Being in Toronto in the lead-up to the G20 Summit truly is a bizarre, uncomfortable experience: hundreds of metres of fencing, thousands of police, sound cannons, arbitrary arrests and poorly disguised undercover police.
But to truly experience the surreal, Hunstville is the place to go. It’s not the overpriced Muskoka chairs, the sandwich board signs attempting to entice the hundreds of security personnel into shops to get their commemorative G8 T-shirt or mug, or the somewhat jarring juxtaposition of police on every corner of the quaint town. No, what really propels Hunstville into Brazil territory is a visit to the “G8 Summit Designated Speech Area.”
It’s not an easy place to visit. Up an innocuous, long-climb of a hill on the outskirts of the town, not far from the golf course and with an admittedly scenic overview, the only indication you are approaching an officially sanctioned bastion of civil liberties are a series of small boards that bring to mind the signs that would lead you to a flea market. It’s also some nine kilometres away from where anything is actually happening.
A heavy OPP force is there to greet you, not that they need to be since absolutely nobody is actually there. And, when the not-entirely-friendly officers indicate that vehicles have to pull over on the side of the gravel road to park before entering the sprawling area, it’s abundantly clear that they don’t really expect anyone to either — although, to be fair, they have offered buses from Hunstville.
The free speech zone is truly a shining example of a commitment to civil liberties: an open grass field, muddied from recent rains, with a line of OPP vehicles and bored OPP officers at the entrance. Next to them, a line of the most pristine port-a-poties you’re likely ever to see.
But the true pièce de résistance is to be found under an unassuming white tent: a small table, and upon it, a laptop connected to a small generator. From there, we are told, there will be a live feed from the tiny webcam to the site of the summit, through which protesters in the distant field can be seen and heard by the leaders — who will presumably spend a good part of their meeting huddled around a similar setup — their democratic rights realized through the magic of modern technology.
We wander the field, the only two non-police in attendance. After a brief exchange about the computer equipment we are followed back to our car by officers, who ask about the contents of our car and demand identification from us. Even in this remote designated speech zone, it would seem, police can’t be too careful.
As much as it seems like it, I swear I’m not making this up.