G8’s Private Party

Rating: NNNNNCalgary -- surrounded by overflowing trays of food and drink, Indian hoop dancers and bellowing cowboy singers, Sisay Haile-Selassie.


Rating: NNNNN


Calgary — surrounded by overflowing trays of food and drink, Indian hoop dancers and bellowing cowboy singers, Sisay Haile-Selassie of Radio Ethiopia wonders if this is how the developed world will save Africa.

We’re standing amid the swirl of Calgary’s G8 welcome party, a $300,000 miniature rodeo and western hootenanny for international delegates, accredited media and local VIPs.

Though no cumulative aid commitment will result from this summit — one of many shortcomings of the vaunted NEPAD plan for Africa — Haile-Selassie refuses to pass judgment on the G8 summit and its posh $500-million budget, even while discussing the periodic famines that have claimed more than a million lives in his war-torn nation.

He argues that there is no point in challenging the power of the G8 nations. Haile-Selassie may share his name with the legendary Ethiopian emperor and pan-African nationalist, but this Selassie did not come to fight: “I am a realist,” he says. “We in Africa cannot reject the G8 (and NEPAD), simply because we have no other choice.”

He’s probably right. It’s hard to be choosy when one’s biggest bargaining chip is the fact that things like AIDS and debt might only get worse.

Welcome to the G8, where catastrophe and despair loom over giddy midway attractions, line dancing and outrageous levels of security.

To reach this Frontierland-cum-detention-centre, Sisay and I board off-site buses at the heavily guarded G8 media centre, where an edited satellite feed of the summit ensures that the coverage will be more stenography than journalism.

Arriving at a walled-in corner of Calgary’s Stampede grounds, we file through gates and fences, constantly watched. Our belongings are searched twice, a routine that will become horribly familiar over the next two days. Helicopters circle the skies. “Nice party,” says one wisecracking journalist.

Siege hospitality has become an important G8 legacy: urban paramilitary offensives surround extravagant demonstrations of warmth and goodwill for leaders, delegates, media and other beneficiaries of the process.

The inside world of the G8 reads like an old John Wayne script, where the threat of harsh justice is omnipresent. As one grouchy journo mutters back at the media centre upon viewing some protestors on the streets below: “Geez, I just want to smack them upside the head.”

A surprising number of journalists choose to attack those who violate the silence. Indeed, many local media boys were fuming about too many voices in the streets, the “boring” G6B counter-conference and the spoiled brats who keep whining about diversified economies and the environment.

“These protestors really are nothing more than clowns,” writes Ric Dolphin in the Calgary Herald later. “And all the millions of dollars of security is a form of applause.”

While many Alberta media excel at single-source stories and rephrasing Ralph Klein communiquĂ©s, the majority of journalists at this hoedown aren’t from Alberta, nor do they have any direct interest in maintaining the province’s curious status quo.

“You cover the event, but you don’t cover it,” says one Brazilian business writer, vexed at the literal and figurative fortress that had become the G8 summit. “I’ve been to meetings before, and I’ve never seen anything like this: we can’t get access, yet the decisions here affect everyone.”

Across the picnic table, two representatives from China Television Service weigh the relative merits of Jasper versus Banff, adding that Canada’s massive G8 security budget was already national news back home.

Allan Fotheringham, dean of Canada’s print media, wanders by looking lost. Paul Wells of the National Post lumbers past in the opposite direction clutching several frothy drinks, possibly returning from a nearby kegger.

Soon, there will be a western parade and square dancing. The painful truth is that Calgary Stampede arrived two weeks early and we are the cattle.

While some publicly decry the lack of integrity and political access at the G8, this is often the norm anyway. And few embody the unilateral spirit of our times more than the American delegates, none of whom is willing to talk with outsiders, let alone engage in friendly rodeo banter.

(Predictably, the chattiest folks of all can be found at the only non-profit aid organization represented at the party, Billy Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. Next to a tent that displays the latest in bio-weapons detection technology and Alberta pork products, the true-gospel Samaritans hand out Jesus videos to anyone who wanders by.)

By dusk, about 1,000 guests mill about in our corner of the Stampede grounds, far short of the 5,000 invited. Off in the distance, well out of sight, a comparable number of protestors party in the streets, sing, bounce on trampolines, enjoy live music and, by my reckoning, seem to be having at lot more fun. Everyone from NDP leadership hopeful Jack Layton to Calgary’s own “rednecks against the G8” caucus has turned out for what becomes the counter-hoedown.

Before the fireworks close the official party, Sisay Haile-Selassie dons his cowboy hat and succumbs to the great levelling force of the Stampede: he mounts a fake bull to have his picture taken, rodeo-style, for the folks back home.

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