By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre joined the latest leg of a march led by a Canadian soldier accused of speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine demands that has sparked promises – and fears – of a new wave of demonstrations in the capital.
James Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for comments made while wearing his uniform. He has since led a four-month march to the capital from Vancouver.
His march was supported by many of the same figures involved in the “freedom convoy” that rumbled through downtown Ottawa for weeks until police used force to end what both themselves and the government have described as an illegal occupation.
His arrival in the capital and promises of a new round of protests starting on Canada Day have angered locals. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Acting Police Chief Steve Bell have promised to crack down on any illegal activity.
Poilievre walked alongside Topp for about half an hour after the two met in the parking lot of a strip mall west of downtown Ottawa shortly before noon, where hundreds of people s were gathered to see the army reservist.
Video of the meeting shows Poilievre quoting to Topp a famous quote from then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker about being a “free Canadian” when the latter signed the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, before dying. express opposition to vaccination mandates.
When Topp says he wants reinstatement and reparations for everyone who lost their jobs because of the vaccination warrants, Poilievre said, “Anyone who lost their job just because of a COVID warrant should get their job back. job, there is no doubt.”
Both men also spoke about the divisions within Canada, with Poilievre saying: “People desperately need hope…I think it’s time to put this country back together, heal the wounds and reunite our country.
The two were then followed by around 200 supporters, many carrying Canadian flags and camouflage backpacks and other gear, as they marched on the sidewalk of a main street for around half an hour before the departure from Poilievre.
Poilievre’s appearance with Topp comes as the presumed Conservative leadership frontrunner has been accused of unabashedly siding with anti-vaccine protesters and other groups associated with the “Freedom Convoy.”
Topp said he had no intention of leading an occupation of the capital and invited Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his march through the city to the National War Memorial.
However, an organizer from a group calling itself Veterans 4 Freedom said in a recent YouTube video that they plan to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa called “Camp Eagle” and organize events in the city all summer long.
While police have since successfully stopped similar protests from taking over the city, preventing planned protests from spiraling out of control on Canada Day will likely be complicated by the presence of thousands of people celebrating the holiday.
The charges against Topp relate to two videos posted online in the winter in which the Army reservist appears in uniform criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are strictly limited in the comments they can make in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, largely to protect the military from any perception of politicization.
His lawyer argued that such restrictions should not apply to policies that personally affect members of the Armed Forces.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said police take their responsibility to keep people safe during Canada Day celebrations “very seriously,” while Ontario Premier Doug Ford said called on those planning to demonstrate in Ottawa to obey the law.
“My friends, be considerate this weekend, you are going to Ottawa, be considerate. It’s Canada Day, we’re Canadians, everyone have a safe, good time, stay healthy and safe and spend time with your family,” Ford said.
Ford said he was disappointed to see such protests returning to the capital.
“I’m all for peaceful protest and you can protest, but no shenanigans this weekend, just be peaceful and let the people of Ottawa enjoy their weekend,” he said.
“Honestly, we shouldn’t even be going through this. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way it is. »
More than two dozen Tory MPs welcomed Topp and other Freedom Convoy figures to Parliament Hill last week, posing for photos, pledging their support and listening to a lecture on the alleged dangers of COVID-19 vaccines.
According to Health Canada, only vaccines that meet strict standards for safety, efficacy and quality are approved for use in the country, and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of COVID-19. sickness. About 85% of Canadians have received at least one dose.
Topp told MPs he was marching in part to get all vaccination mandates repealed, as well as demanding the reinstatement of anyone who lost their job due to such a requirement and compensation for lost wages. .
At the same time, he and the others raised the specter of civil war as they described the state of the country.
“We will not be intimidated by any group that plans to disrupt the celebrations,” Mayor Jim Watson said during a briefing earlier this week. “We are ready and we will not tolerate illegal activity by anyone.”
Bell said police are prepared for a number of different scenarios and will respond quickly to any illegal activity, including efforts to set up structures such as stages.
In late April, the Ottawa Police Services Board approved a request from Bell to appoint up to 831 RCMP officers to assist with Rolling Thunder motorcycle events, and made those appointments valid until July 4. .
The city warns that vehicles will be ticketed and towed if found in violation of no stopping zones, although the full extent of the zones that will be prohibited has not been determined.
With many Ottawa residents still unhappy with the way the city and police handled the Freedom Convoy protests, several community groups have banded together to launch a citizen inquiry into how the protest was handled.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 30, 2022.