Judging by the fizzing bombs and the anarchist rhetoric on their Web site, you would’ve thought the Revolutionary Knitting Circle was going to lay siege to downtown Calgary. Journalists from around the world certainly did. In town last Wednesday to cover the G8 summit of leaders of the most powerful western democracies, the reporters keenly anticipated more of the rock-throwing, dumpster-burning mayhem that has scarred nearly every meeting of global power since Seattle. So dozens of TV crews and newspaper scribes flocked to Calgary’s Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall, ready for an army of black-hooded thugs lobbing Molotov cocktails into the lobbies of every chartered bank along the street.
Instead, they came upon 40 kids and grandparents sitting on the ground, discussing the evils of capitalism, and knitting shawls. “Corporations control our very existence,” explained Grant Neufeld, the Knitting Circle’s instigator. “Corporations feed and clothe and shelter us. We’re dependent on them for our very survival, so they can tell us what to do...and they tell the G8 what to do. The knitting circle reclaims the idea that we can take care of ourselves.” What, no bombs? No violent confrontations with The Man? “This is a constructive revolution,” replied Neufeld.
How very Canadian. And that’s why you didn’t see much about the G8 in the news last week—OK, Worldcom, Arizona forest fires, and the Pledge of Allegiance probably had a lot to do with it, too—even though George W. Bush and his cronies signed a couple of planetary agreements worth billions while they were sequestered at the Kananaskis Lodge, a mountain enclave an hour west of Calgary. One was a $20-billion plan to dismantle Russia’s surplus nuclear weapons (and create jobs for ex-Soviet scientists more attractive than flipping burgers on Nevsky Prospekt); the other, an Action Plan for Africa that would see up to $6 billion per year going to African countries that protect civil rights and, more importantly, foreign investors. But to a casual observer, what was most curious was how this global event revealed the peculiarly local characteristics of Montana’s neighbors to the north—and how what’s news in Canada differs from what’s news in the United States.
Seattle: Boeing workers, longshoremen, and the I-5 to Berkeley. Genoa, Italy: anarchists, espresso, and the Red Brigade. Quebec City: intellectuals, separatists, snooty waiters. Each of those towns was wired to explode when the globalization caravan rolled through, and explode they did. But Calgary? Snowboarders, cell phone dealers and oil executives. The last people on Earth to start a revolution, which is exactly what Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien had in mind when he picked Calgary for the G8.
But there were protests. More than 2,500 people took to the streets—far less than the 40,000 in Seattle, mainly because U.S. activists wouldn’t or couldn’t cross the border (and because there wasn’t a giant AFL-CIO convention in Calgary at the same time).
Numbers aside, though, the demonstrations were notable because this was the first big globalization event after Sept. 11, and activists showed a new resolve to keep the peace. (There were several remarkable scenes of protesters blocking others from ramming fences or smashing windows, shouting, “This is not the way!”) Instead, snake dances and soccer games blocked the downtown streets, along with several brilliant bits of performance art, the best an Oxfam-sponsored World Cup match of bumbling G8 leaders with swollen papier-mache heads, continually getting penalized for misconduct by an African referee. The protests weren’t just for the benefit of the G8 leaders, though—they were also staged to rouse a docile citizenry. Despite its booming economy, southern Alberta has problems: many fear the medical consequences of having sour-gas wells in their back yards, oversized feedlots threaten water quality, and the conservative government (in power for over 30 years) is privatizing or adding user fees to ever-more public services. Sarah Kerr, the primary coordinator of the Calgary protests, said the most valuable part of her G8 activism occurred earlier, when she spoke in small towns across Alberta. “Everywhere we went, we ran into people who were experiencing the impact of the G8’s neoliberal economics, and the work we did was in helping people make those connections.” The government also clamped down on the activists themselves. Although Chretien deserves credit for putting Africa on the G8’s agenda, he’s always resented protesters—he put a chokehold on a postal worker at a 1995 demonstration, and his office ordered the preemptory arrest and pepper-spraying of activists at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vancouver. For the G8, Chretien ordered $300 million worth of security—the equivalent of Canada’s foreign aid budget for the entire year—to protect the leaders from a terrorist attack, but also to monitor and harass anyone who might ruin his photo-op. (I suppose over-policing is to be expected in a country where the Mountie is a national icon.)
Calgary’s mayor banned all G8 protests in the city, aside from one Sunday “family march.” Though city police wisely decided to hide away the provocative riot gear and put their officers on PR-friendly bicycles during the G8, weeks before the event they went around Calgary, instructing schools to practice emergency “lockdowns” and telling radio audiences that downtown would be “no place for the curious,” scaring many Calgarians away from the protests.
If there was one bright light among the Canuck establishment during the G8, it was the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Many of Canada’s daily papers and atrocious private TV channels, on the other hand, are owned by a Chretien buddy.) CBC followed the G8 around the clock, giving airtime to issues that wouldn’t, and didn’t, rank 15 seconds on CNN—investigating activists’ complaints of police misconduct, detailing Amnesty International’s report on the G8’s shameful $25 billion in annual arms sales to third-world countries, and interviewing U2 singer Bono about his disappointment that the new $6 billion for Africa will do nothing to save the 2.5 million Africans who are dying of AIDS every year. After that, you knew why protesters were out in Calgary’s streets.
Too bad Americans didn’t see it. No carnage, no coverage, I guess. As a TV chef once said: If you want to make a newscast, you’ve got to break a few windows.
Ross Crockford is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia.