This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 14, 2009
The G8 Go to Muskoka
Everyone in HUNTSVILLE, Ont., knows you've got to plant your garden early. "As soon as the frost is gone," insists John Gibson, a former Toronto firefighter who retired to Huntsville with his wife, Jean. Gibson grew up gardening, so when he and Jean moved out of their house into a condominium downtown, he made sure to get a little plot of land in the community gardens at the fairground - land he uses to grow beans, peas and tomatoes. But when the likes of Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy roll into town next summer for the 2010 G8 summit, the soft-spoken retiree might have to find himself a new pastime. "We've been told we won't have access to [our garden] because the military will [move to] a new building on the fairground," Gibson says.
After months of casting around for the perfect spot, the federal government announced in June that Huntsville's Deerhurst Resort would host the 35th annual summit, which unites eight national leaders from the northern hemisphere for three days. Since then, the town of 18,500 - known best as a hot spot for affluent cottagers - has been abuzz.
Gibson doesn't plan to make a fuss. "We'll go with the flow," he says. But not everyone is so accommodating. Already, locals are getting a taste for what they can expect in June 2010. For one, they're seeing a lot more of federal Industry Minister Tony Clement, who represents their Parry Sound-Muskoka riding - so much more that he's earned himself a new nickname: "Uncle Tony." Catherine Oakden, who lives in the area year-round, has "noticed a helicopter flying over." Debbie Court, president of the Peninsula Lake Association, has spotted what she thinks is "a coast guard boat mapping the lake." And David Waldron, who rents a waterfront place there every summer, says the OPP has been out on the lakes for the first time in a long time, mostly to give boaters tickets for minor boating violations. "I think they're just practising pulling people over," he speculates.
But for everything that people see, there are many more things they only hear about. "The rumour mills got started right off the bat," admits Court. Stories are circulating about military submarines patrolling the lakes, and secret service agents combing through the town. Many fear a "lockdown" will effectively make them prisoners for the summit's duration. "There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there," says Tamara de la Vega, news editor of the Huntsville Forester. Last month, her paper launched a feature - "Have you heard? The facts and fiction behind G8 rumours" - which invites submissions from readers. One wrote in that "anyone with a criminal record ... will be rounded up next June and put into a temporary jail currently being secretly built in North Bay." Others fretted about rocket launchers. It's clear, says de la Vega, that Huntsville is on edge. "Anything that seems a little oddball or a little off, people are attributing to the G8 summit."
That's why the G8 Integrated Security Unit (ISU) - a coalition of provincial and federal forces that has set up shop in town - has embarked on a public relations blitz. Since July, the group has been hosting town hall meetings and going door to door. Waldron says he was sitting in his living room last weekend when "a burly Englishman wearing an Australian rugby shirt with a gun strapped to his belt" showed up, claiming to be from the ONTARIO PROVINCIAL POLICE and wanting to discuss the G8. Waldron says he asked to see ID, but his request was brushed aside. "He said, I'm a police officer. The gun proves that," Waldron claims. "And I said, 'No, the gun proves you're armed.' " Eventually, the man - who he guessed was British secret service - left some pamphlets. "I just thought it was a very odd approach to the whole thing," says Waldron, who adds that the official told neighbouring cottagers that rafts placed too far from shore would be towed and destroyed.
"You have two camps" up here, Oakden explains. One, she says, is hung up on the inconvenience. A number of real restrictions have indeed been announced. Apart from highway closures and security checkpoints, there will be "total marine exclusion zones," barring cottagers from operating boats for about a week. "That includes rowboats!" Waldron protests. And residents within "a certain security zone" will have to receive proper accreditation to access their homes.
But Oakden says that she, for one, is in the second camp - ready to welcome the Summit Management Office that will be set up next month. "I think it's exciting that the world is coming to Hunstville," she beams.
Plenty of locals admit they're getting a handsome payout for the trouble they'll endure: $50 million, to be precise. That's the amount the town will receive through the G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund, to allow it to renovate bridges, fix public washrooms, and build a 30,000-sq.-foot research facility that will house the University of Waterloo's relocated environmental studies program. "It couldn't get any better," said Mayor Claude Doughty early this month. "If you are in the tourism business, this is the Super Bowl."
Many also hope to cash in personally by renting their cottages to foreign dignitaries. Sheila Givens, managing director of Ontario Cottage Rentals, says she's heard from hundreds of cottagers who want to make their properties available - many of whom have never rented before. Some, she says, have pledged to bring in high-end amenities - high-speed internet, satellite TV, and linen service - to give themselves a leg up in what they expect will be a brutal bidding war. Hopes may be somewhat inflated. Givens says she's only received a few calls from people looking to book. People expect to get paid "scandalous amounts for their little shabby cottages," she says. "That's not going to happen."
The thing is, says local Kate Heming, "this is the biggest thing to ever happen to this town." Heming is working on a documentary about G8 preparations, tentatively called Hello World: This is Huntsville. She swears that when you brush aside those who are "worried about windows being smashed," you find a town marked by "an intense sense of optimism" - especially about Obama's Muskoka debut. As for those who won't quite join Hunstville's big community bear hug - Waldron won't rent a cottage here next summer, and Gibson, with his veggie garden off-limits, will spend June visiting his son. One or two wonder if it all could have been avoided. At one town meeting, a challenger stood up to ask a difficult question: why couldn't the G8 summit have been a conference call?
Maclean's September 14, 2009