OTTAWA — Hundreds of protesters marching in the name of “freedom” returned to the capital’s downtown streets Friday, capping off a Canada Day which began with a call for unity from the prime minister.
“Canada is about people who are constantly fighting for something instead of against,” Justin Trudeau said, after arriving at a daytime Canada Day ceremony west of Ottawa’s downtown.
He hailed front line health workers, Canada’s military, Ukrainian Canadians and the diversity of Canada’s population.
The country has work to do in advancing Indigenous reconciliation, he said, referencing the unmarked schoolchildren’s graves that framed last year’s Canada Day.
But he tried to underline common ground, saying the Canadian flag represents our accomplishments and our desire to improve … Let’s remember the value that it stands for: compassion, hope, responsibility, justice, openness, hard work.”
Trudeau, and his family, were flanked by more than a dozen protective RCMP bodyguards as the prime minister shook hands and moved quickly through a protected fenced off pathway through the crowd. There was no heckling or yelling at him, though on Parliament Hill, protesters carried signs and flags continuing the anti-vaccine-mandate, anti-Trudeau campaign of last winter’s so-called Freedom Convoy.
Anti-vaccine mandate group Stand4Thee planned to conduct a citizens’ arrest of Trudeau more than two kilometres away on Parliament Hill. The group framed the arrest, which did not occur, as a celebration in “restoring the rights and freedoms we, as Canadians, have always enjoyed.” The group is protesting the invocation of the federal Emergencies Act, claiming it unlawfully brought an end to the convoy movement that gridlocked the capital earlier this year.
Security officials were on high alert, with Ottawa police warning they would crack down on any disturbances and violations of the law, unlike in the occupation and blockades in January and February. Four people were arrested Thursday night at the National War Memorial after a skirmish in which police allege an officer was choked.
In the past two days Ottawa police issued 275 parking tickets and towed 72 vehicles out of the downtown, which was locked down to prevent a repeat of the winter protests that disrupted and occupied Ottawa for more than three weeks.
Andrew Larche, who wore a full body cloak and cape made of a Canadian flags danced down a closed off Wellington Street then on to LeBreton Flats. He said he was not part of and didn’t endorse the convoy protests, and always wrapped himself in the flag. “Everybody to themselves … this is my way of having fun. I wore a mask last year, this year we can go without it. So … here I am.”
In the mid-afternoon, however, hundreds of protesters chanting “freedom” and “liberté” gathered in front of the Peace Tower.
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They waved placards, F — Trudeau flags and some chanted “Hold the Line.” Others livestreamed their march as they headed west on Wellington St. and down Bank St.
Bethan Nodwell with Freedom Fighters Canada exhorted the crowd with a microphone to make themselves heard, saying “we are winning.”
“We are the fringe, we are a culture movement now …. we are gonna keep it peaceful. We are gonna keep it fringe-y.”
Others chanted “Free Pat King” and “Free Tamara,” references to key convoy organizers who were arrested in February.
By early evening, some of the crowd had thinned out.
Nodwell said Thursday’s War Memorial incident was “an isolated event” and the crowd “did not engage.” She said the media had tried to scare people, but the marchers she walked with on a 20-block loop around downtown Ottawa were peaceful.
Ottawa residents watched the parade pass from highrise balconies. Others flipped the marchers the bird.
Nodwell told marchers not to engage.
“We know what we’re doing. We used to be a freedom convoy, and now we are Canada Marches. Unstoppable.”
She shrugged off Trudeau’s appeal for unity. “I don’t think much of what Trudeau has to say,” she said, adding he has refused to “meet with us” and “hiding under his bed with COVID.”
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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