Hundreds of people packed an Ottawa church on Sunday morning to mark the final schedule event of the weekend-long “Rolling Thunder” protest as police launched an investigation into vandalism that allegedly took place ahead of the gathering.
Bikers, “Rolling Thunder” rally supporters and other worshippers arrived at the Capital City Bikers’ Church to find its brick exterior had been vandalized with spray-painted messages including “fascists” and “no haven for fascism.”
The Ottawa Police Service confirmed its hate crime unit is investigating “an incident of hate-motivated mischief at a religious institution” on on Carillon Street, the same one where the church is located.
But the incident did little to suppress the spirits of the enthusiastic, peaceful crowd.
A four-piece band belted out soulful Christian rock songs while hundreds of worshipers waved their arms in the air.
Families, children and even pets packed the darkened building, as purple flood lights and a stained-glass image of Jesus illuminated by the outside sun lit up the stage inside. A bar in the back of the Pentecostal church sold soft drinks, snacks and coffee.
“You begin to talk about hell and — ‘Oh, you’re one of those religious fanatics, aren’t you?’” Pastor Rob McKee asked the crowd during his sermon. His long, grey beard spilled onto his button-up plaid shirt, which he wore with a pair of loose-fitting jeans. “We all love the part that God is love, so if I was the enemy I would work really hard to try to get people to believe, no, that’s a scam, that’s fake news.”
McKee appeared to shrug off the graffiti and described the day as “church as usual,” but others who attended the service were more upset.
“It’s extremely insulting,” said Kimberly McGrath. “I had to let it brush off my shoulders, but for a lot of people it is traumatizing and it’s hurtful.”
Attendees socialized in the parking lot once the service wrapped up. Most expressed their intentions to leave Ottawa, though some indicated they planned to move on to a potential protest in Montreal or return to Parliament Hill.
The Sunday morning service was said to be the last event in the weekend-long “Rolling Thunder” rally, organized in part by a group called Freedom Fighters Canada.
Participants began arriving in Ottawa Friday afternoon, bringing large crowds to a downtown core still on edge after the three-week-long “Freedom Convoy” occupation in February.
“Rolling Thunder” organizers say the rally was set up to oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but as in February, some demonstrators had a longer list of grievances.
Randy Hill from Penticton, B.C., arrived at the church service in a red pickup decked out with Canadian flags and a “faith not fear” sticker on the side. He said he and his wife Carol-Anne are opposed to all vaccine mandates and government measures and intend to stay put.
“We want this government removed by God and a righteous government put in place. The people in charge of this government are accountable to God,” he said.
The Ottawa Police Service arrested three people on Saturday, though the day’s protests remained mostly peaceful. Crowds took part in a ceremony at the War Memorial in the morning followed by a motorcycle drive-by and an afternoon demonstration on Parliament Hill.
The force said one woman was arrested for assaulting police on Elgin Street, where the motorcycle rally took place, and a man was arrested for breaching conditions stemming from February’s “Freedom Convoy” occupation.
Another man is facing several charges after allegedly “rushing” an Ontario Provincial Police motorcycle, including dangerous driving, assault with a weapon and violating conditions stemming from the last round of protests, the Ottawa Police Service said in a news release.
Ottawa police have called in backup from RCMP, OPP and a number of municipal forces. More than 760 parking tickets had been issued and 39 vehicles have been towed since early Friday morning, city officials said Sunday. Ten other tickets have been issued for infractions including noise, smoking and public urination.
Steve Bell, interim chief of the Ottawa Police Service, has warned the protesters they will not be allowed to start a long-term occupation this time. But some citizens, including Centreville Community Association president Mary Huang, say the real test will be in seeing whether people actually leave the city on Sunday afternoon.
— With files from Sarah Smellie in St. John’s
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press