‘Rolling Thunder’ demonstrators Ottawa bound

OTTAWA — Over the next two days, Canada’s capital is set to play host to what could become a familiar scene: a national movement that will bring hundreds of honking vehicles into the city’s downtown core.

The event, known as “Rolling Thunder Ottawa,” could see more than 500 participants arrive in the city on motorcycles by Friday evening, on top of an additional wave of attendees showing up on foot.

Participants plan to stay in the capital throughout the weekend, holding multiple rallies on Parliament Hill, an event honouring veterans at the National War Memorial, a procession through the city’s streets and a local church service.

But the demonstration has also prompted concern over its links to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked Ottawa for three weeks and led to the historic invocation of the federal Emergencies Act.

Here’s what we know about the goals behind the event, its convoy connections, and how police have switched tactics to prepare.

What is Rolling Thunder and why is it coming to Ottawa?

Rolling Thunder is an American advocacy movement that began in 1988 to draw attention to prisoners of war and missing members of the U.S. military.

The group has more than 80 chapters across the U.S., and is known for holding an annual biker rally in Washington, D.C. that sees thousands of motorcyclists roll through the American capital and various military memorials to honour veterans for their service.

According to those behind “Rolling Thunder Ottawa,” the same principles underpin this weekend’s events.

Neil Sheard, an organizer behind the rally, has said the primary purpose of the event is to show respect to veterans after the National War Memorial was “desecrated” by police during the trucker convoy.

Police erected security fences around the memorial after video footage showed a protester dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but demonstrators removed the barricades almost two weeks later in an attempt to restore access to the Cenotaph.

Organizers plan to lay a wreath at the memorial as part of a wider service for veterans on Saturday.

Unlike the “Freedom Convoy” protest, Sheard has said the event is restricted to this weekend, with no plans to extend it into next week.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University expert in radicalization and extremism, said the event appears to be more “limited” in scope than previous convoy protests and the group is likely trying to “replicate” the Rolling Thunder events seen in the U.S.

“They kind of feel like there’s unfinished business, almost, about what happened at the War Memorial, and this is an attempt by them to kind of reconsecrate it,” he said.

Are there connections to the so-called “Freedom Convoy”?

Amarasingam said he’s interested in seeing what other groups aside from veterans attach themselves to the rally, given the “Freedom Convoy” protest featured viewpoints ranging from slashing all pandemic-induced restrictions to overthrowing the government.

That many of the top convoy organizers are in jail or were released under conditions that prevent them from demonstrating in Ottawa should quell concerns about a repeat scenario, Amarasingam said.

Even so, two of the groups associated with the biker rally, Veterans for Freedom and Freedom Fighters Canada, have connections to the trucker protest and other events linked to that demonstration.

The “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” website also lists prominent anti-vaccine and anti-mask activist Chris Sky as one of its Saturday speakers. Sky, whose real name is Christopher Saccoccia, has widely protested pandemic restrictions, faced charges including uttering death threats and assaulting a peace officer, and has been linked to spouting racist and anti-semitic views online.

“If they care so much about honouring veterans, why would they invite a Holocaust denier to speak?” asked Brian Latour, an organizer with Community Solidarity Ottawa, which is planning an “unwelcoming” event Friday evening to protest the rally.

But while Sheard has distanced himself from both Sky and criticisms that his event and the “Freedom Convoy” are one and the same, other participants believe the movements are connected.

Ottawa carpenter Chris Dacey, who attended the convoy protests and will be rallying with the bikers, said that anti-mandate sentiment will be woven into the weekend’s events, even if the focus is on restoring respect to the National War Memorial.

Standing in front of the Peace Tower on Wednesday evening waving a Canadian and American flag, Dacey told the Star about how he and his family couldn’t access medical procedures due to the pandemic and vaccine mandates

“There’s a lot of problems,” he said. “It’s all just so crazy.”

Are police and government officials prepared?

The Ottawa Police Service — widely panned for its handling of the trucker protest — has promised local residents it has “adjusted” its approach toward demonstrations and rallies.

While police allowed hundreds of vehicles to jam the capital’s downtown core during the convoy protest, law enforcement is banning all vehicles associated with this week’s event from entering a series of streets surrounding Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial.

The city is beefing up its police presence with the addition of up to 831 RCMP officers, along with help from the Ontario Provincial Police and other municipal forces.

Interim Police Chief Steve Bell on Thursday outlined the proposed route participants plan to take during their Saturday ride through the city, adding that the route has been “designated as a no stopping and no parking area.” Anyone attending ceremonies at the memorial will have to do so on foot.

Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Wednesday that the city does not want “a repeat of the illegal occupation which took place in this community” and said the federal government would provide “whatever tools and resources” are necessary to ensure safety on the ground.

A federal source told the Star that Ottawa police have set a better “tone” in terms of preparing for the rally in comparison to their response three months ago, but said the government is nevertheless “monitoring” the situation.

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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