By Suresh Jaura
(CEMA member Suresh Jaura, a journalist, is President (North America) Globalom Media and is based in Toronto. This article appears in the July issue of North America and internatioal editions of Global Perspectives. Visit Suresh’s website or one of the newspapers he writes for such theSouth Asian Outlook.)
The June-end Summitry in Toronto promises to go down in history as a memorable piece in the legendary ‘how to …’ series. Not only because of the horrendous amount of money spent on security. But also what it means when compared to billions spent — or not spent – for things more sustainable.
The Good and the Ugly
Toronto the Good, Toronto the Summit City, became Bad and Ugly as more than 900 people were arrested in the violence after thousands of anti-G20 protesters, undaunted by heavy rain, marched through downtown, prompting police to use tear gas in the city for the first time.
Downtown Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, was locked down with a three-metre high chain-link fence with over 14,000 security personnel at a cost of over $1 billion. The core of the city was unrecognizable and deserted except for the presence of police at every corner. Security personnel lined up not only the access but also inside the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Centre, where the G20 leaders were meeting, and the hotels in the area where the leaders were staying. The city earned the moniker “Fortress Toronto.” Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a report based on the first-hand observations of over 50 human rights monitors that CCLA dispatched to observe the police presence at G20-related demonstrations throughout the week. It is the opinion of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that police conduct during the G20 Summit was, at times, disproportionate, arbitrary and excessive. In our view, despite instances of commendable and professional conduct, the policing and security efforts, especially after 5 p.m. on June 26 and June 27, failed to demonstrate commitment to Canada’s constitutional values.
2 Miles in 30 Minutes
Reporters have prior security clearance and are searched before entering the International Media Centre, where the media are camped. It is interesting that prior to boarding the buses for the Convention Centre, they have to go through airport-like security search. The distance of less than 2 miles, which normally takes five minutes, took more than half-an hour with police escort. A Toronto reporter, who covered Latin America and witnessed ‘ongoing assault on human rights’, writes Toronto, which ‘was ever innocent…doesn’t feel like that way anymore’. Activist groups from around the country and the world normally descend at all G8 / G20 Summit sites. They have their own alternative plans for improving the life and health of people. Poverty, climate change and economic justice top the list of concerns among the civil society groups. There are others who have women’s rights, labour rights, gender rights, indigenous rights and the rights of the transgendered on their agenda. The violence was caused mainly by the Black Bloc, a popular sight at almost every international protest since the late 1990s. As police were little away around the security zone, they smashed bank windows with hammers, storefronts with rocks they threw and set police cars on fire. When police arrived on the scene, the non-violent demonstrators got the worst from the police.
“I am profoundly disappointed in the criminal acts which have taken place,” Toronto police Chief Bill Blair said at a news conference. “We have seen windows broken and police cars burned. It is very regrettable that such vandalism and violence could not be prevented. I want to assure you that the persons responsible will be held accountable.” NGOs denounced summit violence as counter-productive to social justice. Messages of peace and justice are not served by images of violence and destruction,” says The Council of Canadians on its website. G8 Summit was held at Huntsville, a vibrant waterfront community of 18,000 residents, located two hours north of Toronto in the heart of Muskoka region, the beautiful “cottage country”. The 800-acre Deerhurst Resort was deemed ‘an excellent site’ for the event meeting acceptable security and other conditions, as per a study by Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. A protest zone had been set aside in the farms but there were no protesters there. One of the newspapers published photo of a 22-month-old child standing in the zone next to a placard sign saying, “More Cookies For Kids”. The police are reported to have given him some.
There are questions about the location of the G20 Summit, what was achieved and why was it held at all. The location of Toronto for G20 was decided, complains Toronto Mayor, David Miller, by the federal government six months earlier with little consultation with the city, which had suggested that if it was to be held in Toronto, it should be held at CNE, which can be easily secured causing minimum disruption and high security cost. After the security cost of $1billion became public knowledge, many wondered, knowing the history of violence that has followed these Summits, why it could not have been held away from Canada’s largest city: in a secured military base, on a luxury cruise liner in Lake Ontario across from the city, or even at Huntsville, where G8 leaders met the day before. It is reported that ‘eighteen national leaders were actually present at Huntsville for the G8 summit, along with 10 leaders of international organizations, which shows the G20 could have been accommodated there. If necessary, the size of the delegations could have been limited, with extra staffers being flown in-and-out each morning and evening if necessary.’ The government decided not to ‘capitulate to the violent, lawless behaviour of a few hundred professional disrupters’ and move the G20 to Huntsville. It is ‘wrong in a free country to disrupt the lives of thousands of citizens, even just for a few days, for so little tangible return’ writes Lorne Gunter in Edmonton Journal. The only noticeable achievement of the G 20 Summit was that Harper succeeded in having the leaders agree to “firm targets for advanced economies on debt reduction and reducing debt-GDP ratios. The targets are a 50 per cent deficit reduction by 2013 and a debt-to-GDP ratio that should be at least stabilized or on a downward trend by 2016”, as he declared in the closing remarks at Toronto. “Honestly, this is more than I expected,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged. “To put things bluntly” The Financial Times Deutschland writes, “The summit has produced a political agreement that, like an election promise, contains more empty words than substance.” With G20 Summit scheduled for South Korea in November, Lorne Gunter wonders why “Canada is spending $1 billion or more for a gathering that will be repeated elsewhere six months from now,”
More for Security
Jack Layton, Federal NDP leader, talking to a group of journalists including this one, on June 26 morning, said that Canada is ‘spending more on three days of security than it pledged to help save lives of women and children in Africa over five years’ as per its commitment at G8. Canada spent more than $ 1 billion for the three-day G8/G20 summits and committed $1.1 billion in new funds over five years out of a total of $5 billion G8 pledges at the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health to tackle maternal and child health in poor countries. Within less than five months, this was Canada’s second largest ever security operation after the Vancouver Olympics costing the same amount over 17 days in February. At that time, opinion surveys indicated growing public dissatisfaction with the costs, the security and other disruptions associated with the Games: only 50 percent of British Columbia residents thinking that the Olympics would have a positive impact on the province, while 69 per cent said that too much money was being spent on the Games. Harper has added another feather in his cap by hosting three big events in Canada this year and enhanced his image as a world leader. It is likely that, over a period, Canadians forget the disruption and high expense for these mega-shows and give Conservatives a majority government.