Photo of Pierre Poilievre and James Topp marching in Ottawa
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre (centre) walks with protester James Topp (right). Credit: Caryma S'ad.

The City of Ottawa is preparing for protests on Canada Day akin to the “Freedom Convoy” occupation earlier this year.

In February, the downtown of the nation’s capital was occupied for weeks by a convoy of trucks and other vehicles as protesters demanded the end of COVID-19 mandates. The occupation saw vandalism of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Terry Fox Memorial, as well as constant audio torture from continuous honking inflicted on local residents. Additionally there were reports of assaults on individuals wearing masks and defecation in the streets.

This weekend, residents are hoping not to see a repeat event. 

Canada Day celebrations were purposefully moved out of the downtown area and away from Parliament Hill this year to nearby Lebreton Flats to discourage any sort of similar occupation being undertaken by members of the Canada Day crowd.

While the city states that they will have a low tolerance for the kind of behaviour witnessed during February’s “Freedom Convoy,” Conservative politicians are actively courting the protesters.

James Topp is a Canadian military veteran who marched to Ottawa from Vancouver over the course of about five months. According to Canada Marches, a website supporting protests like Topp’s, Topp is marching to oppose all COVID-19 pandemic related mandates, to support those who lost employment opportunities due to mandates, and to support those who were “coerced” into taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

Community Solidarity Ottawa warned that Topp’s protest represented a gathering of far-right extremists that were coming to the city.

One of the groups that is supporting Topp’s protest is Veterans for Freedom, a group that brought far-right activist and Holocaust Denier Chris Sky to speak at an event in Ottawa this past spring. Veterans for Freedom organized the welcome party for Topp as he arrived in Ottawa.

“This is a movement of far-right extremists using the vaccine issue as a recruitment pipeline.” said Brian Latour, a spokesperson for Community Solidarity Ottawa (CSO). “Continuing actions by so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizers and allies, even after their stated goals have been achieved, only confirms what we have known about them all along – that this is not about vaccines or mandates.”

The COVID-19 vaccine is, of course, safe and well tested. According to Public Health Ontario, as of June 19, 2022, out of the nearly 33 million vaccine doses administered in the province, 1,171 incidents of serious adverse effects were reported, or 0.00003 per cent. As for COVID-19 restrictions, most have been lifted across the country.

Toronto lawyer Caryma S’ad followed the Freedom Convoy protests in February closely, and was on the ground reportinh the protest as it happened. She followed Topp’s march as it approached Ottawa and said that because vaccines have been proven time and time again that they are safe and because most health measures have been lifted, this implies the protest is not about COVID-19 at all, but something more sinister.

It was never about mandates

“I think that actually it just exposes the movement to some extent for what it is,” said S’ad in an interview with rabble.ca. “The various anti-public health measures [have] always been a shifting goal post. First it was masks, then lockdowns, then vaccines. And now that sort of veneer has more or less evaporated. At its core, I think this is about pushing for a change in government and not necessarily through democratic means.”

S’ad said, however, it was important not to paint all of those who support these protests with the same brush. She believes that this time the protest will be different. She said that there are grassroot organizers, local residents, and local law enforcement who all, for their own distinct reasons, do not want to see a repeat of the February occupation.

“I think that we’re also going to see some sort of grassroots organizing against the convoy. And that may be in various shapes and forms, with different attitudes and objectives,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were clashes as a result, because I think Ottawa residents still feel that what happened over the winter was unacceptable and that their city is being targeted yet again.”

Police taking a zero tolerance stance

The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and the Ottawa By-Law office are both taking a low tolerance stance towards any sort of behaviour like that witnessed in February.

Ottawa By-Law issued a tweet on Wednesday warning that it is increasing fines for anyone violating municipal by-laws on excessive shouting, noise, idling, obstructing the highway, or defecating or urinating on a street or sidewalk to $1,000.

Vehicles will not be allowed in the downtown area as they were in February, and the OPS said that they will not allow any part of the city to be taken in a convoy-style occupation.

“There are not going to be warnings or second chances. If the law is broken, regardless of who breaks it, there will be consequences,” warned Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson in a press conference on June 27.

OPS promised that they would not tolerate homophobic, misogynistic, or racist speeches, gestures, or signs on Canada Day.

“There won’t be occupiers because all of our planning is established around ensuring that people do not occupy our streets, that people do not take over areas of Ottawa,” said interim OPS Chief Steve Bell. “We’ve set very deliberate plans and we’ve resourced those plans so that occupation does not again occur.”

Conservative politicians embracing undemocratic message

One of the demands from February’s convoy protesters was that the duly elected government, Senate, and Governor General resign or end all COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, Topp met with Conservative MPs in Ottawa, as well as organizers from February’s protests and Paul Alexander, who was once an aide to disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Topp was greeted upon his arrival to Ottawa today by People’s Party of Canada founder and leader Maxime Bernier, and Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, who marched with Topp for the last leg of his journey.

“I support freedom of choice; I always have and believe people should have the ability to decide for themselves on these matters,” is what CTV Ottawa reported Poilievre told Topp. “We should be free Canadians that can decide what we put in our bodies, decide what we think, decide who we are as people and restore the freedom that brought so many millions of immigrants to this country in the first place.”

Topp was scheduled to finish his march at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Thursday evening.

Nick Seebruch

Nick Seebruch has been the editor of rabble.ca since April 2022. He believes that fearless independent journalism is key for the survival of a healthy democracy. An OCNA award-winning journalist, for...