‘Rolling Thunder’ rally is a faint echo of train 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 last weekend’s “Rolling Thunder” protest. A few hundred motorcycles took orderly laps near the War Memorial, the police were in place, and the first really nice spring weekend in Ottawa was, well, almost boring.

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

The first and most obvious difference was the presence of the police. Cops of all stripes were everywhere, making sure no vehicles passed through the roadblocks erected in the center of town, where winter protesters parked their trucks, grills and hot tubs.

On Friday night, when an unruly gang descended on the corner of Rideau and Sussex, the flashback tension was palpable. As I was heading to the Metropolitain Brasserie, which is at this historic intersection in the capital, I heard two residents saying to a protester: “You know all you’re doing is harassing normal people who live their lives here, don’t you? All the people you’re mad at are nowhere near here.

That was the other obvious difference: Ottawa residents weren’t in the mood for a repeat of the tantrum that turned into a hostile occupation last February. As the Star’s Raisa Patel recounted from her walk around Saturday’s protests, some creative Ottawa residents came prepared to be interviewed by media outlets known to be friendly with the convoy gang. Every time a microphone was turned towards them, they responded with noisy and noisy toys.

Counter-protests also erupted, organized by townspeople who never swear to swear again, with memories of February too fresh in their minds to tolerate even this mini-replay. Ottawa even managed to infiltrate two other events in and around the protest zone: a Labor Day rally and a cycling benefit. It was a beautiful 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 can and should raise questions about how the train wreck happened last winter. Everything that went right with Rolling Thunder’s crowd management, of course, will highlight what went so terribly wrong with the trucker convoy.

On CBC TV, presenter Rosemary Barton questioned Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino about the difference between this weekend and last winter’s occupation, which prompted the federal government to use the 34-year Emergency Act for the first time in your story.

“There are some 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.” Furthermore, he said, this weekend also did not see similar protests at border points across the country, as we have seen in the winter, nor have emergencies been declared in 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 politics. As far as I could see, particularly by monitoring their social media channels, none of the Conservative leadership candidates were doing much to publicly fuel the Rolling Thunder protest or feed off of it.

Pierre Poilievre, the candidate most aligned with the “freedom” convoys, was in the GTA over the weekend, away from his own riding in the Ottawa area and definitely not stealing cameras with the bikers as some might have expected. On Sunday, Poilievre posted a video on Twitter in which he promised to end vaccine mandates but did not include any nods to the protests ending in Ottawa.

None of the other top leadership candidates were also posting about Rolling Thunder. Perhaps, after seeing how the winter’s “Freedom Train” ripped a hole at the highest level of the party – forcing Erin O’Toole’s resignation – conservatives are more careful now to tie their fates to an angry protest movement and ill defined. No doubt they were delighted to see the streets of Ottawa flooded again with Trudeau haters, but they likely have those votes blocked anyway.

Canada Day will be interesting in Ottawa this year. Many residents have learned to cringe at the sight of people circling with flags or the sound of fireworks. But on the capital’s first good spring weekend of 2022, a train-hardened Ottawa proved it learned to roll with thunder; maybe even find it a little boring.

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