Summer is arriving in Canada. And so is the world. As the leaders of the major economic powers of the planet prepare to converge on Canada, the Prime Minister makes clear that he wants this gathering to be informal, isolated and, above all, kept away from the media.

Sound familiar? It should. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken this approach to the 2010 summits of G8 and G20 leaders in Huntsville and Toronto, the formula goes all the way back to Pierre Trudeau and the very first summit of this type that Canada hosted, nearly 30 years ago, in late July 1981.

Back then, when Canada was preparing to be the host of the G7 leaders’ summit at Montebello, Quebec, the marching orders were clear, — as Patrick Gossage, Trudeau’s press secretary, recalled in his memoirs of the time. “The PM had longheld ideas about how summits should be run,” Gossage wrote in his 1987 book, Close to the Charisma. ”His ideal was one during which the heads of government or state were freed of their armies of aides, released from pre-cooked communiqués, and kept away from the pressures of the press. He firmly believed that only then would they be able to discuss real problems like adults, responsible leaders, and intelligent caring citizens of the world. The Montebello site had been chosen to maximize isolation, to minimize regular press contact and the minute-by-minute pressure to make news.”

Montebello, a massive, log-cabin resort about an hour outside Ottawa, thus became the first display of Canada’s hosting duties after the nation was admitted to the exclusive club of the G5 — then G7, then G8, now G20 — group of dominant world economic powers. Canada would go on, in subsequent decades, to hold three more such summits, and now, in 2010, it is poised to hold its fifth such gathering. There will be the fuss — and the critics who say this is much ado about nothing. There will be complaints from the media — that the security and isolation are unprecedented and unwelcome. But the spectacle that will unfold in Canada in late June, in Huntsville (for the G8) and in Toronto (for the G20), is following a well-worn path in this nation’s history of summit-hosting. The gatherings to be held in Canada in 2010 are borrowing on the experience of the past and are, in many ways, a hybrid mix of trails already blazed in Canadian summitry.

Derek Burney is a self-styled “summit groupie” who was the chief administrator of that very first summit at Montebello, and who went on to see things from other sides of the organizing desk in subsequent years, as chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the second summit in Toronto in 1988 and as an active, engaged observer in years beyond. Earlier this year, Burney held a special Canada-Korea session at Carleton University devoted to summit preparation. If there is anyone in Canada who knows what it takes to put on a summit, it is Burney.

Security was a huge concern for the summit organizers in 1981, for very good reason. Newly elected US President Ronald Reagan had been wounded in an assassination attempt in March, and the Pope had been shot in May of that year.

“There was a lot of tension around the issue of security,” Burney recalls. Today, Canadians may be more accustomed to huge security operations surrounding political events, but back then, there was much public fascination with measures being taken to keep the leaders safe: army frogmen patrolling the Ottawa River, helicopters ferrying the leaders to and from the capital. Americans, typically, found a way to get around the media ban in the Montebello vicinity, commandeering a nearby church to house the press, where Secretary of State Alexander Haig paid regular visits. There were other unforeseen tensions too: some police cars were banged up during some dryruns in security procedures, and an electrical surge in Hydro-Québec lines plunged Montebello into darkness for 20 seconds just as the world leaders were starting to arrive.

Trudeau was keen on pushing the North-South dialogue at this summit: getting developed nations to think about the under developed world. This is a theme that has reverberated through all the Canadian summits — from the 1988 Toronto summit’s resolve to help relieve debt in poorer nations, up to and including Harper’s now-controversial aim to focus the 2010 discussions on “maternal health” in developing countries. Despite its persistence as an issue, there have always been skeptics about what summits can accomplish for the poor of the world. In 1981, it was the US president himself who had reservations about the North-South focus at Montebello: “Reagan took this interest in altering ‘North-South’ interchanges as a prime example of his host’s ‘woollyminded, impractical, liberal thinking,’ according to the Trudeau biography penned by Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson.

Burney, in all modesty, believes that this first summit set the template for all others that followed. “I actually think that Canada ever since then has established a pretty solid record when it comes to managing the nuts and bolts of a summit. I’m not talking about the content. I’m talking about making the railroads run on time,” he says. And that is mostly due to a league of public servants who have been doing summits for a long, long time, says Burney. In fact, the person who took over the summit administration job in 1988 from Burney was a man named Len Edwards — the same Len Edwards who is now Canada’s chief sherpa for this year’s summits.

Trudeau was keen on pushing the North-South dialogue at this summit: getting developed nations to think about the underdeveloped world. This is a theme that has reverberated through all the Canadian summits — from the 1988 Toronto summit’s resolve to help relieve debt in poorer nations, up to and including Harper’s now-controversial aim to focus the 2010 discussions on “maternal health” in developing countries.

“There’s a cadre of expertise on organization that the Americans, for instance, don’t have,” says Burney. “They bring a new team every time there’s a new administration.”

Burney also believes that the informal, networking part of summits is the greatest argument for the ongoing gatherings. The ideal outcome of summits, he says, is to put international, collective strength behind leaders who may need that clout to push policies forward at home. In Toronto, in 1988, which marked Canada’s second turn in summit hosting, the world had truly turned on its axis. Trudeau’s North-South fixation of 1981 transformed into Mulroney’s East-West preoccupation, and events were moving toward the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War a year later. Free trade was a big topic at the Toronto summit and Mulroney won some significant boosts from Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. In the closing communiqué, the G7 leaders said they “strongly welcome” the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. By the end of the year, Mulroney had won a second majority government and obtained the free trade agreement with the United States. Coincidence? Probably not.

Domestic considerations have always figured into summits held in Canada. The federalist-sovereigntist struggle, for instance, loomed large as a shadow over the first three summits held in Canada. In 1981, Trudeau had put the 1980 Quebec referendum behind him, but only a little more than a month before the Montebello summit, he had convened the premiers for a meeting that set events in motion toward repatriation of the Constitution — an exercise that would culminate dramatically and fatefully later that year without Quebec’s signature on the new federal deal. In 1988, while Mulroney was meeting his G7 counterparts in Toronto, the House of Commons was busy ratifying the Meech Lake constitutional accord for a second time and Mulroney’s old friend Lucien Bouchard won his by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean. Happy events at the time, but both would later turn out to be crushing, career-marking disappointments in Mulroney’s dogged efforts to make Quebec a signatory to the Constitution. In 1995, though he was still in don’t-worry-be-happy mode, Jean Chrétien held the G8 summit in Halifax as Quebec was hurtling toward a fall referendum that turned out to be a nail-bitingly close win for the federalist side.

The lesson may well be: take domestic developments around summits with a grain of salt. What’s happening in Canada at the time, to preoccupy the hosting prime minister, could have unintended, lingering consequences.

By 2002, when Canada hosted the summit in the splendid mountain isolation of Kananaskis, Alberta, a larger, non-domestic cloud hung over the gathering — terrorism and the still-vivid memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Kananaskis was the first G8 meeting after 9/11 and those attacks were the foremost issue on the summit agenda. This summit dispensed with a communiqué altogether and instead produced a “chair’s summary” — heavy on talk of counterterrorism, with a sprinkling of mentions of development aid and continuing economic concern.

And of course, that preoccupation with terrorism translated into a rampant obsession with security at Kananaskis, with Canada spending many millions of dollars to keep leaders safe from harm and media, and with observers kept 100 kilometres away in Calgary. Naturally, domestic considerations still intruded. Chrétien was hosting this meeting just two weeks after the explosive departure from cabinet of his rival (and eventual successor) Paul Martin, and even the New York Times was speculating about whether the “dean” of the G8 — as Chrétien was by then — was an enfeebled leader. But history has shown that this domestic drama would have its own twists of fate down the road too. Martin’s lasting legacy may well be the G20, for which he so fiercely advocated, and not his brief, two-year moment in the sun as Chrétien’s successor.

So how will the 2010 summits borrow from the previous four held in Canada? In style, the Huntsville portion will be an echo of the isolated rural settings of Montebello and Kananaskis, while the G20 gathering in Toronto will bring back all the memories of Mulroney’s 1988 extravaganza in the same city.

In substance, however, this year’s meeting will probably run closest to the Halifax meeting in 1995, when the major preoccupation was with setting the world stage for economic stability after a bumpy world ride. The parallels between 1995 and 2010 are roughly the same — first summits for prime ministers who have had a few years in power, with world leaders focused on inequities in the global economic situation. The Halifax summit was held shortly after the Mexican peso crisis; this year’s summits are following on the heels of Greece’s economic meltdown. Burney, the man who’s been there since the beginning of Canadian summitry, thinks the 2010 gatherings will be a success if the participants can keep the agenda tight and focused, avoid big confrontations with protesters and, above all, try to be low-key about their agenda and expectations.

“Canada has a very proud record of organizing these affairs in a way that is both efficient and not ostentatious,” says Burney. Huntsville and Toronto will work, he adds, if Canada keeps that record in mind.

Photo: Shutterstock

Susan Delacourt
Susan Delacourt is a political columnist with the Toronto Star and Ipolitics, and teaches journalism and communication at Carleton University. She is the author of four books, the latest, Shopping For Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, was a finalist for the Hilary Weston-Writers Trust prize in nonfiction in 2014. The recently released paperback version includes details of the 2015 Liberal election victory. She was awarded the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy reporting in 2014 and the Charles Lynch Award for career-long reporting on Parliament Hill in 2011.

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