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Marcus Gee

Police state in, power suits out as Toronto goes into security shock Add to ...

At City Hall, employees arrived at work to find a burly security guard demanding their access pass before they entered the normally unlocked doors. At a downtown law firm, lawyers were told to leave their suits and high heels at home and dress casual-like to avoid being set upon by anti-capitalist rioters. At one provincial government office, bureaucrats were told in late afternoon that the building was going under "lockdown" because protesters were in the neighbourhood. Many scooted for exits to avoid being trapped in the closed-up building.

All of a sudden on Monday, our calm, mild, pacific city took on a changed feel as the security noose tightened in advance of this weekend's G20 summit. In the downtown, packs of police officers on bikes roamed the streets - followed, incongruously, by a golf cart-type vehicle transporting water, juice and granola bars for the boys and girls in blue. Around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the shiny metal security fence neared completion, a ghastly thing, like all such barriers, that made the notoriously ugly convention centre that will welcome foreign leaders even more unsightly than usual.

Also downtown, the first significant protest march made its noisy way through the streets, decrying the "police state" created for the summit. In the name of animal rights, native rights, poor people's rights and numerous other causes, they occupied a gas station for a few minutes before cops on bikes made them leave.

Despite all the advance warning, this comes as a bit of a shock to the system for a generally safe city where the hand of authority is light and the cops keep a low profile. Go to Europe and you see soldiers walking around the airport with automatic rifles at the ready; go to the States and you see military men and women all the time. Not in Canada, not in Toronto.



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Because we are so unused to security measures like this, there is a good measure of overreaction and even paranoia around. At one security briefing, reporters and camera folk were told to wear wool underwear to the protests - in a humid Toronto summer - because it is less flammable than other kinds. In a security memo to staff at a downtown law firm, staff were reportedly instructed on how to curl themselves into a protective ball if set upon by protesters and roll to the side of the street - conjuring up the remarkable image of balled-up lawyers rolling down Bay Street like so many bowling balls.

The very idea of all those downtown lawyers, bankers and executives coming to work in jeans, flip flops and polo shirts to foil the dastardly anarchists seemed a little craven. Pity the poor guy who doesn't get the memo and comes to work in his Zegna suit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to put the summit in Toronto partly to showcase the relative health of our Canadian banking industry. Yet when the summit is on, everyone downtown will be doing their darnedest to look as unlike a banker as they possibly can. The whole week is turning into a casual Friday.

"If you unexpectedly encounter demonstrators," a city landlords' group advises tenants, "you will be better treated if you are in jeans and a casual shirt than if you are in a business 'power suit.' " Other tips: don't rub your eyes if you are tear gassed or pepper sprayed; and don't wear your security pass on a lanyard around your neck - the bad guys might pull it off and abscond with it.

At first blush it all seems very silly and annoying - as if Paul Blart: Mall Cop were suddenly in charge of the city. In its list of "Things the G20 is ruining now," the Torontoist runs through a list of complaints about shuttered liquor stores and farmers markets, adding a photo essay of the horrid fence.

But, then, the security folks have a serious job to do and they have to prepare for any eventuality. Inevitably, some of their rules will seem arbitrary and excessive. But "better safe than sorry" seems a good way to go when the safety of world leaders and the security of Canada's largest city is at stake. It will all be over in a few days anyway and Toronto can go back to being its usual self: pleasant, banal and safe.

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