Protesters confront police during a demonstration, part of a convoy-style protest participants are calling "Rolling Thunder", in Ottawa, Friday, April 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Police make arrests, close city streets ahead of planned protests in Ottawa

Ottawa braced for a weekend-long protest ostensibly against COVID-19 vaccine mandates on Saturday as police closed city streets in a bid to fend off the kind of long-standing disruptions that gripped the downtown core for weeks in February.

Saturday’s planned protest activities come after officers and demonstrators clashed on Friday night, resulting in seven arrests and two dozen vehicles being towed.

Police and city officials were advising residents Saturday morning that related events were expected throughout the day, while a large section of the city’s downtown core was closed to any participating vehicles. A convoy of hundreds of motorcycles is also expected to make its way through the downtown as part of the demonstrations.

“Police will maintain a heavy presence throughout the downtown area. Tow trucks are part of the deployment plan. All appropriate enforcement options will be utilized,” read a Saturday-morning tweet from the Ottawa Police Service.

By 9:40 a.m., a crowd of about 100 protestors carrying Canadian flags and heart-shaped helium balloons had begun to gather at the National War Memorial in anticipation of an event said to be honouring war veterans who were removed from the site by police during February’s “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations. A few dozen counter-protestors were on the other side of the street shouting at them to go home.

Police had lined up on the street between the two groups to separate them.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is not an appropriate place to express partisan political views, it’s just wrong. It’s not what we stand for,” counter-protestor Chris Anderson said in an interview. Anderson said he was a veteran himself, having served seven years as a medical worker.

“A lot of people don’t feel safe in Ottawa right now,” he added. “I’m here because I don’t mind taking on these guys and I want people to enjoy their city again.”

The “Rolling Thunder” protesters began streaming into Ottawa on Friday afternoon as part of a weekend-long event billed by some participants as a motorcycle rally, and organized by Freedom Fighters Canada, a group dedicated to speaking out against COVID-19 mandates. Many of the demonstrators were also part of February’s “Freedom Convoy” rally that seized the capital for weeks in protest of vaccine mandates, COVID-19 restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The event at the War Memorial is expected to be followed by an afternoon-long gathering on Parliament Hill, according to the group’s social media posts.

The “Rolling Thunder” rally began relatively calmly on Parliament Hill Friday afternoon, but as night fell, a line of big-rigs, campers and other trucks made their way into the downtown core. Protesters gathered around the trucks, and police in tactical gear formed a line and faced them down.

Seven people were arrested on various charges, including assaulting police, the Ottawa Police Service said. At least one truck also had its windows broken. The force said Saturday it had towed 24 vehicles as of the night before.

As of 7 a.m. Saturday, city by-law officers had issued 417 tickets and towed 30 vehicles in connection with the rally.

OC Transpo, the city’s public transit agency, tweeted Saturday it was increasing its on-the-ground presence to support customers and “ensure the safety of our front-line staff.”

On Friday night, the agency tweeted the Rideau Centre, a three-level shopping mall in the heart of downtown, was closed because of the rally. The centre reopened on Saturday morning.