OTTAWA — Canada’s capital city grappled with an echo of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” Saturday as hundreds of flag-bearing demonstrators converged in downtown Ottawa under the banner of the “Rolling Thunder” biker rally.
Despite organizers’ claims that the rally was an event solely intended to honor veterans, the demonstration evoked many of the same beliefs behind the trucker protest that ground the capital’s downtown core to a halt for three weeks this past winter.
“There’s something wrong with our country … It’s something to do with fearing everybody, fearing anything,” organizer and veteran Neil Sheard told a cheering crowd in front of the National War Memorial.
“So to people out there that are fearful, take a good look at yourself. Look around. Not everybody’s afraid.”
Those involved with planning and promoting the demonstration have said the purpose of the event — which started Friday and is expected to end Sunday — was to “reconsecrate” the memorial after police erected fences to protect it from unruly protesters in the early days of the trucker convoy.
On Saturday, hundreds flocked to the memorial as organizers, veterans and supporters delivered speeches and laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The crowd, which was largely peaceful, then migrated two blocks down Elgin Street to observe a motorcycle convoy as it lapped several times around a predetermined route in the downtown core.
While police barred vehicles involved with the demonstration from entering several streets near Parliament Hill and the memorial, those gathered taunted officers, blared air horns and chanted about a shared belief that various levels of government, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, were exerting too much influence over Canadians.
“This is not about our health and safety. This is about control,” said Chris Sky, a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine and anti-mask community. “There is no science. Science is an illusion.”
Sky, whose real name is Christopher Saccoccia, addressed supporters on Parliament Hill Saturday afternoon during a rally held by Freedom Fighters Canada, a group linked to the trucker convoy. Sky has previously faced charges including uttering death threats and assaulting a peace officer, and been linked to spouting conspiracy theories, as well as, according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, racist beliefs and antisemitic views online.
His involvement in this weekend’s protest has been flagged by concerned Ottawa residents that the “Rolling Thunder” rally has less to do with respecting veterans and more to do with advancing the rhetoric that dominated the February occupation.
“We haven’t seen anything about advocating for greater support for veterans, like mental health support, or support for veterans’ benefits,” said former reservist Adam Templer, who took part in a small counterprotest on the Hill.
“I think a lot of residents here kind of knew that coming into this weekend, that this wasn’t going to be about veterans. It was really a front.”
Jake Dompierre, who participated in both Saturday’s rally and the convoy protest, said “Rolling Thunder” is simply a “continuation of freedom of thought, of freedom of association, of freedom of being.” The Canada Post employee said he had been suspended without pay from his job delivering mail because he has only received one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But one difference from the previous convoy is how police have taken swifter and stronger action in dealing with protesters, said Sam Hersh, a member of local groups Horizon Ottawa and Community Solidarity Ottawa.
Ottawa Police, with the assistance of RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and other municipal officers, have towed two dozen vehicles and arrested at least eight people for various charges. Those charges include assaulting police, and, in one case, an incident of dangerous driving committed by someone with bail conditions prohibiting them from entering Ottawa due to charges laid during February’s events.
“But I think this just really shows that the only reason that they responded in that way was because of public criticism from the last time this happened,” Hersh said. “It goes to show you that they actually did have the power to do all this.”
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