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Downtown to become a fortress for G20 summit

March 12, 2010

G20 Summit_Fortress of people

In four months, Steve Bovair’s downtown neighbourhood will be transformed from cosmopolitan high life to a barricaded no-man’s land.

On a normal day, the network engineer can look outside his 17th-floor window to find a typical urban scene. Cars drift through his intersection at Lower Simcoe St. and Bremner Blvd. Customers dash into take-out restaurants and convenience stores at the base of his building. Construction workers pound away at the beginnings of a new condo tower across the road.

But on June 26, the scene outside his window will resemble an urban combat zone: razor-wire fences lining the streets, helicopters clattering overhead and  potentially, at least  throngs of screaming protestors confronting police officers in riot gear. Bovair lives kitty-corner from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, picked as the site for the upcoming G20 summit, and for two days in June, a swirling mob of foreign delegates, journalists, security personnel and  potentially, at least  stick-wielding protestors will take over downtown Toronto, literally landing on his doorstep.

Needless to say, Bovair won’t be sticking around.

“We’ve actually made the decision to go away that weekend,” said Bovair, who plans to escape with his wife to their summer home near Collingwood. “The easiest thing is to go away … and then come back when all the commotion’s over.”

Protests and fears of terrorism have become part and parcel of high-profile international meetings like the G20 summit, and Ottawa is funding an RCMP-led task force called the Integrated Security Unit to oversee security for the G20 and the G8 summit, which will take place in Huntsville. Collectively, the two meetings have been pegged the biggest security event to occur on Canadian soil.

“With the G8 and G20 held on the same weekend; it’s never happened before anywhere globally,” said Michele Paradis, RCMP spokesperson for the ISU, which also includes the Canadian Forces and officers from Toronto, Peel and the OPP.

Security officials have assured Torontonians the convention centre will create a smaller “security footprint” than bigger and more isolated venues like Exhibition Place, which was floated as a possible location. But even though the ISU says it will strive to maintain a “business as usual” atmosphere for downtown Torontonians, barricades are likely to be necessary and several security zones will be established around the downtown core.

Security perimeters are still being mapped out, but the Waterfront Business Improvement Area says police have told them zones could stretch as far north as Queen St. and as far east and west as Yonge St. and Spadina Ave.

Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward contains the G20 site, says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the security blanket reach as far south as the Gardiner Expressway.

“The space between Bremner (Blvd.) and the Gardiner … my sense is they’ll be securing all of that,” Vaughan said, adding he anticipates the club district will also face restrictions during the G20 summit.

Security officials promise to communicate details as soon as possible, but many residents and business owners are anxious for information.

“We would like to know as soon as possible so we can make plans,” said Elizabeth, owner of Chunky Fries, a food truck that parks in front of the convention centre. She declined to give her last name.

“We don’t really know (anything) yet. The city hasn’t notified us,” she said. “I anticipate we’ll be asked to move for security reasons.”

But when Pittsburgh hosted the G20 last year, the U.S. Secret Service didn’t announce its security boundaries until two weeks prior to the summit. Two visible security perimeters were ultimately constructed around Pittsburgh’s conference site, which is in the city’s central business district and backs onto the Allegheny River.

In Pittsburgh, the immediate area around the conference site was transformed into a pedestrian-only zone, accessible via two checkpoints, and an outer zone was blocked off to cars. Residents living within the perimeter had to undergo background checks, show ID and pass through metal detectors.

The blocked-off perimeter ultimately spanned an area measuring just over three-quarters of a kilometre by one-quarter of a kilometre; extrapolating to Toronto, this could mean a boundary area that stretches from Spadina Ave. to York St., and from the Gardiner Expressway to Wellington or King Sts.

But in Toronto, G20 organizers will also have to contend with a much more dynamic and complex neighbourhood than Pittsburgh. Complications seemingly loom in every direction:

To the west is the Rogers Centre, which may fill with more than 40,000 fans if former Blue Jay Roy Halladay comes back to Toronto to pitch against his old team for the first time. Paradis says it’s up to the team whether they will reschedule; Blue Jays spokesperson Mal Romanin says he still has to confer with G20 officials but for now, the game is “full steam ahead.”

To the east is Union Station, that frenetic transportation hub that funnels thousands of travelers every day to their TTC, GO Transit and VIA Rail destinations. The ISU isn’t planning to shut down the station or cancel routes at this point.

Overhead, planes fly to and from the island airport. The ISU says they have no plans yet to shut down the airport, although Toronto Port Authority officials say general aviation will probably be “severely restricted.”

Underneath lies one branch of the PATH system, a web of interconnected corridors that links more than 50 buildings and office towers. The ISU says the PATH probably will face “restrictions.”

And just south of the convention centre are the former railway lands, now one of the fastest-growing residential areas in the city. In Pittsburgh, the ward that included the conference site had only about 2,700 residents during the last census, in 2000; in Toronto, the railway lands alone contain some 8,000 residential units, according to Vaughan.

“The federal government appears to have paid absolutely no concern to the concerns of the community,” said area resident Mike Brock, who lives a few blocks from the convention centre. “I have a 14-month-old daughter. You worry about having to leave and go through crowds and tear gas being thrown. … It just seems like it was a very poorly thought-out location.”

Business owner Rosa De Silva fears her clients won’t be able to access her hair salon at Wellington and John Sts. if she falls within the security perimeter. And if she finds herself at the edge of the barricades, she worries her storefront could become collateral damage in the crossfire of police and protesters.

“If that kind of thing happens, who’s going to pay?” she asks. “The government has to help.”

For business owners in Pittsburgh, violence wasn’t a problem, but many shuttered for the G20 summit. The ones that stayed open saw their bottom line take a giant hit.

“It was extremely painful,” recalls Pittsburgh restaurateur Robin Fernandez, who owns a tapas restaurant that fell within the security perimeter. He said Pittsburgh became a “ghost town” during last year’s G20 summit and his restaurant, Bossa Nova, lost between $30,000 and $40,000 in revenue.

“It was very costly for us, to the point where we’re still trying to recover,” he said. “I really do not know what benefits we will ever reap from hosting that event.”

In Toronto, members of the Waterfront BIA wish they had been consulted when the federal government chose their neighbourhood to host the summit. The BIA has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to hosting the Redpath Toronto Waterfront Festival on June 30, bringing in 12 tall ships from around the world to dock on the central waterfront.

But with the G20 wrapping up just three days prior, a slew of unanticipated problems has cropped up: What if everyone skips town to avoid the summit? Will the RCMP dismantle the barricades in time? Where will ship captains and crew sleep, now that all the hotels are reserved for G20 delegates?

To make matters worse, the festival is now in direct competition with the Pride Parade, which was pushed back a week to accommodate the G20.

“We could have held our event in the fall,” says a frustrated Carol Jolly, executive director of the BIA. She was reassured June would be the best time for the festival, but “now we’ve got all these things that are kind of pushed on us.”

Resident Mike Brock feels Ottawa made a huge mistake in plunking such a disruptive and inflammatory event in his community’s backyard.

“Everyone knows that these conferences create very, very large protests,” he said. “All it takes is 10 or 20 very violent protestors to turn the area into a war zone.”

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Proof of Language Ability and Improved Processing Times

March 11, 2010

language student

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has announced that, effective April 10, 2010, visa officers will only consider the evidence of language proficiency provided at the time of application.

It used to be that applicants in the Federal Skilled Worker Class and Canadian Experience Class could file any kind of documentary proof to substantiate their language abilities in English and/or French.  If a visa officer was not satisfied that the documentary proof substantiated the level of language abilities claimed, the visa officer would offer the applicant the opportunity to undergo and submit the results of a designated language test.  As of April 10, 2010, however, that “offer” will no longer be an option.

While the downside to this policy change is that (i) applicants cannot buy themselves time to improve their language abilities and (ii) applicants must bear the cost and inconvenience of formal language testing, the upside to this policy change is that processing times will be improved as an intermediate step will be removed from the application process.

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Luminato literary program focuses on Africa, Iran

March 10, 2010

Iranian Writer Azar Nafisi

Toronto arts festival Luminato will focus on Africa in its literary program this year, bringing influential African writers, including Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Ngugi, who was exiled from his native land in 1977, has advocated for Africans writing in native languages and suggested rejecting European styles of writing in favour of a fresh approach.

In a discussion moderated by Toronto poet laureate Dionne Brand, Ngugi will discuss his ideas of cultural identity with Nigerian-Canadian author Carole Enahoro, Zimbabwe’s Brian Chikwava and Kenyan playwright Binyavanga Wainaina.

Wainaina’s play Shine Your Eye is included in The Africa Trilogy theatre event also planned for this year’s Luminato, announced on Monday.

The literary lineup announced Tuesday also turns to the issue of personal freedom in Iran, which will be explored on stage in a new play by Toronto playwright Erika Batdorf, One Pure Longing.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, about a circle of female students she tutored during a period when Iran imposed extreme restrictions on women’s freedoms, will be in Toronto talking about the current political climate in Iran.

The program also includes separate readings by literary stars Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road, and Roddy Doyle, author of A Star Called Henry and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.

Other Luminato literary programs:

  • Fiction in the Age of E-Books, a panel moderated by Atlantic deputy editor Scott Stossel.
  • Readings by Canadian-born New Zealander Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal, and Saskatchewan-born author Michael Helm, author of Cities of Refuge.
  • Scene of the Crime, featuring readings by South African murder mystery author Deon Meyer and John Brady, author of A Long Hard Look.
  • East/West in Canadian Fiction, with Canadian authors Anosh Irani, Lorna Crozier, Lynn Coady and Michael Winter discussing how regional differences shape creative writing.

The festival runs June 11-20 in Toronto.

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Seven spectators to Olympics seeking to stay in Canada with refugee status

March 10, 2010

Vancouver Olympics Torch

Seven people who told officials they entered Canada as spectators to the Vancouver Winter Olympics are seeking refugee status in Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada says six of those people come from countries that don’t require special visas to enter the country.

Owing to privacy law, a spokeswoman says she can’t divulge further identifying information about the claimants, including where they’re from.

It’s not unusual for people attending international sporting events in Canada to make claims, though summer sports usually produce more.

A man believed to be a Romanian coach claimed refugee status during the 1988 Calgary Games, and Olympian wrestler Daniel Igali claimed asylum here after competing at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.

Immigration spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau said claims could still rise, because the period of time that people who attended the Games are legally allowed to remain here isn’t over.

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Closing ceremony is unparalleled

March 1, 2010

There’s a reason we come, despite the nonsense. There’s a reason we come to the Olympics still, every two years now, despite the fact that sometimes you get William Shatner or the odd, massive inflatable moose. What with all the overdone stagecraft and security hassles, the butt-covering parsing of words or the smugness of IOC officials who speak of an “Olympic movement” that never moves quite far enough when it comes to abuses committed under those oh-so-hallowed rings, it’s easy to forget.

But the reason rises most clearly, every time, at the end.

It rises during the closing ceremony, at the moment when stagecraft fades and the simplest of human acts begins. The athletes walk in.

That’s it: They walk into some stadium, as they did again Sunday evening at Vancouver’s B.C. Place to end the 2010 Winter Games, and the clearest picture of what the Olympics meansemerges. Young people who have spent the months serving as civic heroes, national symbols, stand-ins for millions, become young again. Unlike the opening ceremony tradition of marching in national delegations in strict order, under a flag, at the closing men and women who have sweated against each other for weeks, sometimes years, walk out in an easy jumble, and soon mix, stand and dance until all national colors and flags become irrelevant.

It happened again Sunday. There the athletes were, smaller and more real suddenly, snapping pictures like tourists, waving to cameras — “Hi, Mom!” — milling aimlessly, mashed together in the most accomplished mosh pit in history. Canadians, Americans, Russians, Finns: all the stiffness, posing, pre-competition jitters was gone, dissolved in a moment of pure fun. There’s nothing else like it in sports.

We didn’t get that in Beijing. Organizers at the 2008 Summer Games ran a minutely-controlled and choreographed farewell that looked great on TV, but killed any hint of spontaneity; the athletes were all but herded into pens. But Canada is no China; it’s the land of half the world’s great comedians. When a faux-repairman, giant screwdriver on his belt, kicked off Sunday’s festivities by “fixing” the same arm of the cauldron that so infamously failed to rise at the opening ceremony, allowing speedskating legend Catriona Le May Doan to finish the torch-lighting ceremony she missed a fortnight ago, we knew we were in good hands. Nothing is so endearing — and rare — as an Olympic host that can laugh at itself.

Then again, Canada could afford such looseness. The same Olympics that had begun with disaster, with the death of a 21-year old Georgian luger on the morning of the opening ceremony, and spent its early days focused on weather problems, a massive ticket cancellation, and the seeming underperformance of Canada’s Olympians, had ended in triumph.

A late surge by Canadian speedskaters and curlers pushed the host nation to a best-ever medals showing at a Winter Olympics, and the ice hockey team’s rapture-inducing, overtime victory over the U.S. Sunday pushed Canada to its 14th gold medal, the most ever won by any country at a Winter Games. Coming in, Canada had spent $110 million on athlete support and vowed to “Own the Podium” by winning the overall medal count. It didn’t come close. But after Kid Canada, Sidney Crosby, scored the golden goal in overtime, it didn’t matter a bit to anyone north of the 49th parallel.

“Alexandre,” VANOC Chief John Furlong, said during his speech to moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, “your first gold medal gave us all permission to feel like and behave like champions. Our last one will be remembered for generations.”

Furlong’s delivery may have been stilted, but the response was not. The crowd of 60,600 rose to its feet, unscripted, and stopped his closing speech cold for a good minute, cheering the biggest win in Canadian hockey history. Such chesty flagwaving was seen across Vancouver and Canada throughout these games, but hit new levels in the aftermath of the hockey win — horns beeping, men hugging, a once-shy country openly reveling in its success.

“That quiet, humble national pride we were sometimes reluctant to acknowledge seemed to take to the streets as the most beautiful kind of patriotism broke out all across our country,” Furlong said. “So many new and dazzling applications for the Maple Leaf.”

But other flags had their moments in Vancouver, too. Norway, a country of just 4.7 million, finished fourth in the medal count with 23, and produced the most accomplished male athlete in cross-country skier Petter Northug, who finished with two golds, one silver and one bronze medal. The USA’s 37 medals set a record for success at a Winter Games, and came amid the most controversy-free American performance in decades. With skier Bode Miller redeeming his cavalier performance in Turin, Team USA kept as low a profile as an athletic superpower can, predicting no wins, displaying no arrogance, celebrating with class. It was a switch no one predicted: The Canadians acted more like out-there Yanks, and the Americans acted like humble Canucks. And it helped set, for these games, a graceful tone.

Indeed, though the first official response to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili — both VANOC and the international luge federation placed the blame on the 21-year old Georgian while making adjustments to the wall, ice and start of the notoriously fast track — was both cold and absurd, the remainder of the 2010 Olympics was all but free of controversy. For the first time since the bombings of Sept. 11, an Olympics went off without terrorism casting a pervasive shadow, without the intrusion — if you except Canada’s genial border “war” with the USA — geopolitical themes of any kind. Unlike Beijing or history-laden Athens, these were a Seinfeld Olympics, about nothing, really, except great competition.

“These were,” declared a visibly relieved IOC president, Jacques Rogge, “excellent and very friendly games.”

That should be the case for the Summer Games in London in two years, but 2014 is already taking on curious dimensions. Like the Chinese did with the Summer Games, Vladimir Putin‘s government has made clear that it plans to use the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a coming-out party for the new Russia. No shock there, but it does assume the task with far less momentum than Beijing. Team Russia, after all, was the most glaring disappointment in Vancouver, its 15 medals (three gold), a steep decline from the 22 it took home from Turin. Meanwhile, its most popular star in the West, hockey player Alex Ovechkin, came into Vancouver an Olympic hero for claiming he’d play in Sochi even if the NHL didn’t release its players — and went out in shame.

Not only did Ovechkin fail to produce during Russia’s ghastly 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals, but he also shelved his usually gregarious personality in Vancouver and proved a gloomy, surly presence, snubbing the media and shoving to the ground one eager fan with a YouTube ready camcorder. Of course, when he popped up onstage Sunday night, Ovechkin was all smiles again, posing as one of Sochi’s welcome ambassadors with three cute children, and lending athletic, gap-toothed form to Churchill’s famous formulation about Russia — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Canada — its people, its athletes, its lovely host city — was hardly that the last two weeks. The country made itself known. Here’s betting that, come 2014, it will be missed.

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