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First presidential visit since 2016 brings heavy security presence to Ottawa

Work crews set up security fencing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in preparation for U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden have not yet arrived in Ottawa, but the city's streets and skies were showing signs Wednesday of the security presence residents can expect for the country's first presidential visit in seven years. 

The pair are set to arrive Thursday for the first official visit to Canada since Biden took office as president in 2021. They will stay overnight until Friday.

In downtown Ottawa Wednesday, about 20 police vehicles circled the area as U.S. flags were strung up near Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office and the main street in front of Parliament Hill. Workers were busy installing fences to prepare for the visit. 

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe told reporters Wednesday morning that the event provides "an opportunity to remind people that Ottawa is the capital of Canada and that it's an amazing city and beautiful city."

The last time the city of Ottawa hosted a president was in 2016, when former president Barack Obama attended the North American Leaders' Summit near the end of his second term. Obama's successor, Donald Trump, attended the 2018 G7 meeting in La Malbaie, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. But he never visited Ottawa.

Biden's sojourn will take place under heavy police presence, with the RCMP saying security will be provided through an integrated security unit. 

The Mounties say they are working with the Canadian military, the U.S. Secret Service, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Parliamentary Protective Service, as well as local officers in Ottawa and across the river in Gatineau, Que.

Retired Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau, who served as a superintendent during Obama's first official trip in 2009, said extensive planning goes into each presidential visit. The fact that Biden is staying overnight will mean even more resources are taken up. 

He said in an interview that the service had two months' notice for the 2009 visit. 

"This planning needs to take place in a co-operative (way) and in collaboration with the multitude of partners — not just here in Canada, but as well with the U.S. Secret Service," said Bordeleau.

"It’s an event that's very resource-intensive because of the number of officers that are required to deal with protecting the entourage, the traffic management and the buildings that he may be visiting."

During that visit, which saw thousands of people pack the lawn in front of Parliament Hill, Obama surprised many by taking a detour with his motorcade to the nearby ByWard Market to try a local sugar-coated deep-fried pastry, known affectionately as a BeaverTail. 

He also left with three sugar cookies shaped like maple leaves for his family after stopping at a local bakery. 

Obama reminisced about that visit when he addressed the House of Commons in 2016, telling members of Parliament that a Beavertail "is better than it sounds." 

A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson said that its protocol office co-ordinates visits by different heads of state and government. It works with the Prime Minister's Office, embassies, RCMP and "many other internal and external partners."

Ottawa police have warned residents of an increased police presence through the week, as they turn large parking lots into staging areas for officers. 

The Armed Forces and National Defence also confirmed it would be providing air security during Biden's visit. 

"Residents of the National Capital Region may see or hear Norad CF-18 Hornet fighter jets and CH-146 Griffon helicopters over the region as early as Wednesday … and throughout the course of the visit," it said in a recent statement. 

It added that civilian pilots should watch for flight restrictions in the area from Nav Canada.

The city also cautioned residents to brace for road closures on major downtown streets and around its airport — all routes where Biden's motorcade will travel.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023. 

Cindy Tran and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the 2018 G7 summit took place in Quebec City.

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