This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 17, 2002
Security High for G8 Summit
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle." - Mao Zedong
Ah, but the good Chairman never had the pleasure of meeting the Revolutionary Knitting Circle. On the first Tuesday of every month, about a dozen avid Calgary knitters gather to compare stitches, swap patterns and nosh on assorted munchies. But this isn't your typical grandmother-in-a-shawl crowd. As their name suggests, these knitters are all committed social activists who can expound on the evils of global capitalism as deftly as they can purl a row. So what's so radical about knitting? "It's not like the French Revolution where people were being guillotined and all that nasty stuff," concedes Grant Neufeld, a twenty- or thirty-something (he won't say exactly, for fear of "age-typing") computer programmer who speaks for the knitting circle. "It's a pretty non-violent form of dissent. We are creating, rather than going out and trashing what we object to."
These days, the knitters are channeling their creative energies into protesting the G8 summit of leaders from eight major industrialized nations to be held in Kananaskis, Alta., on June 26-27. They are making blankets with anti-G8 slogans that will serve the dual purpose of keeping visiting activists warm at night and providing them with protest banners during the day. The Calgary contingent also plans to participate in a Global Knit-In on the opening day of the summit, wherein like-minded activists around the planet are being urged to take their needles and yarn to one of the centres of corporate or political power in their communities and weave a bit of mischief. Neufeld, for example, sees his group heading to KANANASKIS COUNTRY, 90 km west of Calgary, and draping the abundant evergreens in knitted "tree cozies" as a way of greeting the world leaders before they scurry into the woods behind a phalanx of RCMP and military guards. Hey, a fellow can dream, can't he?
It's doubtful Jean CHRÉTIEN had the Revolutionary Knitting Circle in mind when Kananaskis Country - a 4,000-square-km swath of Rocky Mountain wilderness where grizzlies and cougars easily outnumber humans - emerged last summer as his surprise choice for the summit site (Ottawa or Calgary were considered more likely contenders). But the Prime Minister was clearly spooked by the violence that erupted during last year's G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, which left one 23-year-old activist dead and hundreds of protestors and police injured. "If the anarchists want to destroy democracy," vowed Chrétien, "we will not let them succeed."
Chrétien's solution was to secrete the eight heads of state and their closest associates in Kananaskis Village, where they will discuss the global economy, the war on terrorism and, above all, an ambitious Canadian-led initiative to lift the African continent out of poverty (including, ironically enough, a Third World debt relief program spearheaded by Paul Martin, whom Chrétien ousted from cabinet last week). Since the "village" consists of just two hotels, with about 400 rooms, and a small general store, other G8 delegates, along with some 2,500 visiting media representatives, will have to stay in Calgary. And with only one main road into Kananaskis Country, security forces stand an excellent chance of thwarting the sort of in-your-face protests that have become a fixture at international gatherings ever since the infamous "Battle of Seattle" during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999.
While outfoxing protestors may have been Chrétien's chief objective, bringing world leaders together in one place in the modern era also means taking account of terrorist threats. This, of course, became a far more pressing concern after Sept. 11. But in terms of blocking both protestors and potential terrorists, Kananaskis was an inspired choice, says John Thompson, a security analyst with the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute. "Kananaskis is remote countryside and no one can get into that mountain valley unobserved," explains Thompson. "It would be very difficult to deliver a credible threat to the conference site."
But protection comes at a price. By some estimates, hosting the G8 summit will cost up to $500 million, much of it to bankroll the largest security operation in Canadian peacetime history. In Calgary, where many of the protests are likely to be staged, all 1,400 members of the city police force will be on high alert. The city is also drawing support officers from 25 other police forces, some as far afield as Ontario. Kananaskis, meanwhile, will resemble an armed camp. Although security officials remain tight-lipped about their plans, it's expected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of RCMP and Canadian Forces personnel will patrol the woods, enforcing a 6.5-km security perimeter extending around the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, the main meeting site. The military will also oversee a 150-km no-fly zone over the summit site. Intruders will be intercepted and, if necessary, shot down using ground-to-air missiles and CF-18 fighter jet patrols.
In fact, security experts paint a scenario that seems more at home in a John le Carré thriller set in the Middle East than in the tranquil peaks and valleys of Kananaskis Country. Thompson expects the military to employ both ground-based and airborne thermal imagery technology to help distinguish between man and beast and detect "anything coming into the area walking on two legs rather than four." Sophisticated communications equipment should allow them to pick up suspicious radio transmissions, while counter-battery radars are used to spot the incoming trajectory of mortar shells or rockets. "We also shouldn't forget," says Thompson, "that Canada has some very, very good military snipers."
If that weren't enough to deter would-be troublemakers, security forces may have another ally - roaming wildlife. During a recent trip to Europe, Chrétien boasted to Italian journalists that the summit site is guarded "from the back by mountains, from the front by a river, from the south by an Indian village and from the north by 500 bears." While the Prime Minister was doubtless joking, some observers think he may have a point. "Grizzlies and moose might be a natural deterrent," says Jon Clark, one of only a handful of Albertans who lease cabin lots in Kananaskis Country. "Maybe that's the thing to do; put a lot of bear scat on the road to scare away intruders."
Calgary, almost by default, has become the focal point for those wishing to protest the G8 and all it stands for. From the outset, activists were deeply conflicted about staging demonstrations in Kananaskis Country, fearing they might damage the natural environment. For months, they touted a plan known as "solidarity village," a kind of anti-globalist's Woodstock that would have seen 10,000 or more camp out on lands near Kananaskis for a week of music, agitprop theatre and consciousness-raising workshops. Those hopes were dashed when both G8 organizers and the Stoney Indian band, which owns a vast tract of land near the summit site, failed to buy into the vision. The activists then scrambled to find a suitable site in Calgary, asking the city to let them pitch their tents in one of the urban parks. No way, responded Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier. "Park space is there for the people of this city to use and enjoy," he told Maclean's. "It's not at the behest of others who want to take it and abuse it."
The mayor's tough words reinforce Calgary's image as a law-and-order kind of town. "The 1960s are over," Bronconnier warns would-be protestors. "The world has changed. Calgarians won't tolerate unlawful protest. We want to ensure the cycle of violence that has been attracted to these events of late is broken."
To that end, the Calgary police department and other civic authorities are mapping out an elaborate security and emergency response plan. During the 36-hour summit, at least 100 vehicles will be added to the force's regular 500-vehicle fleet. The city police also paid $1.1 million to purchase two RG12 armoured military rescue vehicles - a staple of riot squads in the Middle East - that could be used to retrieve injured police, activists or bystanders if protests turn ugly. Officers are being outfitted with enough riot gear, gas masks and tear gas canisters to help fill a 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. Three Calgary courtrooms will be reserved and open 16 hours a day for processing arrested lawbreakers, and current inmates are being moved from provincial to federal jails to make room for the overflow. The Calgary Health Region, meanwhile, is installing special decontamination units to hose down tear gas and pepper spray victims. It is also making sure extra medical and hospital staff are on call.
Calgary deputy police chief Rick Hanson says that, in all instances, these are basic precautions, which authorities hope they do not have to use. "You prepare for the worst," observes Hanson, "and hope for the best."
Sarah Kerr simply shakes her head at the elaborate security measures being taken to deal with people, well, like her. A 35-year-old redhead with an easy smile, Kerr doesn't look or sound like a wild-eyed revolutionary. Kerr holds a master's degree in environmental studies and works as a sessional lecturer in sustainable community development at the University of Calgary. She is also a long-time activist and veteran of the Battle of Seattle, an event which she says served to radicalize her. "I saw the incredible extent to which the police and state are willing to go to shut us down," says Kerr as she nibbles on a salad at a restaurant near her home in Calgary's funky inner city Hillhurst-Sunnyside neighbourhood. "Conversely, I saw the incredible power of the people on the street. That was a big turning point for me."
Seattle exposed Kerr to another new experience: prison. After joining what she describes as a peaceful demonstration, Kerr says she found herself and hundreds of others corralled for four or five blocks by riot police and then fired upon with rubber bullets and tear gas. Several hundred people were arrested and taken to jail, where they deliberately slowed down the system by declining to give their names and refusing to be released unless all protestors were let go at the same time. "Seattle made me realize that jail is awful and tear gas and rubber bullets are horrible," says Kerr. "But I also learned they are all survivable."
Kerr says it's impossible to know if this month's G8 summit will feature Seattle-like conflict, though she insists the overwhelming majority of protestors are of peaceful intent. She also decries the way civil authorities and the media tend to fixate on the potential for violence. "We all know that if it bleeds, it leads," she says with a rueful smile. Not that Kerr expects much more of what she calls "the corporate media." Observes Kerr: "It's not in the interest of the mainstream media to tell our story very well. So we have to find other ways of getting our story out."
As part of that effort, Kerr spends a good deal of time talking to high school and university classes and community groups about what she sees as the perils of global capitalism. Her message is that organizations like the G8, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund "are designed by wealthy countries and work for wealthy countries and their elites." Social spending is meanwhile being axed so corporations can maximize profits. Despite Alberta's renowned conservatism, Kerr says she often enjoys a friendly reception. "You get 30 people in a room and ask them: who is having to raise funds for school supplies that used to be paid for? Who knows someone affected by health-care cuts? Who has a family member or friend who lost their job because the company moved south? And people nod and say, 'Yeah.' "
For all the obstacles being placed in their way, Kerr still expects thousands of visiting activists and ordinary Albertans to join in the protests. "People used to look at these big demonstrations and wonder: 'Who are those crazy people?' " she says. "Now they say, 'Hmmm, I wonder if my niece is in that?' " Heck, some of them might even be brandishing knitting needles.
Is It Really Worth It?
Gathering together the world's leaders is an increasingly costly proposition. The last time Canada was host to what was then the Group of 7 leaders in Halifax in 1995, the price tag was a mere $28 million. Last year's Genoa summit cost the Italian government $225 million, and many expect the bill for the G8 summit in Kananaskis to be at least double that. Such hyperinflation has critics across the political spectrum questioning if it is money well spent.
Lynn Foster is a Calgary-based peace and human rights activist who is helping to organize the G6B (Group of Six Billion, referring to the world's population) conference to be held at the University of Calgary from June 21-25. The alternative forum will examine global policies aimed, among other things, at promoting economic equality, human rights and environmental protection. Foster notes caustically that the cost of the Kananaskis summit may be roughly equal to the $500 million in foreign aid Ottawa is pledging as part of its overall African relief initiative. "Cancel the meeting," she says, "and we could double our contribution."
Michael Walker, executive director of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a right-wing think-tank, comes to a similar conclusion, but from a very different perspective. Walker notes that much of the heavy lifting in global policy is done in other forums, including the World Trade Organization and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. By comparison, the G8, he says, is little more than a glorified photo op for the attending leaders, and one that has become an expensive and risky magnet for protest to boot. "It's providing an opportunity for malignant people to demonstrate and spread their venom and paranoia," says Walker. "It just strikes me that it may be time to wind this thing down."
Maclean's June 17, 2002