Ottawa police found themselves patrolling increasingly empty downtown streets on Sunday as the “Rolling Thunder” protest made good on plans to decamp from Canada’s capital, but the force did open an investigation after the scene of the day’s only formal event was defaced with graffiti targeting demonstrators.
Unlike in February, when throngs of protesters opposed to COVID-19 public health measures and the federal government choked Ottawa’s streets for weeks, scant traces of this weekend’s rallies remained on Sunday afternoon.
Roughly a dozen people milled around outside Parliament following a Sunday morning service at the nearby Capital City Bikers’ Church, the final scheduled event of the weekend-long rally.
The event drew hundreds of worshippers as police launched an investigation into vandalism that allegedly took place ahead of the gathering.
Bikers, “Rolling Thunder” rally supporters and other worshippers arrived at the church to find its brick exterior had been vandalized with spray-painted messages including “fascists” and “no haven for fascism.”
The Ottawa Police Service confirmed it is investigating “an incident of hate-motivated mischief at a religious institution” on Carillon Street, the same one where the church is located.
But the incident did little to suppress the spirits of the enthusiastic, peaceful crowd.
A four-piece band belted out soulful Christian rock songs while hundreds of worshippers, some wearing leather biker jackets with Canadian flags draped around their shoulders, waved their arms in the air.
Families, children and even dogs packed the darkened building, as purple flood lights and a stained-glass image of Jesus illuminated by the outside sun lit up the stage inside. A bar in the back of the Pentecostal church sold soft drinks, snacks and coffee, and a shop sold Biker Church T-shirts.
“You begin to talk about hell and — ‘Oh, you’re one of those religious fanatics, aren’t you?’” Pastor Rob McKee asked the crowd during his sermon on how hell exists. His long, grey beard spilled onto his button-up plaid shirt, which he wore with a pair of loose-fitting jeans. “We all love the part that God is love, so if I was the enemy I would work really hard to try to get people to believe, no, that’s a scam, that’s fake news.”
McKee appeared to shrug off the graffiti and described the day as “church as usual,” but others who attended the service were more upset.
“It’s extremely insulting,” said Kimberly McGrath. “I had to let it brush off my shoulders, but for a lot of people it is traumatizing and it’s hurtful. It reminds us of what we have been going through, and being labelled as racist, misogynistic and anti-science.”
Attendees munched on hotdogs and socialized in the parking lot once the service wrapped up. Most expressed their intentions to leave Ottawa, though some indicated they planned to move on to a potential protest in Montreal or return to Parliament Hill.
The Sunday morning service marked the last event in the weekend-long “Rolling Thunder” rally, organized in part by a group called Freedom Fighters Canada.
Participants began arriving in Ottawa Friday afternoon, bringing large crowds to a downtown core still on edge after the three-week-long “Freedom Convoy” occupation in February.
“Rolling Thunder” organizers say the rally was set up to oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but as in February, some demonstrators had a longer list of grievances.
Randy Hill from Penticton, B.C., arrived at the church service in a red pickup decked out with Canadian flags and a “faith not fear” sticker on the side. He said he and his wife Carol-Anne are opposed to all vaccine mandates and government measures and intend to stay put.
“We want this government removed by God and a righteous government put in place. The people in charge of this government are accountable to God,” he said.
Among the last of the demonstrators left in Ottawa was Misty Brown who had travelled for four weeks from Vancouver Island and arrived on Friday night.
Unlike many at this weekend’s protest, Brown did not take part in the February protests but joined the biker rally to voice her opposition to vaccine mandates.
“My daughter was forced to take a vaccine just so she could keep her job. She didn’t want it but she had to pay the bills,” Brown said. “It’s our bodies and we should have the right to choose.”
A heavier-than-normal police presence remained around Parliament Hill, with officers patrolling streets in pairs and city bylaw officers ticketing cars.
But otherwise it was business as usual on a sunny afternoon, with tourists exploring the area on foot or on bicycles.
The peaceful denouement came after residents had expressed concerns that the protests would stretch on for weeks as they did during the winter. Ottawa Interim Police Chief Steve Bell had previously indicated this would not be allowed to happen, and hundreds of reinforcements from the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and other municipal forces were brought in to bolster the local ranks.
Ottawa Police made a handful of arrests over the course of the weekend, including three during the main demonstrations on Saturday.
The force said one woman was arrested for assaulting police on Elgin Street, where a large motorcycle rally took place, and a man was arrested for breaching conditions stemming from February’s “Freedom Convoy” occupation.
Another man is facing several charges after allegedly “rushing” an OPP motorcycle, including dangerous driving, assault with a weapon and violating conditions stemming from the last round of protests.
More than 760 parking tickets had been issued and 39 vehicles have been towed since early Friday morning, city officials said Sunday. Ten other tickets have been issued for infractions including noise, smoking and public urination.
—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press