G8/G20 Summits: Peter comments...

<This item was written by my friend Peter Bursztyn & is being posted here with his permission.>

The G-8 / G-20 Summits in Canada will probably go down in history as the most costly 3-day event ever staged. I am not sure what most outrages Canadians – the luxury accommodation lavished on the thousands of bureaucrats accompanying their “royalty,” or the astonishing amount of security surrounding this event. Although the “Fake Lake” has collected a lot of column-inches, its cost is actually trivial when set against the $1.2 billion – and counting? – spent on this “show.”

First off is the curious suggestion that Toronto was chosen as a venue to “show off” Canada’s largest city. I am guessing that few delegates ventured beyond the intimidating security and barbed wire. For those who did not, all they would have seen are tall fences and boarded-up shops. Those who did brave the streets would have found them deserted of their normal pedestrian bustle. Regardless of where a delegate might call home, on a normal Toronto day they would have been able to find folk to talk to in their native language. But these were not normal days. And it would be incredibly optimistic to think that Toronto could be “showcased” with the level of security imposed on it.

There are people who will say that the security was well justified. There was rioting, property was damaged, tear gas was fired, police beat their shields with their batons like primitive jungle warriors, and hundreds of “perps” were detained. There is evidence aplenty that the security money was well spent.

Imagine a section of road which suffers daily traffic jams. The town council decides to add an extra lane so the road can carry more traffic. When the work is complete, the problem is cured. However, now the traffic jam manifests itself just beyond the widened road. This is pretty well what happened in Toronto. The security fences were not breached. The police kept the demonstrators well away from the glitterati. However, that simply meant that business well away from the protected zone had their windows smashed and people who thought they were “safe” now found themselves threatened – as much by the police, who were forced to question and even harass everybody, as by rioters.

That also illustrates a second issue. The police are supposed to protect us all. However, it often seems that some people are protected less well than others. In this case, foreign dignitaries and bureaucrats were the principal beneficiaries, not the citizens whose taxes paid for the protection.

Now, I am not blaming the police whose orders were clear and came from the prime minister himself. However, this also highlights an issue which has been troubling me for over 20 years. Political leaders have become increasingly isolated from the people they govern. This has always been true of South America, Africa, and parts of Asia where civilian and military dictators of all political stripes had to live behind walls protected by armed guards. As democracy took hold, the isolation simply continued. However, in the democracies of Europe, and in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, prime ministers, members of cabinet, etc would often walk to their government offices, unafraid. Pierre Elliot Trudeau almost always walked to parliament – unescorted.

This was sensible because assassination changes nothing in such countries. Behind the prime minister stands a deputy and other members of cabinet. An assassination would not change the course of government at all. Because it would accomplish nothing, it was a very rare occurrence. In effect, the understanding that assassination is not effective at changing the policy of a democracy was the strongest protection of the individuals who make up the government. Unfortunately, in 1986, Sweden’s prime minister, Olof Palme, was killed while walking home from the theatre with his wife. The killing has not been solved. It may have been the work of an assassin, or an “ordinary” murder. However, ever since western leaders have had security guards at all times. That has also separated them from the society they lead. With the passage of time, this barrier has grown higher and thicker. The G-8 / G-20 summits were an excellent example of this.

This raises the question of where such a summit should be held. The week of June 21 has shown us that Toronto was not a good choice. There is absolutely no doubt that the invited guests to such a summit must be protected from violent people who wish to do them harm. There is also no doubt that Canadian police were well capable of protecting these people, were seen to do this job well, and even with a commendable measure of restraint, considering the provocation they endured.

However, one must ask whether it is wise to stage such a summit in a densely populated place. Putting the summit in Toronto was equivalent to painting a target on the city and inviting people to take aim at it. Once again, Canada’s ability to adequately police the venue was never in doubt. We all knew that the summit was an open invitation to legitimate demonstrators, and we all knew – or should have known – that violent groups would hide themselves among the peaceful protesters.

Even though we knew we could protect the summit venue, why would we? The more intelligent choice would be to hold the meetings at some more isolated venue. The 2002 G-8 Summit held in Kanaskis, Alberta was an excellent example. This relatively isolated Golf and Country Club was easy to protect, and the high security disturbed relatively few people. By contrast, the Toronto Summit disturbed hundreds of thousands. My own daughter, attending a 6-week high-level course for opthalmologists (eye surgeons) was one of 41 doctors turfed out of the University of Toronto Hall of Residence because of summit security. One of her friends, working at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, was told to work from home on the Friday. Several downtown banks, and many other businesses closed for the day as well. Even not counting the physical damage, these businesses will have lost millions of dollars over that weekend.

Many people have said that part of the money spent on Huntsville in preparation for the summit had been put to good use. In Toronto, the money was spent erecting ugly, intimidating barriers which will come down. In a few days there will be little if any trace of the money spent. It might as well have been thrown away.

Instead of painting a “bull’s eye” on downtown Toronto, why was the summit not held in Iqualuit, or Gander? Better yet, our government might have rented a luxury cruise ship for the week and held the summit at sea, or perhaps in Lake Ontario with a view of Toronto. Nobody would have been inconvenienced, security could have been even tighter, and at far less cost than the estimated $1.2 billion. Yes I know that a cruise ship could not have held as many people. However, there is absolutely no reason why even the President of the United States needs to travel with a retinue of 500 souls. And some other leaders brought even more people with them! How crazy is that?

Personally, I am outraged at the cost of this summit.

Nothing these “worthy” leaders could decide at such a meeting was worth that price.

Nothing could have better illustrated the vast gulf separating our leaders from their people – or their utter disdain for us.

Peter Bursztyn

Barrie, Ontario (Canada)

June 26, 2010.