‘Rolling Thunder’ rally is a faint echo of convoy protests

At the height of the convoy protest this winter, exasperated residents of Canada’s capital pleaded to “make Ottawa boring again.”

Mission accomplished with the “Rolling Thunder” event last weekend. A few hundred motorcycles made orderly laps near the war memorial, the police were out in force, and Ottawa’s first truly enjoyable spring weekend was, well, almost boring.

Of course, there were echoes of the city’s occupation earlier this year: flag-draped protesters wandering downtown, the now-familiar, if incoherent, chants about vaccination mandates and Justin Trudeau. But Rolling Thunder will be remembered more for what it was not than for what it was supposed to be.

The first and most obvious difference was the police presence. Cops of all kinds were everywhere, making sure no vehicles crossed the roadblocks erected in the heart of downtown, where winter protesters had parked their trucks, barbecues and hot tubs.

On Friday night, as an unruly gang descended on the corner of Rideau and Sussex, the flashback tension was palpable. As I walked towards the Metropolitan Brasserie which is located at this historic crossroads in the capital, I heard two locals say to a protester: “You know you are just harassing normal people who live their lives here, n ‘is this not ? ? Not all the people you’re mad at are near here.

That was the other obvious difference: Ottawa residents were in no mood to relive the tantrum that turned into a hostile occupation last February. As The Star’s Raisa Patel reported while hiking around Saturday’s protests, some creative Ottawa residents prepared to be interviewed by media known to be friendly with the convoy gang. Every time a microphone was pointed at them, they responded with noisy and squeaky toys.

Counter-protests have also erupted, organized by townspeople who are never swearing again, with memories of February too fresh in their minds to tolerate even this mini-recovery. Ottawa even managed to sneak in other events in and around the protest zone: a May Day labor rally and a charity cycling event. It was a wonderful weekend for biking around Ottawa, or walking the streets yelling at the Prime Minister, if that was your preference.

The relative lack of drama surrounding this protest could and should raise questions about how last winter’s convoy debacle happened. Everything that went well with Rolling Thunder’s crowd management will of course highlight what went so terribly wrong with the trucker convoy.

On CBC TV, host Rosemary Barton asked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino about the difference between this weekend and last winter’s occupation, which prompted the federal government to use the 34-year-old emergency measures for the first time in its history.

“There are very big differences between what we saw this weekend and last January and February,” Mendicino said. “The size and volume of the crowds were considerably smaller.” Additionally, he said, this weekend also did not feature similar protests at border points across the country, as we have seen in the winter, and no emergencies were declared at Ottawa and Ontario. Combined with better police preparedness and reinforcements from the RCMP and OPP, the minister said, Rolling Thunder was not an emergency.

Another big difference was political. From what I could see, mostly by monitoring their social media channels, none of the Tory leadership candidates were doing much to publicly fuel or feed off the Rolling Thunder protest.

Pierre Poilievre, the candidate closest to the “freedom” conveyors, was on the road in the GTA over the weekend, away from his own riding in the Ottawa area and certainly not attacking the cameras with motorcyclists, as some might have expected. On Sunday, Poilievre posted a video on Twitter, in which he pledged to end vaccination mandates, but he didn’t include any nods to the protests ending in Ottawa.

None of the other leading contestants were posting on Rolling Thunder either. Perhaps after seeing how winter’s “Freedom Convoy” blew a hole at the top of the party – forcing the resignation of Erin O’Toole – conservatives are now more cautious about tying their fate to an angry and ill-defined protest movement. They were no doubt thrilled to see the streets of Ottawa once again flooded with Trudeau haters, but they probably locked out those votes anyway.

Canada Day will be interesting in Ottawa this year. Many locals have learned to flinch at the sight of people walking around with flags or the sound of fireworks. But on the first beautiful spring weekend of 2022 in the capital, a convoy-hardened Ottawa proved it had learned to roll with thunder; maybe even find it a bit boring.

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