Police have shared the expected route that hundreds of motorcyclists will take Saturday as one part of the unsanctioned weekend “Rolling Thunder Ottawa” rally.
The rally has drawn comparisons to the disruptive Freedom Convoy protest, which took over downtown Ottawa for several weeks in January and February and has been described many times as an illegal occupation.
Its schedule includes Friday evening and Saturday afternoon rallies on Parliament Hill, a Saturday event at the National War Memorial, a Saturday ride through the city’s streets and a Sunday morning church service in Vanier.
Ottawa police have called on other services for help and say they will not allow protest vehicles in an “exclusion zone” made up of dozens of downtown blocks. Special no-parking zones are also being set up in nearby neighbourhoods.
At a news conference Thursday morning, acting police chief Steve Bell said riders are expected to gather Saturday morning at an unspecified site on Coventry Road before departing around 10:45 a.m.
No stopping allowed at War Memorial
The plan shared with police has them then heading north on the Vanier Parkway, turning down Montreal Road and making their way over the Cummings Bridge to Rideau Street, Bell said.
From there, the ride will turn south on Waller Street, head onto the Mackenzie King Bridge, roll down Elgin Street and turn east on Laurier Avenue West, Bell said. They will end by driving down Nicholas Street and exiting onto Highway 417, he said.
The entire route will be a no-stopping, no-parking zone, and Bell said officers will monitor the ride to ensure participants make their way through the city “safely and expeditiously” with “as little impact as possible on residents.”
Saturday’s National War Memorial event is expected to coincide with the ride, but bikers will not be allowed to pause at the monument as they pass by, Bell said. The entire route would skirt the boundaries of the exclusion zone, he noted.
Estimates for the number of motorcyclists have fluctuated all week, with Bell first indicating Thursday morning up to 400 would take part and later roughly 500. Ottawa police then said Thursday afternoon that rally organizers were expecting more than 500 riders.
Regardless, many participants would stay in downtown hotels, Bell said. He would not estimate how many more protesters would arrive on foot, but said the plan in place would account for those numbers.
Organizers have also said the demonstrators will depart Ottawa on Sunday, Bell said.
Community concerns taken seriously
Rolling Thunder Ottawa has aligned itself with groups with various motives, including a veterans’ group aimed at restoring “fundamental rights and freedoms” and a non-profit dedicated to the “end of all tyrannical bills and legislation.”
The involvement of vehicles, along with its ties to the recent Freedom Convoy have left many downtown residents on edge, after they went through weeks of harassment, noise, and road and business closures earlier this year.
Several of the people charged in connection with the Freedom Convoy have conditions prohibiting them from being in Ottawa, and Bell said if they ignore those conditions and appear at the rally they’d face arrest.
Ottawa police have already said they’ll fan out across central neighbourhoods to try to keep the protest lawful and hate-free, with officers from the OPP, the RCMP and other forces pitching in to help.
“We’ve heard the community, and take seriously the concerns raised. You will see that in all elements of our planning,” Bell said.
The city has also announced a bylaw crackdown, with its officers expected to be out enforcing parking rules, limiting vehicle noise and preventing litter.
In an email Wednesday, the city said Rolling Thunder organizers reached out April 13 to get a special event permit for Saturday, but the request was rejected because the city needs at least 28 days to process those kinds of requests.
Regular pedestrian and vehicle traffic will be permitted within the exclusion zone, and transit is expected to run normally.
Even with some disruptions and traffic delays likely, Mayor Jim Watson urged residents to still enjoy the downtown on the weekend and support local businesses.
“People certainly have the right to protest peacefully,” Watson told Thursday’s news conference. “And I want to emphasize that no illegal activity will be tolerated.”