OTTAWA — Police arrested four people in downtown Ottawa Thursday after a Canadian soldier charged for speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements led a procession into the city and delivered a speech on "freedom" to a rapt crowd of about 1,200 supporters.
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 and has since been leading a four-month march to the capital from Vancouver.
His march has been supported by many of the same figures involved in the "Freedom Convoy" that snarled downtown Ottawa for weeks until police used force to end what they and the government described as an illegal occupation.
Cheers and chants of "Freedom!" erupted as he arrived at the National War Memorial on Thursday evening. He knelt, weeping, with his hand on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before he spoke to the crowd, thanking them for their support and urging them not to give up.
“I have met thousands of people in my journey from Vancouver to Ottawa and a lot of them have lost hope. They feel lost. They're angry. They've lost faith in the system. We've already started something," he said.
"Heed the call. Assemble. Organize yourselves. Plan. What's the answer? Non-violence. Peace."
But not long after Topp's remarks, police said they were responding to a "situation" in the area and arrested four people over incidents including assaulting officers. Police later said the arrests happened after an interaction with officers "became confrontational and one officer was choked."
In the immediate aftermath of the arrests, dozens of officers surrounded the war memorial, holding back the crowd. One officer poured water into his eyes as a woman nearby yelled about police using pepper spray. Others heckled police about their "taxpayer-funded" salaries and pensions.
At the same time, however, most members of the crowd continued to mill about happily and peacefully and line up for photographs with Topp. Tourists and families were also wandering by the scene, appearing puzzled as they snapped pictures of the war memorial.
As the sun began to set, fireworks could be heard in downtown Ottawa. Two young women set off firecrackers while officers looked on.
Topp’s arrival in the capital and promises of a new round of protests starting Canada Day have set residents on edge. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and the city's interim police chief, Steve Bell, have promised to crack down on any illegal activity.
Earlier Thursday, Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre joined the final leg of Topp's march. Poilievre walked alongside Topp west of downtown Ottawa, where hundreds of people had gathered to see the army reservist.
Video of the meeting shows Poilievre expressing his opposition to vaccine mandates and citing to Topp a famous quote by then-prime minister John Diefenbaker about being a "free Canadian" when he signed the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960.
When Topp said he wanted reinstatement and reparations for anyone who lost their job because of vaccine mandates, Poilievre replied: "Everybody who lost their job simply because of a COVID mandate should be restored to their job, no question about it."
The two also spoke about the divisions within Canada, with Poilievre saying: "People are desperate for hope … I think it’s time to put this country back together, and heal the wounds and reunite our country."
The two were then followed by about 200 supporters, many of them carrying Canadian flags and some sporting camouflaged backpacks and other gear, as they walked down the sidewalk of a major street for about half an hour before Poilievre left.
A few hours later, hundreds of people gathered in a park south of downtown Ottawa for the final stretch to the National War Memorial. A long line of marchers, including at least one wearing a black armoured vest, snaked along the length of the park.
At one point the crowd was treated to a speech by a man wearing a military beret and civilian clothes who denounced defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre’s order that all Canadian Armed Forces members be fully vaccinated. Members of the crowd booed loudly.
Poilievre’s appearance with Topp comes as the presumed Conservative leadership front-runner has been accused of unabashedly cozying up to anti-vaccine protesters and other groups associated with the “Freedom Convoy.”
Tamara Lich, a leader of the convoy that gridlocked Ottawa in February, briefly appeared in court on Thursday after allegedly breaching one of her bail conditions. Lich, who faces multiple charges including mischief and obstructing police, will remain in custody until her bail hearing on Tuesday.
Many marchers declined to be interviewed, saying they did not trust that their words would not be twisted.
But Ottawa resident Richard Gervais, who was among the hundreds of people marching along the Rideau Canal to downtown Ottawa, called Topp an "inspiration to us all."
"Here he is, the most peaceful, the nicest, the most decent human being you could possibly ever want to meet, and he's walking across Canada to make a point," he added.
Gervais said his adult son was one of the hundreds of federal public servants forced to take leave without pay because he refused to get vaccinated.
While the requirement has since been suspended, "we never know when they're going to come back," said Gervais. "And we know that it can come back in the flimsiest of excuses."
He went on to accuse the World Economic Forum of trying to take away Canada's sovereignty while questioning the severity of COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccines. All of these claims have figured prominently in the discourse surrounding the “Freedom Convoy.”
Topp has said he has no plans to lead an occupation of the capital, and invited Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his march through the city.
However, an organizer for a group calling itself Veterans 4 Freedom said in a recent video posted to YouTube that it plans to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa called “Camp Eagle” and hold events in the city all summer.
While police have since managed to prevent similar protests from taking over the city, stopping planned demonstrations from getting out of hand during Canada Day is likely to 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.
Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.
His lawyer has argued such restrictions should not apply to policies that affect Armed Forces members personally.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday said police are taking their responsibility to keep people safe during Canada Day celebrations "very seriously,” while Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on those intending to protest in Ottawa to respect the law.
More than two dozen Conservative MPs hosted Topp and other leading figures in the "Freedom Convoy" on Parliament Hill last week, posing for pictures, promising their support and listening to a lecture on the purported dangers of COVID-19 vaccines.
Health Canada says only vaccines that meet strict safety, efficacy and quality standards are approved for use in the country, and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of the disease. About 85 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose.
Topp told the MPs that he was marching in part to get all vaccine mandates repealed, as well as to demand the reinstatement of anyone who lost their job because of such a requirement and compensation for wages lost.
At the same time, he and the others raised the spectre of civil war in describing the state of the country.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume and Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press