A temporary inconvenience

There has been a lot of griping from many corners of Toronto about this weekend’s summit for the Group of 20 developed and developing economies being hosted by the federal government in the southern-most sector of the city, June 26 – 27. There has been griping about the cost of security to host the summit, at more than $1 billion – the same amount that was spent for a month’s worth of security in Vancouver for the Winter Olympic Games.

Some are upset that a baseball game will be cancelled, that theatre performances will be put on hold, that condominium dwellers – those who haven’t already rented out their units for a tidy profit to various visiting government functionaries and left town – will not be able to move around their neighbourhood for about 72 hours without having to show approved forms of identification.

With this militarization of a part of the city, some locals are understandably uncomfortable about the extent to which this city we see as our own has been transformed into something like a police state. Others have grown weary of the daily reports of the military-style preparations being carried out by the RCMP, CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), the thousands of police officers from around the country and hired security personnel.

But let us keep all of these temporary modifications in perspective. Leaving aside the vexing question of whether a better location could have been chosen for this summit, suppose all that could be done was not done. Then suppose as a result one of those important leaders – say, the U.S. president – was hurt (or worse). Would there be anyone left who would not say that enough hadn’t been done?

But more important than the logistics of summit security, is the content of the G8 (the meeting of leaders of the world’s top eight economies being held in Huntsville) and G20 summits. That is the reason there will be so many groups legitimately making their voices and concerns heard – hopefully, peacefully – at protests during the weekend.

That would also explain why accountability is high on the agenda of both summits. Many development-related promises have been made over the course of a number of years coming out of previous summits that remain unfulfilled. The Harper government, as the host of this current event, reportedly aims to focus on what promises each G8 member has kept so far and what remains to be done. Perhaps these face-to-face meetings of heads-of-state will put some sense of obligation back into unfulfilled promises for aid to underdeveloped countries, for example, especially given the impact that G8 enterprises have as they draw wealth out of those struggling economies. 

Focusing on accountability means leaders will have to come to terms with the kind of promises they make and break. Can they afford to keep their aid commitments while also facing an economic downturn such as has been the case of late? And why when they are experiencing better conditions do they not at such times honour their promises for aid and development? Given this matter, it is encouraging that Prime Minister Harper adjusted his guest list to include the leaders of Haiti, Jamaica, Columbia and seven African countries, albeit at the last minute.

Accountability notwithstanding, Harper wants to keep the summits focused on economic matters most significantly, while also introducing the call for funding for maternal and child health care in underdeveloped countries.

He has reluctantly agreed to also include discussions on climate change but has been quoted as calling this latter inclusion a “sideshow.” But to want to exclude any mention of this growing issue is to take too narrow a view, for the fact is that the environment cannot be extricated from national economies. On the contrary, economies are highly dependent on the environment and climate change is a primary force in the environment.

In spite of the temporary upheaval we will endure this weekend, or perhaps because of it, we need to push cynicism aside and see these controversial summits as having real substance and not just as multi-million-dollar photo ops.

We expect all parties at the table to take their commitments seriously. Billions of lives depend on it.


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