The $4-million fence - Macleans.ca

The $4-million fence

And other strange and annoying contrivances, as pre-summit security invades cottage county

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Photograph by Colin O'Connor

Huntsville, a town of 19,000 three hours north of Toronto that, at any other time, rarely locks its doors, has started to look increasingly like a prison. For one thing, a shimmering three-metre silver fence is suddenly snaking across farmland, abutting highways and dissecting dense bush, weirdly incongruous in an Ontario wilderness immortalized by Group of Seven progenitor Tom Thomson, who, as Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty puts it, “used to hang here back in the day.” The $3.9-million perimeter, erected by a local construction outfit, stands as a great leveller in a region long divided by class—a quicksilver bullet slipping past tony monster cottages (the “cottage-o-cracy,” as one resident calls the upper crust here) as blithely as it does the hillbilly housing a stone’s throw away, all rotting cottages crammed with overturned furniture and bric-a-brac.

Then too, the military has descended, building enormous barracks in an old gravel pit north of town; with room enough for 5,000 security personnel—or so the rumours go—the installation spreads across the landscape larger than either the local Tembec hardwood flooring plant or the Kimberly-Clark tissue factory.

The makeover is in preparation for the $1.1.-billion 2010 G8-G20 summit; Huntsville is to host the smaller half of it in two weeks, lending the town a topsy-turvy air. Every available patch of dirt has been sprayed an eerie shade of Martian green—hydroseed that should sprout grass just as the world leaders arrive. Many here have put their homes up for rent, calling them “G8 Houses” and charging upwards of $1,000 a night.

Elsewhere, Art and Betty Rhiness, who have lived in their remote home outside town for 42 years, say they’re not worried that the pasture across the way is Huntsville’s designated G8 protest zone. “They’ll be doing all their protesting on Main Street,” Art, 75, says knowingly.

The Canada Summit Centre—Huntsville’s new $20-million rec centre, built with G8 funds—began life as Huntsville’s media centre until OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino objected, according to one source, saying a media presence would put summit attendees in danger. Instead, in Toronto, at a cost of $1.9 million, organizers are building a display complete with a fake lake called the Canadian Corridor, meant, in a Capricorn One kind of way, to replicate the experience of being in Muskoka.

But on Sunday, police and military personnel used the Summit Centre to showcase the police and military arsenal that locals should expect to see around town. That show included small children outfitted as riot police and handed nightsticks and assault rifles—a funny circumstance in a town where school buses won’t be running in the week leading up to the summit, when schools are discouraging student attendance.

Huntsvillians are already well acquainted with the G8 brigade. Since last winter they have been approached by a parade of law-enforcement reps and attended a series of oddly uninformative information sessions. (“It’s all hush-hush,” says a 74-year-old woman who lives metres away from the military compound but who learned of its existence only through hearing its construction. “A lot of people are getting fed up with it—there’s a lot of old widows on this street, yet.”)

Elaine Rye, 69, lives in a bungalow not far from the summit’s security command centre above Deerhurst Resort, the golf playground where the G8 leaders will congregate, and says authorities told her to remove chairs from out front, keep her lights on at night and to defer her annual ritual of setting garden ornaments up in her yard (a constellation of 15 tiny cement platforms were sadly bereft of garden gnomes last week). “They’re calling this the red area!” she says. “I just know I’m getting out.”

Nancy Tapley, of the nearby Bondi Village Resort—an old-fashioned Muskoka holiday spot of cottages and horses—says her beds are booked for the summit, though the guests will be G8 security rather than vacationers, people Tapley says she’s “pretty damn sure aren’t coming back.” As for Bondi’s regulars, she says, “everybody’s gun shy, nobody’s spending.” Like many here, Bondi finds itself on the wrong side of the highway connecting Huntsville with Deerhurst. Tapley recalls one RCMP officer assuring residents, “We’re not closing any of the roads—however, there will be no through traffic.”

Indeed, those with homes off Highway 60, the thoroughfare in question, soon learned it would close and that they too would be behind fences: a barrier is going up this week that skirts the road and traverses residential driveways, with security personnel manning gates 24 hours a day. “They’re letting you in and out of your own driveway,” says 74-year-old Darcy Roberts, a retired hydro worker. “They’re going to search you when you come back. It don’t seem too Canadian to me!” Residents signed waivers permitting authorities to chase protesters onto their lands.

All this promises to make for unusual living. “We’re supposed to get some kind of passeport,” says René Hecht, referring to the security pass card some residents will be issued giving access to off-limit roads. An 87-year-old retired clothing designer who lives with his wife, a doctor, at the foot of Hidden Valley Highlands Ski Area nearby Deerhurst, Hecht, a Frenchman, expects traffic jams. “I was thinking they could have the meeting at Alcatraz or Sing Sing,” he adds. “They are already very well protected.”

In January, Kim Groomes, the 42-year-old pastry chef at Spencer’s Tall Trees, an upscale Huntsville dining spot, received a visit from the RCMP, who asked for her date of birth and, of all things, her social insurance number. Groomes, who lives with her husband and young son, gamely submitted to the request. “This is what I found kind of cagey,” she says. “About a month ago, a car comes up—two OPP plainclothes. And they’re like, ‘We’re here to get your information.’ ” When the Groomeses discovered authorities had “misplaced” their files, they became concerned. “I mean—there’s your identity,” she says. The officers said not to worry: “It’s probably just in a pile somewhere.”

Meanwhile, Doughty, the mayor, takes little notice of all the security hoopla. “The Andy Warhol moment will come and go,” he says. A former dentist turned developer, he is more interested in making sure the G8 facilities the town is inheriting as part of the summit’s legacy are built to spec. Port Sydney, south of Huntsville, got a $1.2-million fire hall, paid for by federal stimulus dollars that Doughty says probably would not have flowed had the G8 not stopped by. At a $12-million University of Waterloo environmental research facility receiving its finishing touches in Huntsville, Doughty marvels at what the G8 has wrought. “This was all bush here a year ago,” he says proudly. He strides through the Waterloo complex with the bluster of the developer he once was. The foreman asks what colour the railings should be. “Gun metal grey,” says the mayor. “Black is going to be too stark.”