OTTAWA — A Canadian soldier charged for speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements was warmly welcomed on Wednesday to Parliament Hill, where Conservative MPs posed with him for pictures before sitting through a lecture on the purported dangers of inoculations.
The show of support for James Topp came more than a month after the reservist warrant officer was charged with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for comments made while wearing his uniform in February.
It also came as the Afghanistan war veteran and his supporters prepare to finish a four-month march from Vancouver to the National War Memorial in Ottawa that started in February during the height of the “Freedom Convoy.”
Their planned arrival on June 30 has stoked fears of another round of such anti-vaccine and anti-government protests, which snarled the capital for weeks until police used force to end what they and the government described as an illegal occupation.
Such misgivings did not keep one group of Conservative MPs from shaking hands, posing for pictures and expressing their support for Topp during a meeting on Parliament Hill that was streamed online.
Among them were leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis as well as Dean Allison, Ryan Williams and Alex Ruff.
Topp was driven to Ottawa to meet with MPs on Wednesday and was expected to return to the area around Deep River, Ont., to continue his march to the capital in the coming days.
Topp made stops in North Bay and Callander last weekend as he made his way east to Ottawa.
Appearing alongside him was Tom Marazzo, one of the spokesmen of the “Freedom Convoy,” and Paul Alexander, a former adviser to U.S. president Donald Trump who used Wednesday’s meeting to deliver a lecture on what he claims are the 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Topp told the MPs that he was marching in part to get all vaccine mandates repealed, as well as the reinstatement of anyone who lost their job because of such a requirement and compensation for wages lost.
At the same time, he said his march was about much more than vaccine requirements, which were lifted for most federal civil servants this week but remain in place for members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“One of the things that has jumped out at me since I've started this journey is the number of folks who have come to talk to me (and) their issue is not so much with mandates anymore,” he said.
“It's their dissatisfaction with the federal government, they see it as intractable and flexible and responsive to their needs.”
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.
While Topp sought on Wednesday to describe his mission and message as non-partisan, Marazzo, one of the leaders of a group known as Veterans 4 Freedom that organized a motorcycle convoy in April, told MPs that Canada was “going down a very dark path.”
“It's getting critical,” Marazzo said. “(Topp) has been to a civil war. I'm not saying that that's what's going to happen here. But there's a lot of similarities.”
Conservative MP Jeremy Patzer noted that only one party was represented at the long boardroom tables around which the group had gathered, telling Topp and the others: “You do have allies. You’ve had allies all along.”
Topp also said he has no plans to lead an occupation of the capital, and invited Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his planned march through the city to the National War Memorial.
However, an organizer for Veterans 4 Freedom said in a recent video posted to YouTube that the group plans to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa called “Camp Eagle” and hold events in the city all summer.
Ottawa police have said they are planning a never-before-seen security posture for Canada Day, and that they and Gatineau police are readying further security plans for demonstrations in downtown Ottawa and Parliament Hill.
While Ottawa police will protect everyone's right to lawfully and peacefully demonstrate, one officer said during a briefing last week, "we will not allow for the conditions that led to the unlawful protests in February to reoccur.”
Several Ottawa community groups are calling for an even stronger response to Topp’s arrival next week and any planned “freedom” demonstrations, which they allege are connected to right-wing extremism.
“It seems to me that their plan is always to sort of protect the parliamentary precinct, but they sort of just leave residential neighbourhoods there to dry,” said Sam Hersh of Horizon Ottawa.
“I want to see an acknowledgment of what this actually is from our city and from the relevant authorities: that this is a far-right movement, and that we should take it seriously. And they're not welcome in our city.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press