'One way in, one way out': why G7 summits are in such remote locations

  09 June 2018    Read: 1286

Until the leaders of the seven most economically advanced nations in the world descended on it, the Charlevoix region of Quebec was perhaps best known for the beauty of its landscapes and the opulence of its state-run casino in La Malbaie, Guardian reports. 

It is also a remote tourist destination, reached by way of an often perilous one-lane highway, and has a population density lower than the (already sparse) national average.


This is no coincidence. Though it poses certain logistical issues, Charlevoix’s isolation is perhaps its greatest asset when it comes to staging a meeting of these world leaders. In an era where mass protests of such things are a given, Charlevoix offers a key security feature: it is difficult for protesters to get there, harder still to circulate and near impossible to escape the eye of law enforcement.

“One way in, one way out,” says Alan Bell, president of the Toronto-based security consulting firm Global Risk International. “If you go back to some recent G7 and G20 meetings, the downtown core always gets trashed. What they want to do is zero in on the protesters. If they want to come, they basically have to walk in.”

The practice of holding such huge and consequential meetings in hard-to-reach places is relatively new. The first G6 summit was held in 1975 in the Parisian exurb of Rambouillet. The meeting was a low-key affair that dealt almost exclusively in global economic matters. Protests were non-existent; the only delay, it seems, was a result of the Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s perpetual exhaustion, according to news clippings of the day. Canada, which joined the group in 1976, held subsequent G7 meetings in Ottawa (in 1981) Toronto (in 1988) and Halifax in 1995. (Russia was admitted in 1998.)

Everything changed with the teargas-drenched spectacle known as “the Battle of Seattle”. In 1999, 60,000 protesters demonstrated at the meeting of the World Trade Organization, fomenting what has become an enduring anti-globalization movement.

This large and diffuse group of trade unionists, NGOs, workers and black bloc members managed to disrupt the proceedings. The ensuing damage, and the images of police phalanxes doing battle with mostly unarmed protesters, were a headache for the city, law enforcement and world leaders alike.

“World leaders were taken off guard. A lot of planning and organization went into the protests, and it all aligned in Seattle,” says Barry Eidlin, an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University in Montreal. “The retreat from the city is itself a response to these mass mobilization tactics.”

The G8 meetings held in Canada since Seattle have taken place in Kananaskis, Alberta, and Muskoka, Ontario – like Charlevoix, remote locations to which access can be tightly controlled. In Charlevoix, a designated red zone restricts entrance to residents and summit participants, with a larger fenced-in “green zone” surrounding it, accessible only to those with accreditation. Beyond this is the white zone, the notable home to the summit’s so-called “free speech zone” where protesters can vent – 2km from where Donald Trump and his six peers will gather. The summit and associated meetings will cost Canadian taxpayers more than $600m.

In 2010, Toronto provided a Canadian cautionary tale to the pitfalls of urban-held trade meetings. That year, police “kettled” more than 1,000 protesters –corralling then holding them outdoors for hours on end during a torrential downpour. It led to the high-profile disciplining of a senior Toronto police officer and an enduring black eye for the force.

There probably won’t be a similar event this weekend. Though there have already been limited protests in Quebec City, a massive police presence and the sheer distance to Charlevoix has apparently dulled the outrage.

Of course, those who would like to hark back to the old days of protest-free trade meetings can look forward to the 2020 G20 summit in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where access is all but impossible given foreigners need permission to visit, and free expression is often outlawed completely.

 


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