Monday, January 10, 2011

Exhibition Place was Harper government’s first choice for G20 Summit in Toronto; Privy Council Office denying access to key records

Besides the excessive force, mass arrests, and severe violations of civil rights of protesters, bystanders and journalists by the police — and for being a colossal waste of time and money — last summer’s G20 Summit will be remembered for the Harper government’s breathtaking stupidity in deciding to hold the event in downtown Toronto.

The original site for the high-powered gabfest was in Huntsville, Ont., two hours north of Toronto, back to back with the smaller G8 meeting on June 25-27. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made that announcement on September 29, 2009, during the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

However, within weeks of the announcement, the Harper government was making plans to relocate the summit over concerns that the northern resort region was too small to handle such a large undertaking.

On November 18, 2009, the Globe and Mail cited anonymous federal and provincial government sources as saying the G20 Summit was headed for Toronto.

Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty said in the article he was warned weeks earlier that organizers were thinking of moving the G20. [Tories plan to move G20 summit to Toronto (Globe and Mail, November 18, 2009)]

The following day, the National Post confirmed that the Prime Minister’s Office was considering whether to move the G20 to Toronto or the surrounding area.

“We haven’t made a decision with respect to location,” said Sara MacIntyre, associate press secretary for the Prime Minister.

Toronto’s then deputy mayor and chair of Exhibition Place, Joe Pantalone, would “neither confirm nor deny” discussions have taken place about a move. But he touted Exhibition Place as the “obvious” location for the G20 meetings should they be moved to Toronto, with banquet facilities for 3,000 at the brand-new [160,000-square-foot] Allstream Centre, the city’s 40,000 hotel rooms a short shuttle ride away and the easily “cordoned off” grounds and diverse population acting as a home “constituency” for the 20 heads of state and their entourages.

Exhibition Place and the Allstream Centre is also very close to transportation, like the Gardiner, the Lake Shore, even the Island Airport is literally a few blocks away,” said Pantalone. “In terms of a premier location, well, it could happen should the Prime Minister so choose. It’s an obvious place.” [PMO may move the G20 summit out of Huntsville (National Post, November 19, 2009)]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally put the rumours to rest on December 7, 2009, when he announced that Toronto would host the G20 Summit on June 26 and 27, 2010. The Prime Minister made the announcement with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during their meeting in Seoul. However, Harper didn’t say where in Toronto the meeting would be held. That was left for the media to take care of.

On December 8, 2009, the National Post and Toronto Star both reported that the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) would host the event.

While federal officials would not confirm the summit’s location, Pantalone said in an interview with the Post he was told it would be held at the convention centre on Front Street – though, as chair of the board of governors for Exhibition Place, he was pushing for the Ex. [Convention centre tipped to host G20 (National Post, December 8, 2009)]

The Toronto Star apparently learned the same news through Tourism Toronto.

The Star also reported that when the federal government first began musing whether Huntsville could handle both summits, “rumours swirled the G20 would get moved to the new Allstream Centre at Exhibition Place, a location that would enable a security perimeter without shutting downtown thoroughfares.” [G20 to play here with all that jazz (Toronto Star, December 8, 2009)]

This is a key point worth remembering.

Nine days later, the Star reported that city staff was told the MTCC would host the G20. And still there was no formal announcement from the Harper government.

Pantalone said in an interview he was surprised when G20 organizers told him the summit would be held at the convention centre, home to the 1988 G7 conference.

“The realities of the size have changed,” he said. “If you hold it at Front and University, basically you are going to seriously affect the life and the city around there.”

City staff had recommended the summit be held at the Allstream Centre allowing security personnel to set up a perimeter without shutting the downtown.

According to the article, others said the accessibility of the MTCC gives it the edge. Only one bus and two streetcars reach the Allstream Centre.

Although Exhibition Place is easy to secure, the MTCC is more secure for motorcade arrivals because of its underground entrance, said security expert and former RCMP officer Chris Mathers. [Can city core handle the G20 - and Halladay’s return? (Toronto Star, December 17, 2009)]

The two reasons for favouring the MTCC seem pretty weak.

How many world leaders, delegates and media attending the G20 would use public transit to get to the meetings? The answer is likely none.

As for secure entrances, the Allstream Centre has an underground walkway linking the Centre to underground parking and Direct Energy Centre, the country’s largest exhibition and convention centre, across the street.

Furthermore, whether it’s the MTTC downtown or the Allstream Centre at Exhibition Place, both locations require using surface routes, which would no doubt be heavily patrolled, to get there.

The weeks went by as the Harper government remained silent.

On February 10, 2010, the Canadian Press, citing sources, reported that the MTTC had been selected to hold the G20 summit over locations outside downtown.

Canada has already hosted a G8 summit and other international meetings in the building. Plus, it gives the government a chance to put the spotlight on its stable financial district -- safe and quiet within a security perimeter -- at a time when G20 leaders are looking for role models, the news agency said.

“The whole point is to showcase Canada as an attractive place to do business and the way we regulate our banking sector,” said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the prime minister.

“We have a good story and we want it told well,” he said, without confirming the location. [T.O.’s convention centre to host G20 conference (The Canadian Press, February 10, 2010)]

So it really had nothing to do with buses, streetcars, security perimeters or underground entrances. It was to attract potential investors.

The Canadian Press followed-up two days later with a story about how the Harper government went “over the heads of the City of Toronto in placing the G20 economic summit in the heart of the downtown core.”

Toronto had been urging Ottawa to locate the meetings at Exhibition Place. That’s because the city believed holding the event in the core could cause major disruptions for business and traffic, and numerous security challenges, the news agency said.

“We made no secret that we thought Exhibition Place would be a great venue,” said Stuart Green, spokesman for Mayor David Miller. “Those decisions were made by the federal government.”

The city councillor whose ward contains the summit site was already upset.

The federal government selected the downtown location without public consultation, ignoring local concerns about cost and disruption, Coun. Adam Vaughan said in a letter he sent to local residents.

“We need them to start working with us, and that means listening to us, and quite clearly, the folks up in Ottawa are much better at talking than listening,” Vaughan said. [Toronto doesn’t want G20 meeting downtown (CBC News, February 12, 2010)]

Green also had this to say in the Globe: “The mayor has made it clear on a number of occasions that his preference was for Exhibition Place: It’s modern, it’s environmentally friendly, it’s an area that’s easily cordoned off. There are a number of reasons he thought it would be better. But ultimately it’s up to Ottawa.”

Vaughan added: “The site’s been chosen ‘cause it’s a great photo-op. I’m not sure that’s the best way to choose the location for something as complex as this, and something as intricately woven,” he said, adding that he’s also concerned about security issues at the high-traffic convention centre, which is close to the subway, PATH system and abuts numerous condominiums and office buildings.

“The impact on my ward is significant, and my constituents have a right to know what’s going on.”

Andrew MacDougall, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said the government is consulting with the city and will officially announce the venue “in due course.” [G20 venue puts Toronto, Ottawa at loggerheads (Globe and Mail, February 12, 2010)]

After more than two months of foot-dragging, the Harper government finally announced the event’s worst kept secret on February 19, 2010. A federal government news release lists a number of unconvincing factors that contributed to the selection of the MTCC as the G20 venue, including:

Accessible location: within walking distance of more than 12,000 hotel rooms;
Facility size: two million square feet of flexible space to accommodate the meeting, work areas, and dining needs of 10,000 delegates;
Security experience: long-standing working relationships with high-security teams, including the RCMP, Toronto Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police and the United States Secret Service;
Proximity to the airport: the MTCC is a 20-minute drive from Pearson International Airport; and
Technology: state-of-the-art technology and telecommunications infrastructure with a skilled team of technology specialists.

Oddly, the MTTC website states that the venue “has over 600,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space” so it’s unclear where the Harper government got its two million square feet figure from.

The Allstream Centre and Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place would enable a security perimeter without shutting downtown thoroughfares. The buildings boast more than 1.16 million square feet of combined flexible convention space and are within minutes of downtown. Both are just a 20-minute drive from Pearson International Airport and 3 minutes from Toronto City Centre Airport. And the two facilities offer state-of-the-art technology and telecommunications infrastructure.

Following the federal government’s announcement, the mayor’s spokesman, Stuart Green, said the city conceded defeat on the matter and was prepared to work co-operatively with summit organizers.

“We accept their reasons, we understand their reasons and we’re absolutely committed to working with them to make sure (the event) is safe, secure and successful,” Green said in an interview.

According to the Canadian Press, the final decision was ultimately made by Ottawa. RCMP Chief Supt. Alphonse MacNeil said it came down to security.

“By having it here in close proximity to major hotels and things of that nature, our overall (security) footprint will be minimized,” he said.

“That’s important for security and that’s also very important for the citizens of Toronto who want to see the least amount of disruption.” [Ottawa to pick up security tab for G20 summit (CTV News, February 19, 2010)]

MacNeil could not have been more wrong. Because of the summit other major events were disrupted; there was chaos, violence and vandalism; a ridiculous 9.7 kilometer security fence around the G20 perimeter and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s big lie about a five-metre rule that had people fearing arrest if they wandered too close; police harassment and misconduct; the largest mass arrests in Canadian history; nearly $1 billion spent on security; Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s illegal and unconstitutional regulation, which enabled police to detain people during the summit; and, the Toronto Police’s subsequent refusal to cooperate with Ontario Ombudsman André Marin’s probe into the debacle.

And when the summit was over, Toronto Mayor David Miller laid the blame on the Harper government’s doorstep.

In an interview with the Toronto Star on June 28, 2010, Miller said the vandalism and mass arrests were the result of Ottawa’s bad planning, not the actions of police.

Miller also said some of what transpired could have been avoided had Ottawa listened to his pleas to hold the meeting at Exhibition Place, instead of at the MTTC, in the heart of downtown.

“From the beginning, the City of Toronto said it should be held at Exhibition Place, which is self contained and already has a perimeter,” rather than downtown, he said, adding Torontonians felt “uncomfortable” with the fencing of a security zone around the convention centre.

“Clearly, violent criminals would have come here wherever it was held, but I think the impact would have been quite different if it was held at Exhibition Place. I think the decision (to hold the G20 downtown) was unfortunate and some what happened can be traced back to that decision.” [Miller pushes for compensation, blames Ottawa for G20 chaos (Toronto Star, June 28, 2010)]

In a second interview with the Star on June 29, 2010, Miller said that the Harper government routinely ignored or discounted advice from Toronto in the run-up to the G20 summit - including Miller’s own, repeated pleas to hold the event at the grounds of Exhibition Place.

According to the Star, Miller said that when he originally endorsed the choice of Toronto for the G20 event last December, he had been told it was being held on the CNE grounds, far away from the downtown core.

But, as with the decision to announce Toronto as the summit site, Miller says that Toronto officials were also not consulted when the event was moved to the convention centre.

In fact, the mayor said he’d argued strenuously against the convention-centre venue at a briefing he received on Ottawa’s summit plans. Miller recounts events this way:

“The federal government had been speaking through the RCMP to Toronto police because they were working with them on the G8-G20 in Huntsville,” he said. At some point [in fall 2009], Miller said, Toronto police officials gave him a heads-up that the G20 could be held in Toronto.

“Subsequent to that, the federal government began negotiating with Exhibition Place and, from my perspective, had reached an agreement with Exhibition Place - certainly an agreement in principle.”

It was after this, Miller said, that he received a perfunctory call from the Prime Minister’s Office, asking whether he had any objections to the G20 being held in Toronto.

“We indicated no, on the understanding at the time that an agreement had been reached to host it at Exhibition Place.”

The federal government announced Toronto as the G20 site in early December, without specifying formally where the event would be held. But Miller said he soon started hearing - again, indirectly - that there was talk of moving the event to the Metro Convention Centre.

“We pushed very strongly to change that decision because I was very worried that you couldn’t have an event like this in the middle of downtown Toronto,” said Miller. He said he made this argument in a private briefing with federal officials preparing the summit, but his advice was ignored. [Toronto’s advice ignored on G20, Miller says (Toronto Star, June 29, 2010)]

Records recently obtained under the federal Access to Information Act seem to confirm Miller’s story.

On July 12, 2010, an access request was submitted to the Privy Council Office (PCO) in Ottawa for “copies of any briefing notes, including attachments, since January 1, 2010, by the Office of the Coordinator for 2010 Olympics and G8 Security regarding or relating to security for the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto; and, also copies of any formal letters, including attachments, since January 1, 2010, from the Office of the Coordinator for 2010 Olympics and G8 Security to Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Rick Bartolucci regarding or relating to security for the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto.”

In a letter dated November 9, 2010, the PCO informed that 119 pages responsive to the request had been located, 92 of which were being withheld in their entirety. Of the remaining 27 pages only 9 were fully disclosed. This truly is a government with something to hide.

A memorandum for the Prime Minister dated February 25, 2010, by the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Wayne G. Wouters, shows that on February 17, 2010, Ward Elcock, Coordinator for 2010 Olympic and G8 Security; Peter McGovern, Assistant Deputy Minister, Summits Management Office, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada; and Chief Superintendent Alphonse MacNeil from the RCMP met with Mayor Miller.

“The purpose of the meeting was to brief the Mayor on the G20 Summit security plan and to provide an explanation for moving the G20 Summit from the Allstream Centre to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC). The Mayor has publicly stated his preference that the G20 take place at the Allstream Centre,” the document states. PCO officials blacked out the next two and a half pages leaving the story unfinished.

Attached to the memorandum was a proposed letter to Mayor Miller that Wouters recommend the Prime Minister sign. The letter offers little new information except to confirm that “collaboration” between federal officials and the city manager had taken place “in recent months.” Collaboration and consultation are two different things.

Another interesting tidbit is that the “major cost drivers” of the G8/G20 Summits were salary and overtime for security personnel, accommodations, and infrastructure and telecommunications upgrades. So it would appear that the police, the hotel and restaurant industry, and telecommunications firms were among the lucky ones to benefit from the summit.

The purpose of the security fence around the hotels and the meeting site was to “allow for the free and unrestricted movement of International Protected Persons’ motorcades to and from the meeting site.” To hell with the surrounding businesses and other events planned for that weekend. As long as the VIP’s were happy and comfortable that’s what mattered most.

In an undated memorandum to the Prime Minister, Wouters cites “concern over the number of extra-curricular activities and meetings being planned on top of the G8/G20.”

The document reveals that the Summits Management Office had “received numerous requests from delegations for extra-curricular activities and bilateral meetings outside the G8-G20 Controlled and Restricted Access Zones (CAZ/RAZ).” The document goes on to say, “These types of extra-curricular programs would require significant incremental resources that security partners cannot afford to divert from the primary task of securing Internationally Protected Persons (IPPs) during the summits.” Unfortunately, most of the three-page report was censored so there is no telling how the issue was resolved.

The documents also show a contradiction in the number of security personnel that were required for the G8/G20 Summits. One suggests the number was 17,500 while another said 23,000 was needed.

The lower number included: 5,033 RCMP (Regular Members only), 4,800 Toronto Police Service (police only), 3,000 Ontario Provincial Police, 650 Peel Regional Police, 2,825 Canadian Forces and 1,164 Private Security.

“Currently, the RCMP has filled 80% of the positions necessary to ensure security for both events,” the undated memorandum states. A breakdown of the 23,000 figure was not provided.

The RCMP was the overall lead for the security of the two summits. The RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit (ISU) was responsible for G8 and G20 security planning and delivery. The costs and personnel required to stage the events are generally known. However, the one thing that the Harper government is refusing to disclose is the threat level that the plans were based upon. Apparently, letting this information out into the public domain could be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, the defence of Canada or any state allied or associated with Canada or the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities.

It should be noted that the violence and vandalism associated with the G20 was confined to a roughly 90-minute span in the downtown core on the afternoon of June 26, 2010. In the end, the peaceful protesters and innocent passerby had more to fear from the police than the other way around. Whatever the threat level the response was excessive and over-the-top.