Interim Police Chief Bell reassures public amid “Rolling Thunder” worries

The newly appointed Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) met on Monday, April 25th. The board contains several recently constituted members following the resignation or removal of much of the previous board due to their handling of the “Freedom Convoy” and its month-long occupation of Ottawa’s core.

The winter 2022 convoy led to the resignation of Ottawa Police Service (OPS) Chief Peter Sloly, while Councillor Diane Deans was ousted as Chair of the OPSB. Councillors Rawlson King and Carol Ann Meehan resigned their seats in the wake of the occupation.

Outside the council chamber, interim Police Chief Steve Bell and re-appointed OPSB Chair Eli El-Chantiry answered media questions that focused on the upcoming “Rolling Thunder” motorcycle convoy.

Bell stated that the OPS has been using open-source intelligence and talking to organizers to establish “what sort of footprint we will allow them to take.” The interim chief also cited the exclusionary zones in the downtown core, saying that anybody can walk to the Wellington Street area closed to traffic and protest but that there will be a police presence.

According to the interim chief, the OPS is working with protestors to plan a route for the motorcycles that will be “as safe as possible for the participants, pedestrians, and the community.” 

Bell also said, “we’re having conversations with the event organizers, and if you’re not from the city, you need to understand what it’s been through; you’re coming to areas where communities are hurt, they’ve been damaged by what they’ve been through.”

Although Bell appeared calm about the upcoming demonstrations, there was obvious worry from others on the board and delegates. Delegate Ryan St-Jean expressed concerns about the planned weekend event, suggesting that it will disrupt the transit system if protestors are not permitted to ride their motorcycles into town and instead use the O-Train. St-Jean also asked if the police knew of any smaller groups that would attach themselves to the protest. St-Jean was particularly worried, saying he’d heard rumours of “paramilitary training by these groups in Vankleek Hill.” Noise pollution is another area that St-Jean expressed concern about. He asked if by-law would be out with noise meters ticketing protestors.

In an understanding tone, Councillor Jeff Leiper responded to St-Jean, saying, “I think you’re going to hear a lot of what the board has heard, and I hope that will provide the people concerned about the weekend with some comfort; there are trust issues.”

Interim Chief Bell seemed confident in his ability to deal with the protest and stated that this group has a right to protest, and the police's job is to be “impartial.” Bell said, “I want to be clear with both organizers and participants: you will be held accountable for your actions before, during, and after the events.”

Interestingly, shortly after this address, Councillor Mathieu Fleury, who attended the meeting as an observer, left seemingly satisfied with what he had heard from the head of the OPS. Fleury’s Ward was hit particularly hard by the previous convoy occupation.

However, Rolling Thunder activists seem more combative. Organizer Neil Sheard warned of a “free-for-all” if the bike convoy was forbidden from following their original route. His language is highly suspicious, given that the initially stated goal was to ride to the National War Memorial to lay wreaths.

Still, the groups involved, including Veterans For Freedom and Freedom Fighters Canada, are anti-mandate or linked groups seeking to restore “fundamental freedoms.” Their messaging is more aggressive than the somewhat conciliatory tone of interim Chief Bell.

In a strange twist, newly appointed OPSB member Councillor Cathy Curry, rather than focusing on law enforcement for the planned event, asked Chief Bell a tangential question about the use of the word “escort,” saying, “its usually used for heads of state, VIPs, and members of the Royal family.” Bell responded that “escort” is a common word used for this sort of police operation.

The OPSB then received several reports, including one by Ottawa Crime Stoppers and one on workplace injury. Curry curiously asked about “slips, trips, and falls,” an issue that seems trivial given the occupational hazards OPS officers deal with. 

The Police Service Board is scheduled to meet again on May 30th. Whether officially permitted or not, the Rolling Thunder convoy is expected to arrive in Ottawa on Friday.