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 – 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 shortly before noon in the parking lot of a strip mall west of downtown Ottawa, where hundreds of people s were gathered to see the army reservist.
Video of the meeting shows Poilievre expressing his opposition to vaccination mandates and quoting to Topp a famous quote from then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker about being a ‘free Canadian’ when he signed the Declaration Canadian Rights in 1960.
When Topp said he wanted reinstatement and reparations for everyone who lost their jobs because of the vaccination warrants, Poilievre replied, “Anyone who lost their job just because of a COVID warrant should be reunited. their jobs, there is no doubt about that.”
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, to heal the wounds and to 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.
Hours later, hundreds of people gathered in a park south of downtown Ottawa along the Rideau Canal for the final stretch to the National War Memorial. A long line of walkers meandered along the park as people, at least one wearing a black armored vest, waited impatiently for the army reservist to kick off.
At one point the crowd was treated to a speech by a man wearing a military beret and civilian clothes who denounced an order by Chief of Defense General Wayne Eyre that all members of the Canadian Armed Forces are fully vaccinated. Members of the crowd booed loudly.
Topp’s supporters lined up to shake hands, hug him and take selfies, and the crowd periodically chanted his name. He asked them to conduct themselves with honor and dignity as they continued the “closing ceremonies” at the war memorial.
Walkers of all ages, including children, shouted “Freedom!” as they began to leave the park and head downtown. The call for “freedom” was a staple of the protests that blocked Ottawa in January and February.
A crowd gathered in downtown Ottawa cheered loudly and broke into a “Freedom” chant when Topp arrived Thursday night.
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.”
Tamara Lich, leader of the convoy that blocked Ottawa in February, briefly appeared in court Thursday after allegedly breaching one of her bail conditions. Lich, who faces multiple charges including mischief and obstructing police, will remain in custody until his bail hearing on Tuesday.
Many walkers declined to be interviewed, saying they did not believe their comments would be misrepresented.
But Ottawa resident Richard Gervais, who was among hundreds of people walking along the Rideau Canal into downtown Ottawa, called Topp “an inspiration to us all.”
“Here he is, the most peaceful, kindest, most decent human being you could ever wish to meet, and he’s traveling across Canada to make a point,” he added.
Gervais said his adult son was among hundreds of federal workers forced to take unpaid leave because he refused to get vaccinated.
Although the requirement has since been suspended, “we never know when they’re going to come back,” Gervais said. “And we know it can come back with the slightest excuse.”
He went on to accuse the World Economic Forum of trying to take away sovereignty from Canada while questioning the seriousness of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines. All of these demands figured prominently in the discourse surrounding the Freedom Convoy.
Topp said he had no intention of leading an occupation of the capital and urged Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his march through the city.
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.
“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 vaccines -19.
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.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 30, 2022.
— With files by Sarah Ritchie