G20: What’s the Point?

All anyone is hearing or reading about this week is the disruption caused by the impending G20 summit in Toronto: rapidly mounting security costs, Orwellian-sounding “free speech zones” surrounded by large fences, tourist attractions closed, chaos on the roads, and that infamous fake lake. So what’s the point? Why would the government squander the little remaining political capital it has on something that is surely designed to be inconvenient and unpopular for citizens?

According to the City of Toronto, the main benefits of our hosting the event are an increase in tourism and  more global exposure to our cultural, environmental, and financial leadership. But who is doing the touring, and who is being exposed? It cannot be the delegates, many of whom hail from countries with far more economic and political clout than Canada, and who won’t be stepping outside of their securely fenced-in hotel zones to experience the “real” Toronto culture that inhabits our somewhat out-of-the-way neighbourhoods anyway. And it’s hard to know to whom Canada needs “exposing.” Presumably the idea is to attract the confidence and admiration of wealthy and influential figures in other countries by how successfully we handle the onslaught of delegates this week. Such positive press would surely result in Canada having more of a global role, a seat at the proverbial table, the thinking goes.

But, as a professor of mine once pointed out, there is having a seat at the table, and having a seat at the table. There are the seats from which your voice can be heard and you can be seen. And then there is the seat behind the pillar which you are expected every so often to vacate in order to get everyone else coffee.

It seems Canada’s principal economic/military allies – those in the G8, say, or perhaps NATO – consider us to be lightweights. Is it our poor record on environmentalism, as one opinion leader is quoted as saying in the above article? Doubtful. It is more likely the historical holdover that marks Canada as proportionately smaller (in population and GDP) and more likely to follow a course already set by Britain or the United States. It is a chronic underestimation that stems from the main knowledge of Canada abroad consisting of beer, winter, and politeness. Hardly the stuff of global leadership.

On the bright side, it seems that emerging global powers like Brazil, Russia, China and India believe Canada has, and perhaps more importantly, deserves a seat at the global decision-making table, and not just as a serving boy. The Globe and Mail seems to suggest that this is because of our participation in the G20, but the fact that the majority of residents in any country couldn’t name more than two or three members of the G20 would seem to contradict this argument.

The positive global opinion of Canada in these countries is no doubt because of our massive immigrant populations from these countries.  Looking around the city, I see as many (or more) flags in support of the teams in the World Cup that are from developing, non-G20 nations as those who are traditional powerhouses. This immigrant goodwill is a smaller, slower more grassroots swelling of popularity and influence, but the opinions immigrants and their families hold are no doubt more positive and substantial than any based on how well zoned our protesters are for the next six days. Immigrants form significant connections between their new and old homes, and feed exactly the kind of information the government would want to spread about Canada back to their relatives in the old country: about freedom, about security, about stability, and about the opportunities here. These are the reasons people come to Canada and spend money here – not because of our global leadership in risk management.

Like the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year, the G20 is just another PR exercise, fraught with the usual allegations of overspending and political posturing, but unlike the Olympics, the G20 has no warm fuzzy feelings of pride or nationalism. There are no G20 red mittens. And I would challenge anyone to think of a positive correlation they have with a previous G20 host city. The government, for all its good intentions, would do better to spend its earmarked G20 budget on better career counselling, benefits, or English/French language instruction for new Canadians – they’re much more likely to appreciate their efforts and relay the goodwill to their captive audiences around the world.


G20 Red Mittens

Warm fuzzies: G20 Red Mittens

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