The G8 and Me.
Toronto has a traditional association of being known as one of the safer cities to live in. For one week, however, we were shown what life would be like if we lived in George Orwell’s famous dystopia. Security in this city was so tight that giant fences were erected around the proverbial meeting spot in the Metro Centre. Police were lining the streets and IDing pretty much everyone they thought needed to be IDed and the protesters who were hanging around the sidelines were starting to get anxious.
The most surreal experience that I had was when one citizen who was commanded to show identification by a small group of police officers, got so offended and rowdy that he whipped out a video camera and actually started live video blogging the whole experience, with gaping police officers and all. Thank you Youtube generation.
Now I have to admit, I wasn’t sure at first how to cover these two conferences. I had picked up my press pass but security was so tight that they were only letting certain circles of the media into the actual convention centre where the talks were taking place. Instead, we were placed into what is known as the Allstream centre to attend various press conferences and watch whatever discussions were taking place on a big screen in the press room. It was also an event with no clear schedule—it really did seem like it was going to be a free-for-all as far as the issues on the table were concerned. Considering that I was primarily focused on gathering information on maternal health (and we all know about Canada’s controversy here), I wasn’t exactly sure where/when to follow in what was shaping up to be a 20+ hour conversation among the top eight world leaders. I was also interested in attending the various protests that were taking place—one in particular called the All Out for Gender Justice! march seemed very intriguing.
In the end, I decided to just go with the flow and see to what my journey surmounted; with that said, I’ll mostly be writing short summaries or snippets of the different activities (as opposed to GAB’s more in depth coverage from the Women Deliver conference). So with some good advice from my buddy Russ to leave the vuvuzela at home, I took off to cover the most important summit in the world (theoretically anyways).
The streets were dusty and empty this morning with nothing but police vehicles patrolling and the brave few pedestrians who had wandered into downtown to see what the fuss was about. I arrived at the media centre and immediately joined up with the Women Deliver and Family Care International teams and together we made our way to the first press conference.
Moderator: Gerry Barr, Chair of Make Poverty History Canada and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.
On the opening day of Summit weekend, close to 2 million voices around the world are calling on G8 and G20 Leaders to keep their promises to the world’s poorest people and invest in the future now.
Dorothy Ngoma, Executive Director of the National Organization of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi: I think it is immoral that 1000 women are dying everyday. 350 000 women per year. Why are we failing to save the lives of these women? Why have the leaders failed? We know why they are dying. Bleeding during pregnancy, unsafe abortions, HIV and AIDS. These are problems that we have answers for. These are problems we have solved in the West. To our world leaders: you made promises to cut the dead by 75% by 2015. You are not going to keep this promise. The women who are suffering and dying, these are somebody’s mother, sisters, daughters… There can be no development in these countries without women. My message to the G8 and our leaders: keep your promise, put your money on the table. Save these lives. To the people of the world: can you hear the voices of these women?
By the afternoon, all of the leaders had arrived in Muskoka but had mysteriously disappeared to discuss their issues behind closed doors. The official G8 website didn’t seem to know when they would emerge and tell the country anything (though Harper promised that he would debrief us on the happenings later today), so it seemed like it would be quite sometime before us journalists would get our hands on any solid pieces of progress.
Though we have yet to hear anything from the floor of the G8, we have now learned that following the example set by Melinda Gates (… Melinda G8s?), Canada has now committed itself to fund an additional $1.1 billion (now totaling $3 billion) to maternal health funding.
Soon after being told that Mr. Harper’s next press conference wouldn’t be until 6:30pm, I hopped onto a streetcar to join the All Out for Gender Justice! march down Church St. It turned out to be a march made up of dozens of different groups supporting dozens of different causes, but despite the masses, I managed to run into an Oxfam group from British Columbia who wanted to spread a similar message to the one I was covering.
The general sentiment that resonated throughout the park was that the leaders of the world were purposely and literally fencing the public out of the discussion that was taking place in Muskoka. Heck, even with a media pass, I was delegated to the ‘Alternative Media Centre’ which was where they put the independent news sources (the big corporations received invites to the ‘real’ media centre which boasted opportunities to interviews, actual access to leader discussion, and just an overall feeling of inclusion that us independents were deprived of*—there was an awful lot of sitting around waiting for stories to come around in the Alternative media centre).
In regards to the maternal health situation, Rick from the Oxfam group said that he hopes the leaders will look at long-term solutions with real new money, not old money. He hopes that they start making commitments to organizations on the ground and that “We’re the ones with the money but not the solutions. We need to respect local people,” which echoes statements expressed during the closing of the Women Deliver conference.
*they also got maple leaf-shaped bottles of maple syrup and 3D iPhone glasses.
Within a half hour of my arrival to Allan Gardens, the march kicked off (shutting down one of the busiest streets in downtown Toronto). The demonstration went relatively well—there was little police intervention despite the one or two that decided to tussle with standing-by officers—though there was one thing that really irked me. Since the march was composed of various different groups, they had preplanned the structure of the march. The Gender Justice group was planned to lead the march so the Vancouver Oxfam group and I proceeded to join the others at the front of the pack. However, after we had settled in I was asked (along with the only other guy from the Oxfam group) whether we “biologically identified as males”. Since our answer was yes, we were told that we weren’t allowed to walk at the front since it was for women and trans people only. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that as we were walking away, they yelled after us that ‘you men have been walking at the front all our lives, now it’s our turn!’
Unfortunately for them, they started organizing their group on the wrong end of the street which meant that they ended up marching near the back of the parade anyways.
By the time I got back, Prime Minister Harper had announced that the world leaders agreed to commit $5 billion towards maternal health. This is definitely a great first step, but more is needed in order to meet the MDG5 (an additional $12 billion a year is needed in order to satisfy this millennium goal). Though Harper has certainly upheld his promise to make maternal health the centerpiece issue of the G8, there has yet to be any mention of the abortion debate among any of the countries. It’s starting to feel like Harper is now backpedaling his decision to announce that Canada wouldn’t be funding abortions in developing countries. He still won’t be funding abortions, but now he’s trying to quietly not fund abortions.
Tweet of the day: @YarnHarlot: I think it’s really unfair that 7 men and 1 woman discussed “Maternal Health” and decided anything.
Today is the official kickoff of the G20. I decided to sleep in a little bit because I hadn’t received any notice of any pending press conferences and I figured that there wouldn’t be any more G8 news until at least the afternoon. I quickly discovered that the leaders would likely be taking the afternoon off for some sort of get together dinner (which leads one to wonder when the G20 officially starts) so I decided to spend today rounding up other people’s thoughts on the maternal health progress so far:
Still no mention of the abortion debate despite how hot an issue it was in the months leading up to the G8. Norman Spector of the Globe and Mail blog speculated about the lack of abortion mention, noting that each country seemed similarly intent on dodging the issue entirely.
One of the big controversies of this event has been how much money (nearly a billion $) Canada has spent on their PR campaign (i.e. fake lake, five-star hotels for international journalists and leaders, ridiculous amounts of security). In response, Sarkozy has declared that when France hosts the G8/G20 next year, he’ll run it for one-tenth the cost of Canada’s bill.
If you have some time and want to know what specifically came out of the G8 summit, the leaders have now released their Communiqué which you can read here or you can find some of the highlights over at Women Deliver (in regards to maternal health, child health and family planning).
Now that the biggest protest of the weekend is underway, the police have decided to shutdown the subways and streetcars to prevent more protesters from heading downtown—meaning, I’m stuck at the media centre until further notice. The leaders are all in break mode and the press conferences are scarce so all I can do now is watch the US lose to Ghana.
Tweet of the day: @frankhale The #g20 should have met online instead of wasting millions for a glorified photo op.
The Long Way Home (or… ‘Kyle picked the wrong street to walk down’)
And this is where things turned ugly. After grabbing a bite to eat in downtown with my new colleagues I had no choice but to attempt to walk home since the subways, buses and streetcars were still in out-of-commission status. In the Wayne Gretzky restaurant, we had been following the developing protest and were able to see where the worst bits of violence/vandalism were taking place. I figured that I could probably avoid these spots by walking a block around where it was happening—and due to the fact that I had grown up in Toronto, one would hope too that effective navigation would be nary a problem for me.
I ended up going through this parking lot and another alley and when I finally emerged onto Queen St, what did I see as I turned to my left?
Going west wasn’t an option due to the lineup of police officers on horses so I figured I would turn around and go east.
At this point, I decided maybe I would just go back down the street I came up.
Ok, so basically I was boxed in with the rest of the protesters/anarchists. The burning police car was creating this huge plume of black smoke, the crowd (which was probably around 2000) was chanting ‘our streets, our streets’ over and over, and it was just getting ready for some heavy rain. Across the street, a Starbucks had been smashed to pieces and all along the rooftops, citizens were sitting watching the street unfold below.
Below video: a similar protest took place on the same street the following day. The police charges were basically the same as when I was there.
For a good chunk of time, things were at a stalemate so I wasn’t as worried as I probably should have been. Admittedly, there was another street behind us but it was one that I was hesitant to use because it was very narrow and I thought it ultimately led to a dead-end (which was partially true as we found out later) so I didn’t want to get stuck in there if that’s where 2000 protesters ended up getting pushed. It was looking like things were going to be pretty peaceful though (besides the vandalism that had occurred earlier but most of that was attributed to the black bloc rather than the genuine protesters) so I decided to join the rally.
I spoke with another journalist who explained to me that it had been like this for hours—the police on horseback would charge at the protesters who would initially fall back but then inevitably, reclaim their space. This was all fine and dandy until some morons decided to further smash their way into the broken Starbucks, loot the place, and throw the bottles of stolen water at the police on horseback. Not long after this, the police on horseback charged again (and let me tell you how scary it is when 2000 protesters are running at you) but now the other line of officers behind us started spraying rubber bullets as well. So we were pushed east down Queen St somehow (I’m trying to remember how this happened but it was pretty chaotic) and then forced northbound to Dundas. Eventually, the band of protesters dispersed to search for greener pastures and by some miracle I ran into my friend Russ (whom I had telephoned earlier to tell him that I was boxed in by the police). Together, we walked through the rest of downtown to survey the damage. Banks and big corporations were mostly the ones to have their windows smashed in so there was glass everywhere. Long buses filled with police officers were still traveling up and down the streets and lines of riot police were blocking most major streets to prevent anyone from heading south towards the Metro Centre.
One thing that stood out to me was the fact that somebody had smashed an American Apparel store and had used the mannikins to smash the strip club across the street. I don’t approve of the violence or vandalism in all of this but it was a powerful image.
And that was that. Eventually the subway I needed opened back up and I headed back (about 4 hours had passed since I had left the restaurant at this point).
So the very big question that will likely be getting asked come Monday will be ‘Was the G8 worth it?’ My response is mixed. I say yes it was worth it in terms of maternal health because this summit really did put an issue that a lot of the general public wasn’t aware of into social consciousness. Not only that, but it generated $7.3 billion (5 billion from G8 member countries and 2.3 billion from non-members) in aid over the next five years. As I said before, this isn’t enough to meet the MDG5 but it is a great first step and enough to be more optimistic about the future.
On the other hand, from a practical point of view, I say the G8 wasn’t worth it because of the ridiculous amount of money it took to make it possible. Canada spent at least $897 million on security (an estimate that will likely go up when all is said and done) not to mention the money it spent on five-star hotels, tours, food etc. That’s nearly another billion that could’ve gone towards maternal health (or at least climate change which got completely shafted this weekend).
The G8 is critical for the issues that have been left for years on the backburner and if more progress is to be made then the leaders need to meet more often than annually in order to work on them (I get that it’s a cost issue which keeps these summits apart but Skype exists. I’m just saying).
As for the protesters, anarchists and police officers who all had an especially long weekend, the moral of the story is that no matter the venue, the people want action from our leaders—and they don’t want that action to be kept a secret.
Regardless of the victories obtained from this weekend, it is unfortunate that the rest of the outside world will likely be left with images such as the below, a bitter reminder for those who have always looked down on protesters despite the overall minority of such incidents.
With that said, I don’t want anyone reading this to walk away with the impression that this was just a weekend filled with violence/vandalism—so on behalf of Women Deliver, Melinda Gates and the Gates Foundation, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and the many other advocacy groups for maternal health who helped raise global awareness on this issue and ensured that it was indeed the centerpiece of this summit, here’s to some well-deserved success and hopefully, that more will come soon.