Downtown businesses, festival hearing fears about protests on Canada Day

Mayor says city and police plans for long weekend will be shared Monday

Canada Day in Ottawa typically means fireworks and celebration downtown, but for events and businesses near Parliament Hill, the shadow of the Freedom Convoy still looms over the first in-person festivities in two years.

“It’s been a lifetime and it feels like it’s last week,” Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street BIA, said of the time that’s passed since the weeks-long February protest and occupation.

Protest groups — most of which formed out of the Freedom Convoy — have said they plan to hold ongoing demonstrations throughout the summer, starting on June 30 and building toward Labour Day.

McHale said recent protests, including the Rolling Thunder Ottawa motorcycle rally, have followed a more traditional trajectory: people come, say their piece and go home.

“I think the bigger concern is what all of the talk of it does for citizens in Ottawa,” he explained. “The hype that builds around it, that builds concerns, that builds on the anxieties that people have from February. It’s just a lot more pressure on our members to cut through that and it’s very difficult to do so.”

Those fears can turn into one more reason not to visit downtown and stop at a shop or restaurant, McHale added.

The Ottawa Jazz Festival is fielding similar concerns, according to executive producer Catherine O’Grady.

Attendees and artists have both shared fears about protests, she said, which led her to issue a statement last week ensuring ticket holders the event would not be “bullied or threatened by outsiders.”

‘We’re not cancelling our event’

O’Grady said Wednesday that she was drafting another message to performers, telling them they’ll be safe.

“Good heavens. It’s Canada,” she said. “Why do we have to reassure our artists that are coming from America that they’re going to be safe in the nation’s capital?”

The festival is set to take place during the Canada Day long weekend at Confederation Park, which was the site of a protest supply camp during the convoy.

When festival organizers originally spoke with the city about support, O’Grady said one of the “initial” reactions from staff was to ask whether they’d consider cancelling.

On Wednesday, following a meeting with police, the producer said she had been assured “every measure” was being put in place to ensure their safety. Police will be on the ground, keeping an eye on access to the park, and suggested making sure all festival trucks were clearly marked as they’ll be stopping vehicles on Queen Elizabeth Drive, she said.

“We’re really relieved to hear all that and of course we’re not cancelling our event,” said O’Grady. “Absolutely not.”

Summer of protests ‘not sustainable’ for police

Police previously said they were aware of the planned protest and were “planning accordingly,” along with Canada Day organizers.

Public safety consultant and former Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau said a typical Canada Day “taps out” the resources available to police. He suggested the service is likely already reaching out to the RCMP, OPP and others to make sure they have enough officers on hand.

“If you don’t have the resources on the ground to set the tone and to communicate with those that wish to disrupt that this will not be acceptable then you will fail,” Bordeleau said.

City is not a ‘soapbox,’ says mayor

Mayor Jim Watson said the city and police are set to hold a press conference Monday outlining their plans for the long weekend.

“My message to people who want to come and celebrate our nation’s birthday is not to be intimidated by individuals who may be coming to Ottawa to cause trouble,” he said after Wednesday’s council meeting.

The behaviour seen during the truck convoy will not be tolerated, Watson added.

“This is not an opportunity for you to use our city as a soapbox for various grievances,” he said. “Let the people of Canada celebrate their nation’s birthday in peace.”

Police officers on horseback ride along Sparks Street, one block away from Wellington Street, where vehicles were parked to protest COVID-19 rules on Jan. 31, 2022. (Daniel Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

McHale said the February protest was the one time in decades that businesses on Sparks Street closed their doors, but after two hard years dealing with the pandemic, that’s not an option now.

He added he’s not overly concerned, though he does have a request for protesters.

“Please don’t scream at people as they’re walking by and interfere in their lives,” McHale said. “That’s all. And if everyone does that, then you can protest and [others] can come and celebrate.”