Police state in, power suits out as Toronto goes into security shock

Globe and Mail

Police officers stand along a security fence in downtown Toronto on Monday, the same day the city saw its first significant protest march of the G20. MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Marcus Gee

Monday, Jun. 21, 2010


At City Hall, employees arrived at work to find a burly security guard demanding their access pass before they entered the normally unlocked doors. At a downtown law firm, lawyers were told to leave their suits and high heels at home and dress casual-like to avoid being set upon by anti-capitalist rioters. At one provincial government office, bureaucrats were told in late afternoon that the building was going under “lockdown” because protesters were in the neighbourhood. Many scooted for exits to avoid being trapped in the closed-up building.

All of a sudden on Monday, our calm, mild, pacific city took on a changed feel as the security noose tightened in advance of this weekend’s G20 summit. In the downtown, packs of police officers on bikes roamed the streets – followed, incongruously, by a golf cart-type vehicle transporting water, juice and granola bars for the boys and girls in blue. Around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the shiny metal security fence neared completion, a ghastly thing, like all such barriers, that made the notoriously ugly convention centre that will welcome foreign leaders even more unsightly than usual.

Also downtown, the first significant protest march made its noisy way through the streets, decrying the “police state” created for the summit. In the name of animal rights, native rights, poor people’s rights and numerous other causes, they occupied a gas station for a few minutes before cops on bikes made them leave.

Despite all the advance warning, this comes as a bit of a shock to the system for a generally safe city where the hand of authority is light and the cops keep a low profile. Go to Europe and you see soldiers walking around the airport with automatic rifles at the ready; go to the States and you see military men and women all the time. Not in Canada, not in Toronto.

Because we are so unused to security measures like this, there is a good measure of overreaction and even paranoia around. At one security briefing, reporters and camera folk were told to wear wool underwear to the protests – in a humid Toronto summer – because it is less flammable than other kinds. In a security memo to staff at a downtown law firm, staff were reportedly instructed on how to curl themselves into a protective ball if set upon by protesters and roll to the side of the street – conjuring up the remarkable image of balled-up lawyers rolling down Bay Street like so many bowling balls.

The very idea of all those downtown lawyers, bankers and executives coming to work in jeans, flip flops and polo shirts to foil the dastardly anarchists seemed a little craven. Pity the poor guy who doesn’t get the memo and comes to work in his Zegna suit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to put the summit in Toronto partly to showcase the relative health of our Canadian banking industry. Yet when the summit is on, everyone downtown will be doing their darnedest to look as unlike a banker as they possibly can. The whole week is turning into a casual Friday.

“If you unexpectedly encounter demonstrators,” a city landlords’ group advises tenants, “you will be better treated if you are in jeans and a casual shirt than if you are in a business ‘power suit.’ ” Other tips: don’t rub your eyes if you are tear gassed or pepper sprayed; and don’t wear your security pass on a lanyard around your neck – the bad guys might pull it off and abscond with it.

At first blush it all seems very silly and annoying – as if Paul Blart: Mall Cop were suddenly in charge of the city. In its list of “Things the G20 is ruining now,” the Torontoist runs through a list of complaints about shuttered liquor stores and farmers markets, adding a photo essay of the horrid fence.

But, then, the security folks have a serious job to do and they have to prepare for any eventuality. Inevitably, some of their rules will seem arbitrary and excessive. But “better safe than sorry” seems a good way to go when the safety of world leaders and the security of Canada’s largest city is at stake. It will all be over in a few days anyway and Toronto can go back to being its usual self: pleasant, banal and safe.

The G20: A billion dollars worth of what?

National Post editorial board  May 27, 2010

Admittedly, the security bill is staggering for the G8 and G20 summits to be held back-to-back in Ontario next month. Nearly $1-billion is an eye-popping sum. That’s almost as much as the cost of security for the entire Winter Olympics in Vancouver last February, and the Olympics lasted two weeks. The two summits in Huntsville and Toronto will be over and done with in just three days.

But consider that security for the G8 summit alone cost $381-million when Japan hosted the event two years ago. And in L’Aquila, Italy, last July the price tag — again for just the G8, without the G20 added — was over $400-million as Italian planners sought to avoid the deadly violence that surrounded the same gathering of world leaders when Italy previously hosted it in Genoa in 2001.

The question, then, is not whether Ottawa is spending recklessly. Every host nation seems to spend an exorbitant amount making sure it is not the country whose laxity permitted some extremist to assassinate the U.S. president or the German chancellor. The question is: Are these brief, glitzy sideshows worth the money? At the very least, the leaders of the G8 and G20 should be considering whether they might use one, easily secured location every time they meet to cut down on the nightmarish expense of playing host to their gatherings.

The $450-million in extra funding being given to the RCMP for its role in co-ordinating summit security is equivalent to 16% of the Mounties’ annual nationwide budget. The entire security bill is equal to about one-fifth of the amount Ottawa spends on the RCMP, CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment and military intelligence. Is it really worth it to any nation to put on one of these summits — let alone both of them — when to do so it must spend 20% above and beyond its national security budget?

Sure, being host to their counterparts gives nations’ heads of government plenty of photo opportunities to look influential and to bulk up their parties’ campaign brochures. And participant leaders always claim that face-to-face relationships created at such meetings help smooth trade relations and crisis management beyond the summits’ salons.
But so very little of substance is achieved at these meetings that either their costs must come down or leaders need to rethink whether they are useful at all. Among the main topics of discussion at recent G8s have been climate change, sustainable agriculture and nuclear safety. Yet despite the billions spent negotiating common policy positions, there remains no global climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto accords that expire in 2012, no agriculture plan that both feeds the world and preserves its soil, and Iran is still about to acquire a nuclear bomb.

Of course at the Canadian G8 and G20 shindigs in June, the principal topic of discussion will be reducing member governments’ budget deficits and national debts, which makes the cost of these gatherings hypocritical as well as exorbitant.

Two months ago, the Tory government told Canadians that security costs for the two summits would be less than $200-million. In just eight weeks, those projections have nearly quintupled. The Harper government should be shame faced over either the sudden escalation of costs or their initial less-than-forthcoming estimates. And they might want to think twice before criticizing cost overruns by the previous Liberal government, such as the $1-billion gun registry. The registry is intrusive and ineffective, but at least when spending on it was finished, there was something tangible to show for it.

Perhaps now that she has been prohibited from auditing members of Parliament’s expenses, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser could be persuaded to do a performance audit on summiteering.

National Post