing their plans with the public, city council and the Ottawa Police Services Board, while they are being clear about their expectations for demonstrators.
He said his concern is whether the service has the best intelligence on the intent of this group or groups, adding this is very difficult.
The police service needs to use everything it can as far as social media, speaking with the organizers and other intelligence gathering methods to get the best information possible, Mr. Bordeleau said. As well, he said, officers must be able to quickly adapt to different situations as they evolve.
It’s unclear how much this weekend’s rally could 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 federal partners have advised that all convoy costs would be reimbursed to an estimated $35-million.
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