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Peeking behind the curtains of the G8

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In the weeks leading up to the 2002 G8 Summit, I read headlines in Calgary dailies using words like "terrorism" and "havoc" to describe what Calgarians should expect. Photos of police in riot gear, anti-aircraft weaponry and boarded-up businesses graced front pages, and everyone, including the mayor, seemed to be preparing the city for chaos.

I laughed when Mayor Dave Bronconnier cautioned that violent individuals may "already be among us." The media spin seemed extreme and reactionary. After all, this is Alberta, a province with little-to-no protest culture--this wasn't going to be Québec City.

However, after speaking with Calgary Anti-Capitalist Collective's Valerie Zinc who helped organize the "Showdown at the Hoedown" on June 25, I wasn't so sure. She told me her primary goal was to seriously disrupt the city.

"We want to shut down the economic system of the downtown core," Zinc said. She didn't elaborate much on what that meant. I was left guessing.

The Hoedown

The "hoedown" Zinc referred to was the "Hoot and Holler," a mini-Stampede for media and delegates at Stampede Park. Pampered with free food, beer and Calgary's trademark white Stetsons, I couldn't help wonder what the point was. Maybe it made foreign journalists feel at home. Maybe it promoted our city, in an effort to ensure positive coverage. A happy media full of beer and corn dogs is a media full of praise. Even the mayor showed up, answering questions on his way to the beer tent.

"This has almost a $200 million impact on the community," said Bronconnier adding a token comment on the protesters outside the gates. "We support people's right to voice dissent. As long as it's peaceful, as long as it's within the law--go ahead."

This sounded different from the Bronconnier warning the city and protesters to brace for brutal conflict.

Ground zero

The Telus Convention Centre with the G8 media centre seemed more like a clubhouse than a centre for disseminating information. With free food, beer and an Internet café, journalists mingled and attended press conferences. When nothing was happening--which was most of the time--they still sat at their laptops trying to find something newsworthy. Most of the time, they seemed successful.

Complementing the centre was "Canada On Display," a sad sample of what helps "drive the dynamic economy of the country and the province of Alberta." With exhibits from the University of Calgary, DeVry, West Edmonton Mall, Big Rock Breweries and the Department of Indian Affairs, the display should have been insulting to Canadian media and laughable to media from abroad.

Police

For some reason, the police in and around the downtown core didn't live up to my expectations. I guess I too fell for the media hype leading up to the summit. Riding around on mountain bikes and dressed in light body armour, the visible police presence was smaller than most expected--but it was also appropriate.

Protests were smaller, too--500–1,000 protesters instead of 5,000–10,000. Violence never entered the equation, even when events like Wed., June 25's "snake march" through downtown which happened without warning or permit.

"Something impromptu like this we just have to be flexible," said Calgary Police Service Constable Murray Stooke later that afternoon. "We're doing our very best to be non-confrontational and our best to prevent something from happening."

While the Public Order Unit Officers, armed with full riot gear, at times, stood on the main floor of the media centre, they never saw the city streets or the protesters. Stooke also added that despite the lack of activity and the blistering heat, officers were doing just fine.

"They have bags of water on them, and we have enough people we can switch off so they can have some lunch or get a drink," said Stooke. "They're doing great."

Down at the Di-In

The most organized of the protests during the summit was the June 26 Di-In For Life at Olympic Plaza. The ultimate form of non-violent protest, demonstraters pretended to die in the middle of the plaza, their bodies outlined with chalk. It represented the many deaths around the world at the hands of aids, globalization and capitalism.

The event topped out at 500–600 people, including onlookers and supporters not actually dying. One of those supporters didn't seem too sure why he was there.

"People will be dressed in white to symbolize--I think it was purity," he said, adding that the issue here was capitalism. "It's a system based on inequality that creates conflicting classes."

If all the protesters there had something in common, it would be that they all championed different issues. Signs, chalk messages and t-shirts called for universal education, action against the International Monetary Fund and publicly funded health care, as well as the abolition of capitalism and the G8. However, according to one of the event's many organizers, they all shared a common theme.

"There's a connection; the lack of accountability," he said, after dying in the event. "The people in Kananaskis right now, they're making decisions behind closed doors and we have no say in it other than to come out here and protest."

Looking back

A month later, the city is back to normal, no buildings were destroyed and most Calgarians have all but forgotten that President George W. Bush was here. Criticism of the G8 disappeared and the locals can finally park their cars along Stephen Avenue again. In Calgary, it's business as usual.

The G8 was not the second Olympics, but it did have an impact on the community, if only temporarily. Whether you were affected by the protesters or not, Calgarians had a much different perspective than others watching from afar. What you took out of it is entirely up to you, but if it's any consolation, one thing of note did come out of this. According to Bronconnier, Bush thinks "Albertans are just like Texans." And even if you forget the G8, Bush certainly won't, thanks to his complementary white Stetson.

"He was quite taken aback by the hat," Bronconnier noted. So were we.

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