Havoc: The G20 Summit in Toronto

Havoc. That’s what descended on Toronto this past weekend. The earthquake was peanuts compared to the G20 summit.

Toronto has the lowest per capita crime rate of any major city in Canada; we’re not used to post-playoff riots or gratuitous vandalism on a large scale. It’s no wonder that as the autocratic fences rose, downtowners fled, and the rest of us put off our appointments and shopping and coffee drinking on Queen Street to another time.

But truly, compared to other G20, G7/8 venues, or other large meetings, Toronto once again was less crime infested. No deaths, no buildings on fire, no parked car after parked car flipped over, no massive pepper spray, no water cannon, no wholesale injuries. Just broken windows, police cars on fire. It is something to be proud of. Still, that was too much for Toronto. We like our freedom, our police to have restraint, our peaceful protests, and no thugs, especially from outside.

In a front page editorial, The Toronto Star lambasted the G20 security strategy. Its aim was to protect the perimeter, not the people. To do that, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair asked the province to extend the Public Works Protection Act to include any area within 5 metres of the fence. The cabinet did so quietly, and the media, having lost much of its investigative skill, did not find out until the eve of the Summit. Contrary to police assertions, the public and the press did have something to fear from this amended act and from the security strategy the Integrated Security Unit put together. Isn’t that always the argument though of the autocratic state – if you have nothing to hide, if you’re innocent, you won’t be arrested, you won’t get hurt. These measures are for your benefit.

The thing is because Toronto is a low-crime city and generally has a good relationship with the police, we had an opportunity to try a radically different kind of security, the kind that creates a peaceful environment – not an aggressive fortress – that uses calming tactics with smart arrests (they seemed to do a better job on Sunday than Saturday in grabbing the thugs), that works with the real protestors to expose the thugs. And because Toronto is such a hotbed of media, the media could’ve been radical too by ignoring the thugs, except in news sidebars, and thus depriving them of their raison d'être. Instead police and media went with same old, same old. Too bad.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided at the last minute to hold the G20 in Toronto immediately after the G8 in Huntsville. Whereas everyone had time to prepare for the G8, there was comparatively little prep time for the G20. Whereas Huntsville and surrounding environs received massive new infrastructure, buildings, etc. to pretty up the area for the leaders, Toronto got a new police radio system and four sound cannons, like Toronto is such a hotbed of radicalism, we need sound cannons. Some didn’t think that the desecration of our city life was worth it; others did. In the end, it looks like it’s going to be retailers, banks, and the city mostly on the hook for the costs.

Although Harper’s government said they would compensate businesses for lost revenue, many said the requirements to prove losses are too bureaucratic to be worth it. Unexpectedly, the losses began last Monday as people started vacating the core as the fence went up. It wasn’t just that businesses lost up to 90% of trade, many now must replace windows and are told tough luck, go to your insurance company for the money. You know what a waste of time that is! Meanwhile, people who just wanted to walk to work or to go home were thwarted by thugs and lines of riot police.

“Next time have it on an aircraft carrier,” said Omar Habib, a 28-year-old actor who lives north of the Front St. G20 site. Hoping on Saturday merely to stroll to his waiter job, he kept running into lines of shield-thumping riot police trying to repel black-clad anarchists.” (David Rider, The Toronto Star, 28 June 2010)

Although Harper said he chose Toronto to showcase the city, he continued to exercise his flip-the-bird attitude to Toronto by ignoring the advice of local politicians as to where to hold it and to insist that the focus of security must be the perimeter fence, even at the expense of Torontonians. I still can’t figure out why he chose the Metro Convention Centre; it’s not the most attractive place in the world apart from being located in a congested area, congested by buildings, people, and traffic. The CNE grounds in comparison are spacious, have green areas, have recently renovated structures, and include wonderful banquet facilities. They are also easier to secure. The views of Lake Ontario are nothing to sneeze at either.

“Most observers think it [Ottawa] wanted the leaders near the financial district to highlight Canada’s economic stability.” (David Rider, The Toronto Star, 28 June 2010)

Harper is an economics guy; he almost dismantled the regulatory framework that protected our banks from the financial meltdown that other countries’ banks endured while, at the same time, he greedily ate into Canada’s surpluses until they were gone before the recession hit. He pooh-poohed the idea of Canada going into a recession, and only came in at the last minute with an economic recovery plan in order to prevent his new government from falling. He created a massive deficit in the process. Yet his theme for the G20 was economic stability. He sold his idea of halving the deficit by 2013 and stabilizing or reducing national debt to GDP ratio by 2016. And he succeeded in making the proposed bank tax optional. A good thing. Yet in all his pre-G20 flurry of foreign visits over the bank tax proposal and during the summit, he didn’t showcase what Canada has uniquely achieved: economic stability due to bank regulation. He said he wanted to be near our big banks to show them off, yet he didn’t want to talk about what makes them stable, what makes them secure, what makes them immune to financial collapse. Canada has the answer to preventing another global recession like the one we’re coming out of, yet Harper didn’t want to talk about it.

But Harper said the costs and the hassles that go with a summit are the price to be paid to be a member of the global economy.

It’s not really a Canadian economy anymore. It is a global economy,” Harper said. (Bruce Campion-Smith, Joanna Smith, Richard J. Brennan, The Toronto Star, 28 June 2010)

It’s not a Toronto economy either. Harper must show as much respect and largesse towards Toronto as he did to Huntsville. He didn’t give our city nearly enough time to prepare – usually 2 years; for us 7 months – he didn’t pay for upgrades the city badly needs because of it being planned at the last minute (was that deliberate?), and he didn’t pay for the kind of beautifying Huntsville et al received. Worse, he doesn’t believe he’s legally obligated to compensate fully Toronto’s people for lost work, lost windows, lost business. During a time of recovery, and coming from an economics  guy, that’s  a bit bizarre, but pretty much expected given his attitude to Toronto.

Some pundit said that because Harper lived here at one time, he couldn’t possibly hate Toronto. Oh really? People do leave our city because they don’t like it, and the benign neglect or people-unfriendly policies from municipal politicians and hostile actions from provincial and federal politicians over the last three decades, is not how I’d define Toronto love.

If Harper really wanted to showcase Toronto, he’d pay for the repairs and sink the capital required to bring back the shine to the old, neglected lady.

But this was not about showcasing Toronto. This was about Harper saying to his G20 counterparts, we’re as big and high-powered as you are. And like any lothario, he trashed Toronto in his strutting.