When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien proudly announced that the Rocky Mountain resort community of Kananaskis would be the site for the June 2002 summit of G8 leaders, officials in nearby Calgary quietly cringed. With Kananaskis isolated under an unprecedented security net, it was predicted that Calgary would become the base camp for thousands of protesters.
Images of rock-throwing anarchists and police in full riot gear, tragically evident in recent major gatherings in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, were not how the city wanted to be remembered by the world. Just a year earlier, Calgary had suc- cessfully hosted the World Petroleum Congress with only moderate amounts of anti-globalization protest, but the G8 event had the potential to raise the stakes considerably.
The mood in the city was close to unanimous””one poll found that 99 per cent of city residents did not want to see violent protest in their backyards. But police and military authorities stated from the outset that they had learned les- sons from Seattle, Quebec City and elsewhere and that they would implement them in Kananaskis.
There was much to learn. In Seattle, 450 officers were initially assigned to secure the meeting of the World Trade Organization and quickly found themselves overwhelmed by 40,000 anti-globalization activists. Five months later, at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, the security force grew to more than 6,500, who struggled to protect a 3.8-kilometre, four-metre-high steel fence. They couldn’t stop violent protesters from lobbing stones, tear-gas canis- ters and even a few Molotov cocktails.
Police officers were also brought in from across the country for Kananaskis, and eventually outnumbered the 800 protestors who showed up by a factor of six to one. But there was much more to the security strategy than muscle. Police committed to building a relationship with non-vio- lent protesters and offered to assist in facilitating events by academics, labour unions and others involved in the global justice movement. Equally importantly, however, police and politicians sent blunt messages that those bent on vio- lence not only would be unwelcome, but would also face the full force of the law.
Dave Bronconnier, Calgary’s first-term mayor, took a hard line from the outset, warning protesters they would find the prairie climate harsh indeed. ”œWe’re doing a lot to prepare for that eventuality,” he declared. ”œIt’s called 400 rooms at Spy Hill [a local jail, cleared of prisoners in preparation for the summit], it’s called anoth- er warehouse in downtown Calgary, it’s called the remand centre.”
Peaceful protesters claim the mayor was tar- geting more than a violent fringe. They maintain they were frustrated at every turn in efforts to secure a site for their proposed Solidarity Village, a base camp for their global justice message. Months of negotiations with the Stoney Nation for use of reserve land near the Kananaskis site collapsed just a month before the summit. (It was later revealed the Stoneys received $300,000 from the federal government to cover ”œsecurity costs,” a payout protesters dismissed as a payoff.)
The coalition turned to Calgary, hoping for use of a city park. But the City refused to issue a permit until a last-minute compromise was reached under the threat of a court challenge. Still, Bronconnier indicated he believed the pro- testers’ festival would inevitably be infiltrated by troublemakers. The Global Justice Coalition, com- prising of trade unions, non-government organi- zations, academics and other activists, reacted angrily to what they viewed as stonewalling. ”œI find it sickening the level to which the City and other levels of government are willing to go to prevent us from peacefully gathering… We have been thwarted at every turn,” said Sarah Kerr, a Solidarity Village organizer.
In the security-conscious climate post-9/11, Chrétien was determined this summit would be unlike any other in recent memory. The remote location was chosen specifically to be out of the reach of violent protesters. He joked with reporters in May that he chose Kananaskis because it is guarded ”œfrom the back by moun- tains, from the front by a river, from the south by an Indian village and from the north by 500 bears.” (In an ironic twist, the only bear discov- ered near the site during the meeting was fright- ened out of a tree and fatally shot by security forces.)
Police have also became much more sophisticated at intelligence operations. Security forces quietly confirmed they were monitoring activist websites and had infiltrated protest groups with officers. They confidently predicted that they could accurately predict the number of anti-sum- mit activists coming a full 48 hours before the summit began. Police later confirmed that offi- cers attended protest marches undercover.
Intelligence was complemented with brute force. Leading up to the summit, there was a dazzling show of police presence and military hard- ware. F-18 fighter jets and helicopters patrolled the skies constantly, major thoroughfares were closed to accommodate motorcades of leaders and the City developed a unique water cannon, for which it has since sought a patent. At an estimated cost of $300 million, the two-day Kananaskis summit was the largest peacetime security operation ever undertaken in Canada. Downtown Calgary resem- bled an armed camp, with retailers boarding up windows and grimly preparing for conflict.
The effort was punctuated by the remarks of Brigadier-General Ivan Fenton, who told media his men were prepared to use any force needed to keep leaders free from harm. ”œWe are very seri- ous…we have lethal weapons and we will use force if we think there is a serious threat,” Fenton said. He explained that truly dangerous activists and ”œlimelight seekers” might try to use peaceful protesters as a cover to slip into the summit site, and if a confrontation developed in the dark, forested environment of Kananaskis, innocent protesters might get hurt. In the end, the protest- ers who got closest to the site were a group of postal workers who were stopped 17 kilometres away. One of their number became the only pro- tester arrested during the summit.
Activists like Kerr feel the police and military message intimidated some protesters into staying away. ”œThey freaked a lot of people out,” she said. Bicycle-mounted police, however, also made extraordinary efforts to appear friendly, low-key and accommodating during the summit. There were numerous reports of officers offering helpful advice to protesters, and the riot gear was kept out of sight until it was needed. It never was. In the end, the biggest conflict was a half-hour standoff in front of a McDonald’s restaurant, which ended without a clash. Protesters surprised authorities by actively discouraging those among their number who advocated violence. Instead, they used humour to get their message across: flashing bare bottoms painted with anti-globalization messages to TV cameras sent to Calgary to record bloodshed.
By the end of the summit, everyone was pre- pared to take a share of the credit: Chrétien for choice of the remote location, police for sophistication and restraint, and protesters for self-discipline and humour. And with no violence for the cameras to record, the global justice mes- sage got more airtime on television, activists observed.
Kerr accused police of engaging quietly in unethical practices and spreading ”œscare stories.” She noted that one landowner just outside Calgary was prepared to rent his property to the solidarity group for $10,000 until he was visited by authori- ties. Overnight, the price rose to $100,000.
Unlike in Quebec City, however, there were very few complaints over police behaviour. The Police Ethics Commission of Quebec, an inde- pendent police watchdog, received more than 100 formal complaints; in Calgary, there were fewer than a dozen complaints, and for minor offences, such as failing to wear proper identification.
Almost lost in the euphoria of the moment are voices that question whether the democratic right to dissent was sacrificed in the name of secu- rity. ”œLegitimate dissent is being suppressed””and this is unfortunate,” said Bill Warden, a former diplomat in South America and Africa and the G8 director for the University of Calgary. Dissecting the summit, he wrote in the Calgary Herald: ”œThe question has to be asked. Was there a colossal failure of the intelligence services in fail- ing to foresee the lack of protester mobilization into Calgary? Or did the security people, knowingly stampede the public into a state of fear?” Arguing that authorities knew there was never the slightest chance that protests on the scale of Seattle or Quebec City would occur in Calgary, Warden speculated: ”œBy building up the threat to apocalyptic proportions, they were able to cajole millions of taxpayer dollars out of the system to fund hundreds of new positions and all manner of new gadgetry.” He argued that height- ened security leads to a ”œde-legitimization of dis- sent… The result has been the blurring in the public mind of any difference between non-vio- lent and violent protesters, even though the lat- ter group comprises no more than one per cent of the total.”
Police respond that their efforts prevented significant potential property damage and per- haps even saved lives. RCMP chief superintend- ent Lloyd Hickman said the Kananaskis approach, with its remote location, is a model for future summits. Their sentiment received over- whelming public support, expressed through let- ters to the editor. It appears that, in an age of heightened security concerns, the public is pre- pared to tolerate what they consider reasonable limits on their freedom.