Mountie commissioner suggests Muskoka community too small for big G20 meeting

OTTAWA — Canada’s top cop has dared to say what top politicians won’t: Ontario’s Huntsville is just too small to host the G20 summit, despite tens of millions in expenditures to bring the area up to world standards.

RCMP Commissioner William J.S. Elliott gestures as he speaks to The Canadian Press in his office in Ottawa. Despite tens of millions in expenditures to bring the area up to world standards

OTTAWA — Canada’s top cop has dared to say what top politicians won’t: Ontario’s Huntsville is just too small to host the G20 summit, despite tens of millions in expenditures to bring the area up to world standards.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said Wednesday it would be “difficult if not impossible” to hold the Group of 20 summit next summer in the Muskoka cottage-country community, whose premier hotel, the Deerhurst Resort, has just 400 rooms.

“I don’t frankly think there’s enough room in Deerhurst for all the people would attend a G20,” Elliott said in an interview.

The initial plan was to hold the Group of Eight summit in Huntsville and a second, larger G20 meeting somewhere nearby.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in September that the G20 would be in Muskoka, and that has been the official line ever since.

Elliott said Wednesday such decisions are up to the prime minister, not the RCMP.

But he suggested that hosting even just the G8 in Ontario’s cottage belt will present hurdles.

“It will be a challenge with respect to participants for the G8 given infrastructure in the community, but we’re dealing with that.”

The Mounties are working on summit security with partners including the Ontario Provincial Police and the Canadian Forces.

“I expect there will be a public announcement soon by the government with respect to its plans,” Elliott said. “Certainly plans are far advanced with respect to the G8.”

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged Wednesday the government was pondering where best to hold the G20. “I think we’ve got to review and see how many people are coming and look at the numbers.”

The federal government has already spent millions of dollars to prepare for next summer’s two summits, including $11 million to refurbish an airport where leaders probably won’t show up.

Hosting a G20 summit implies finding at least 10,000 hotel rooms and providing air-tight security for more than 30 international delegations. Huntsville has 1,000 rooms at most.

“No decision on location has been made yet,” said Sara MacIntyre, spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office.

Authorities have spent tens of millions of dollars and many months trying to ready the area for any eventuality. Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty agreed it’s like preparing for a dinner party without knowing how many guests will show up.

“Do you need a 20-pound turkey or a 30-pound turkey?” he said in an interview.

Already Ottawa has sunk $11 million into airport upgrades in North Bay, Ont., although no decision has been made on whether to fly international delegations through the northern city.

The Town of Huntsville has taken on about $4 million in extra debt to ready itself for the summit, without having a clear idea how many people to expect. The debt forced the town council to cancel its plan for an “H8” to celebrate all the Huntsvilles in North America.

Ottawa has just closed bidding for a $6-million galvanized metal fence that will stretch about 15 kilometres around the summit site in Huntsville.

And a $50-million stimulus fund to beautify the area around the summit has already been fully committed to the Muskoka region.

Local mayors believe the money is well spent even if it’s only the G8 who show up, and not the G20.

The North Bay airport was in desperate need of repair, and the municipal government did not have the funding to pay for it, said North Bay mayor Victor Fedeli.

“We saw getting our runway paved as priority No. 1,” he said in an interview.

But while the plan to prepare the region for the G8 summit on June 25, 26 and 27 is well advanced, the plan for the parallel G20 summit is only in its infancy.

It has no firm date, no firm location and no list of who else, beyond the G20 members, will be invited.

Regardless, the G20 summit site will have to house thousands of support staff, diplomats, police and security officers. The media, also likely to number in the thousands, is expected to work out of the Congress Centre near Toronto’s international airport.

The G20 includes key emerging markets as well as all the rich countries that belong to the G8. It took on added importance during the financial crisis of the last two years, after shaky lending practices in rich countries undermined economic stability around the world.

Leaders decided in Pittsburgh in September that the larger group should become the main global decision-making body for economic issues.

But Canada was the next host of the G8, and feared its influence would be diluted by the larger group. It insisted on hosting both conferences in 2010, even though South Korea was the top candidate for the first official G20 summit.

A compromise was reached, and the first formal G20 summit will be held in Canada, and co-hosted by South Korea. South Korea will hold a followup summit in November.

But Ottawa wants to make sure the summits remain distinct, partly so that G8 can remain a vibrant force of its own. Holding the G20 summit far away from the G8 will boost its cause.

Hosting the G20 summit in downtown Toronto would also boost Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s pitch to show off the city as a global financial centre that avoided the worst of the global crisis because of its strong banking practices.

“Toronto is so perfect for the G20 story,” said John Kirton, who heads the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

While the summits are still seven months away, decisions need to made quickly. Canada is hosting all the 2010 meetings leading up to the summits, beginning with finance ministers meeting in balmy Iqaluit in February.

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