Notes from a non-event

As a sideshow to the G8, Huntsville offers tantalizing gossip, a very quotidian reality

First, a few perhaps-apocryphal yarns from the cottage country bush.

A few days ago, a woman entered the brush somewhere on the outskirts of Huntsville, Ont., the Muskoka town that’s long been in preparations for the G8 summit that began today. Behind a curtain of wood, she had taken the first two or three steps toward relieving herself (not an uncommon procedure for a woman in these climes, as it turns out) when she heard a voice: “Excuse me m’am,” the voice said. “You are not alone.”

This is the first little narrative in a new series devoted to that most mysterious of G8 figures in Huntsville, the camouflaged soldier hidden in the wood.

A couple more. A woman playing golf dispatches a ball into the forest. She rushes in to retrieve it, only to find an armed man in a ghillie suit holding her ball aloft. “Don’t come into the forest,” says the soldier, handing the ball to her. Anther group of golfers watches a companion similarly lose a ball in the trees. “Gentlemen,” a voice from the dark intones, “time to get another ball.”

“You go to wipe your ass—and they’re there,” says Dick Averns, a conceptual artist who is tenting at a private cottage across the lake from Deerhurst Resort, the golf playground where the eight leaders are meeting. At first the various police forces and military personnel tasked with securing the area quizzed Averns and his colleagues with the Near-North Mobile Media Lab, a G8 artists residency supported by the Canada Council for the Arts; they have since formed an uneasy truce, one that extends even to the hole Averns digs each morning to do his business.

Originally from London, England but now based in Calgary, and wearing a newspaper boy’s cap, Averns stands by a gauntlet of police cruisers at the forbidden mouth of HW60, from which one normally gains access to Deerhurst, and holds a street sign for a strip named Ambivalence Blvd. Where is it? “It’s everywhere and nowhere, you never know where it’s lurking,” he says.

Ambivalence Blvd. may well be the road to the Designated Speech Area, the protest zone established in Huntsville for dissenters wishing to voice their dissent in public, and where the Porta-Potties today outnumbered the protestors. “I think it is Ambivalence Field,” says Averns.

For most of today it was an empty expanse—soggy in one corner, and with a new wolf den of baby cubs in another (according to Nancy Tapley’s gloriously fun G8-related Bondi Resort Blog)—but a camera set up by G8 organizers beamed a live feed of the zone to participants of the summit at Deerhurst (French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it’s not inconceivable, may have stopped to consider the empty field on a screen on his way to lunch).

Meanwhile, and in their own way, local Huntsvillians celebrated (not the store owners, who because police officers and journalists outnumber visitors, have pronounced the summit a bust– “If it weren’t for the police there’s be nobody out,” said one woman). Tanya Hedley, a 40-year-old life coach and holistic health practitioners, and 47-year-old Karen May, who makes a living renovating houses, chose today to begin handing out free hugs along Main Street, a contribution toward the peace effort (awkwardly, some Huntsvillians were less open to the notion than others). It was not clear whether the pair and their colleague free-huggers, most of them women, weren’t at least in part drawn to the novelty because of the large number of young men in uniform.

But hey, take it as it comes. At the wicket of the now-justly-famous The Town Fryer chip wagon, in downtown Huntsville, Hedley and May, who first met each other today, told chipmongers John and Susan Niedzwiecki how they’d discovered the practice of handing out free hugs on the Internet. John, 55, went ahead and told Hedley and May about the time he and some buddies had lunch in Toronto. Realizing there were no women at the table, John zipped outside and waited on the sidewalk. “I waited until a gaggle of four gals came along,” he said. “Hi, I’m old and harmless and from Muskoka,” he told the women. “Can I buy you lunch.” The women agreed.

It was a long way from talking politics. But just then, having noticed the “Obama for Prime Minister” banner strung atop the chip wagon, a woman strode up to the wicket and addressed John and Susan. “I want to know why you want Obama as prime minister,” she demanded. “If you don’t know we can’t explain it,” Susan said. “It’s not a political thing, it’s a people thing,” said John, who likes to argue that Obama respects his opponents, and debates ideas rather than attacks people (Susan will tell anyone who’ll listen how she’d like to trade Harper–“our George Bush,” she says–in for the president). “Well,” said the woman, marching away, “I’m an American and I don’t agree.”

Barack Obama, meanwhile—presumably—remained far away, safe behind the fences and the police, and nowhere near the Main Street cafe in Huntsville it was rumoured he would soon make an impromptu visit to. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll stop by the Town Fryer.