G8/G20: Critics decry Canada's $1.1bn summits bill

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Artist's rendition of the water feature at the G20 media centre in Toronto (image provided by Canadian government)
Image caption,
Critics see a "fake lake" in the media centre as a symbol of wasteful spending

Many Canadians have been cringing at the ballooning $1.1bn (US$1.1bn; £730m) bill to host this week's G8 and G20 summits.

While a staggering 90% of the summits' budget is for security, it is a "fake lake" which has come to symbolise what many critics see as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's extravagant spending.

The temporary water feature is intended to impress the 3,000-strong contingent of journalists who will be housed at a $2m international media centre in Toronto.

The display - which promises a shallow pool, a deck, deckchairs and canoes - is intended to promote the Muskoka region, the picturesque lakeland setting north of Toronto where the G8 leaders will meet.

The G20 summit will be held in Toronto after the G8.

Ironically, the "fake lake" is just a stone's throw from the real thing - Lake Ontario, one of the world's biggest lakes.

Although the water feature cost $57,000 - not the $2m initially reported in the Canadian media - Mr Harper's opponents ridiculed the plans.

Opposition Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff described the double summit as "the world's most expensive photo-op".

All Canada got in return for a $1bn investment, he told the House of Commons in Ottawa, was a "lousy fake lake".

Mr Ignatieff also expressed concern about the signal Canada was sending to the international community at a time of global financial crisis.

"How can the prime minister preach austerity and restraint to Canadians and his G20 colleagues when he has lost control of the cost of his own summit?" he asked.

Mr Harper has been defending the artificial lake, part of the Experience Canada pavilion, as a great opportunity for Canadian tourism.

"There are thousands of visitors from around the world. This is a classic attempt for us to market the country," he told the House of Commons recently to jeers from the opposition.

The Council of Canadians, an activist group, has applied to have the water feature officially named "Harper's Folly".


The "Fake Lake-gate" row comes amid concerns about the hefty security bill. At nearly $1bn, it dwarfs figures for previous summits.

Image caption,
Security has been stepped up in Toronto ahead of the two summits

The "lockdown" of Toronto includes a 3m-high (10ft), 3.5km (2.2-mile) concrete and metal fence enclosing the G20 meeting area; a huge security presence; the shutting down of banks and theatres; and the closing of one of Canada's most famous tourist attractions - the CN Tower.

The Deerhurst resort where the G8 leaders are to meet will be virtually cut-off, amid heavy security.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who describes the challenge of hosting two back-to-back summits as "unprecedented", has defended the enormous security price-tag.

"The cost is expensive, but the security is worth it," Mr Toews told the House of Commons last month.

The minister pointed to the May firebombing of an Ottawa bank as a prime example of the necessity to be "prepared to face thugs and terrorists". Three men have since been charged with arson and other offences - and they could still face terror charges.

On Tuesday, a 37-year-old man was charged with possession of explosives in Toronto, in what police said was an arrest related to the G20 summit.

'Unnecessary' summits

Earlier this week, the head of Canada's intelligence service (CSIS) told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) there was "surprisingly little" chatter on the "terrorism front" but he was concerned about "anarchist groups and multi-issue extremists".

Last week, the US issued a travel alert advising its citizens to avoid Toronto during the summits. Toronto's mayor described the alert as an over-reaction.

The Council of Canadians says its ticket-only, anti-summits protest scheduled for later this week in Toronto is already sold out.

The organisation wants to see "undemocratic G-style" summits scrapped.

The council's chair, Maude Barlow, told the BBC the summits were "unnecessary".

"It's a show of strength. Big dinner, big photo op… we can't afford it," she said.

"They preach austerity to workers, families and people who need assistance during financial crisis or its aftermath. It doesn't go for them, the big summits or their friends in business."

Kevin Gaudet, of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a watchdog that promotes cuts in government spending, said world leaders already had enough opportunities to meet.

"There is no shortage of summits; Nato, Norad, Asean, the OAS," he said.

"They are spending $1.2bn on a gabfest on how to get government spending under control. The irony seems lost on them."

'Ridiculously overspent'

The mood in the streets of Ottawa's trendy Byward Market - just around the corner from Parliament Hill - is equally cynical.

Image caption,
Chef John Taylor says holding the two summits is a waste of money

"Too much money," said pensioner Hans Koeck. "They could stay home and Skype and come up with the same things."

"I think it's probably an incredible waste of money," said chef John Taylor.

"There are places in the world set up for this security specifically - the UN for example."

Chris Schmidt, a social worker, believes the government has "ridiculously overspent".

"The security cost overruns are just inexcusable," he said.

His partner and fellow social worker, Kathleen Szirtes, is concerned that ordinary citizens are being excluded. She wants to see more local forums.

"There's got to be some way for it to be more inclusive," she said.

In the meantime, that fake lake row just won't go away. A peaceful pre-summit protest attracting 200 people in Toronto earlier this week featured a banner which said: "A fake lake or human rights?"

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