OTTAWA — Canada’s capital struggled on Saturday with echoes of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” as hundreds of flag-bearing protesters gathered in downtown Ottawa under the banner of the “Rolling Thunder” motorcycle rally.
Despite organizers’ claims that the rally was an event designed solely to honor veterans, the demonstration evoked many of the same beliefs behind the truck drivers’ protest that brought the capital’s downtown area to a standstill for three weeks last winter.
“There is something wrong with our country… It has something to do with fear of everyone, of everything,” organizer and veteran Neil Sheard told a cheering crowd outside the National War Memorial.
“So for people who are afraid, take a good look at yourself. Look around you. Not everyone is afraid.”
Those involved in planning and promoting the demonstration have said the aim of the event – which started Friday and is expected to end on Sunday – was to “dedicate” the monument after police erected fences to protect it from unruly protesters in the early days of the truck driver convoy.
Hundreds flocked to the memorial on Saturday as organizers, veterans and supporters gave speeches and laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The crowd, which was largely peaceful, then moved two blocks up Elgin Street to observe a motorcycle convoy driving several times around a predetermined route in the downtown area.
While police barred vehicles involved in the demonstration from several streets near Parliament Hill and the memorial, taunted officers gathered, blared air horns and chanted over the shared belief that various levels of government, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, also made great efforts to affect Canadians.
“This is not about our health and safety. This is about control,” said Chris Sky, a prominent figure in the anti-vaccination and anti-masking community. “There is no science. Science is an illusion.”
Sky, whose real name is Christopher Sacccoccia, addressed supporters on Parliament Hill on Saturday afternoon during a meeting of Freedom Fighters Canada, a group associated with the truck convoy. Sky has previously been accused of making death threats and assaulting a peace officer, and has been linked to spreading conspiracy theories as well as, according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, racist beliefs and anti-Semitic views online.
His involvement in this weekend’s protest was noted by concerned Ottawa residents that the “Rolling Thunder” rally has less to do with respecting veterans and more to do with promoting the rhetoric that dominated the February occupation.
“We haven’t seen anything about advocating for more support for veterans, such as mental health, or support for veterans’ benefits,” said former reservist Adam Templer, who took part in a small counter-protest on the hill.
“I think a lot of residents here knew this weekend wasn’t going to be about veterans. It was really a front.”
Jake Dompierre, who took part in both Saturday’s rally and the convoy protest, said “Rolling Thunder” is simply a “continuation of the freedom of thought, of freedom of association, of freedom of being.” The Canada Post employee said he was suspended from delivering mail unpaid for having received only one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But one difference from the previous convoy is how the police have taken quicker and more forceful action in dealing with protesters, said Sam Hersh, a member of local groups Horizon Ottawa and Community Solidarity Ottawa.
The Ottawa Police Department, with the help of RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and other city officials, has towed away two dozen vehicles and arrested at least eight people on various charges. Those charges include assaulting police and, in one case, an incident of dangerous driving committed by someone on bail that prohibits them from entering Ottawa over charges filed during the February events.
“But I think this just really shows that the only reason they reacted that way was because of public criticism from the last time this happened,” Hersh said. “It shows that they really had the power to do all of this.”