Biker protest costs police up to $3m, lasting solution needed: board chairman

The “Rolling Thunder” protest in the nation’s capital over the weekend cost police between $2.5 million and $3 million, the chairman of the Ottawa Police Services Board said.

Eli El-Chantiry said police expect more convoy protests in the future and a lasting solution must be found.

The protesters arrived Friday afternoon as part of the “Rolling Thunder” rally, organized by Freedom Fighters Canada, a group dedicated to speaking out against COVID-19 mandates.

El-Chantiry said the police, including officers brought in from outside the capital, were prepared for any eventuality and had intelligence on the bikers and their plans.

But less was known about the intentions of other protesters outside the core group who arrived in vans, large trucks, cars and motorhomes.

“This group – we don’t know who is who,” El-Chantiry said in an interview.

The relatively peaceful protest could have escalated had the officers not been so well prepared, he said.

“It could have gone the other way easily,” he said. “Many people were denied entry to the city center with their vehicles.”

Ottawa police called in more than 800 reinforcements from the RCMP and other forces to help, including blocking off highway exits and downtown streets to prevent an encampment from forming.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino thanked the police, including the RCMP, “for their decisive and effective response to events in Ottawa over the weekend.”

“Police have incorporated the lessons learned from last winter and have taken the necessary proactive steps to maintain public safety,” he told The Canadian Press.

El-Chantiry said the police also have rapid response teams. Police with riot shields were deployed Friday night in downtown Ottawa.

The chairman of the police board, which oversees the police department, said he was briefed by acting chief Steve Bell.

Bell was unavailable for an interview Monday.

Over the weekend, 10 people were arrested, including seven who had participated in previous Freedom Convoy protests and violated court orders barring them from returning to Ottawa, El-Chantiry said.

Ottawa police said in a statement that the arrests relate to different Criminal Code offenses, including breach of conditions, assault on police and disorder.

The statement adds that all traffic restrictions have been lifted, including blocked roads in the city center.

Ottawa police learned from the February protests when crowds of protesters opposed to COVID-19 public health measures and the federal government choked Ottawa streets for weeks, the council speaker said.

But the protests are evolving and different in nature and Ottawa police must be ready, he said.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” El-Chantiry said. “It could happen at any time, so we have to be prepared and have the resources.”

The federal government agreed to foot the $35 million bill for policing the three-week “Freedom Convoy” demonstration in February.

The occupation prompted the Trudeau government to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time. It ended after hundreds of police officers from across Canada moved to disperse the crowds, making dozens of arrests.

The head of the board said a plan – including a financial plan – was needed to deal with future protests, which show no signs of stopping.

“We have to find a sustainable way to do this,” he said. “I will work with the federal and provincial governments to find a lasting solution for the future.”

It’s important that residents of downtown Ottawa can enjoy their city without constant interruption, El-Chantiry said.

“I’m trying to find a way to support that cost and want the community that now lives there to enjoy their summer and their home,” he said.

Mendicino added: “The residents of Ottawa, and indeed all Canadians, have the right to go about their daily lives in peace and safety. We are grateful that this was the case this past weekend.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 2, 2022.

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