Image: Fake lake at the G-20 media center
Paul Chiasson  /  AP
Reporters lounge next to a replica of Canada’s Muskoka region on Wednesday. The replica, replete with an artificial lake, was built for the G-20 and G-8 summits and is housed in the Toronto media center.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/25/2010 12:36:34 PM ET 2010-06-25T16:36:34

A prime international marketing opportunity for Canada, or a $1 billion boondoggle?

The G-20 and G-8 financial summits this weekend in Toronto and Huntsville, Ontario, have been a topic of rabid debate across the nation as Canadians sound off on the merits of hosting three days of meetings of world leaders that will leave taxpayers footing a whopping bill.

A report released this week by the Parliamentary Budget Office says the two summits are expected to cost Canadians C$930 million (US$893 million) in security alone, including more than C$500 million for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Together with other hosting costs — including nearly C$2 million for a marketing and media pavilion in Toronto that includes a "fake lake" — the total tab will run well north of C$1 billion.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists the costs are reasonable, given that Canada is hosting unprecedented back-to-back summits in two different locations. He says the high-profile gatherings, drawing leaders from across the world, are a great opportunity for Canada to market itself.

Others aren't so sure.

"Security: The summit of all taxpaying fears," blared a Canwest News Service article headline this week in several major dailies, including the Montreal Gazette and the Vancouver Sun.

"The G20 summit: A billion-dollar waste of time," trumpeted the national weekly Macleans.

"There's a nagging sense police, public servants and politicians are wallowing in a bottomless trough they figure Canadians will constantly replenish," columnist James Travers wrote in the Toronto Star, the country's biggest newspaper.

Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist and author of several books on the topic, calls the security bill for the three-day affair "ridiculous."

"I’m sure if you totaled everything up it would be vaguely plausible, but the total is stupid," he told msnbc.com. "And fundamentally we have to ask ourselves, if it costs that much money for people to get together face to face then we should try video-conferencing."

High-profile leaders
Politicians also aren't mincing words.

"This might be the most expensive 72 hours in Canadian history," quipped Liberal Member of Parliament Mark Holland.

The main opposition Liberal party has aired radio ads criticizing the summit costs. It also launched a “G8/G20 Waste Clock” that gives a second-by-second ticking of what Holland called Harper’s "$1 billion boondoggle."

“In the time it takes for you to wash the dishes, or cut the grass, or cook dinner, you’ll be able to see how much of your money Stephen Harper will blow at the same rate during the summit,” said Holland.

Video: Weapons-laden car discovered near G-20 site (on this page) Security is in high gear in part because of the who's-who lineup of leaders taking part, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.

On Friday and Saturday, leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized nations will meet in Huntsville, Ontario, about two hours' drive north of Toronto. The G-20 will then gather in Toronto Saturday and Sunday.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has defended the costs for security, saying Canada has an obligation to make sure world leaders are safe.

"I take my advice from the experts ... and the indication we received was that the amount of money spent is what was required to address the threat that was in place," he told reporters recently.

As part of the security plan, tens of thousands of police are fanning out across Ontario. Toronto's downtown core resembles a fortress, with a 10-foot-high steel and concrete fence surrounding several blocks around the G-20 summit site. Many businesses closed for the weekend, with some boarding their shop windows. Police also purchased four "sound cannons" — devices that emit ear-splitting pitches — for crowd control.

Police said they took a man into custody Thursday after searching a car and finding containers of gasoline and unspecified weapons. The car was stopped near a hotel where the French delegation is staying. Workers at the hotel had walked off the job Thursday as part of a labor dispute.

Belly flop?
The Parliamentary Budget Office's report notes that, when adjusted for inflation and exchange rates, the total costs of past such summits since September 2001 "has always been in the hundreds of millions of dollars," with security accounting for about 90 percent of the costs.

Image: G20 Summit preparations in Toronto
Warren Toda  /  EPA
Cyclists and cars pass between two rows of security fencing in Toronto. More than 2 miles of fencing were installed to secure the areas around both the G-20 Summit site and the hotels where the political leaders will stay.
It says the final costs to the public won't be known until an audit is done after the events.

And a Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll released last week found 76 percent of respondents said the back-to-back weekend summits were either very or somewhat important, versus 20 percent that were opposed.

But critics aren't buying that.

The "fake lake," a chlorinated replica of idyllic Lake Muskoka in northern Ontario's cottage country, has drawn particular ridicule from opposition politicians, the media and the public as an example of wasteful spending by the ruling Conservatives during a time of national belt-tightening. In addition to the artificial pool, the "Experience Canada" pavilion at the Toronto media center also includes a wooden deck with trademark Muskoka chairs, canoes and giant-screen TVs.

Slideshow: Protests, diplomacy at G-20 summit (on this page) Harper defended building the pavilion. "The Experience Canada space will host over 3,000 media and other guests, and will serve to highlight Canada's pristine natural beauty, as well as promote leading Canadian businesses and industries," said a statement issued by his office.

The "fake lake" has been parodied on YouTube by singer, writer and municipal candidate Jennifer Smith and pilloried by bloggers and other citizen commentators.

"As both politicians and public continue to froth over that fake lake and other indefensible items that help make up a whopping billion-dollar price tag for the summit, the G20 planning reminds me of that familiar children’s toy warning: 'batteries not included,' one woman wrote in an Internet forum. "Only substitute the word 'brains' for 'batteries.'"

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Weapons-laden car discovered near G-20 site

Photos: Security tight for G-20 summit

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  1. Police in Toronto, Canada, arrest a woman on Sunday, June 27, outside a building where others detained during the G-20 summit were being held. (Warren Toda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Police speed off in an unmarked van after a "snatch and Grab" arrest of a protestor in Toronto on Sunday. (Jemal Countess / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Protesters run from police who were surging with shields and clubs during the G-20 summit on Saturday in Toronto. (Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Protesters stage a sit-in in front of riot police during a demonstration in Toronto on Saturday. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protestors burn a police car in Toronto on Saturday during demonstrations as the G-20 Summit gets underway. (Gerry Broome / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Riot police watch as two police vehicles set on fire by anarchist demonstrators burn in the midst of protests on the streets of downtown Toronto, during the G20 summit in Toronto on June 26. (Jill Kitchener / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Police officers clash with protesters during a demonstration of the G20 summit in Toronto on June 26. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters and police clash during a march against the G-8 and the G-20 summits in Toronto, Canada, on Friday, June 25. The G-8 summit is Friday and Saturday in Huntsville, Ontario, about two hours' drive north of Toronto. The G-20 summit is Saturday and Sunday in Toronto. (Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Police officers use their bicycles to control demonstrators during a protest ahead of the G-8 and G-20 summits, in downtown Toronto on Friday. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A woman prepares a prop coffin before a rally ahead the G-8 and G-20 summits on Friday. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Police and protesters clash in downtown Toronto on Friday. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. President Barack Obama is greeted by officials upon his arrival in Toronto on Friday. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer salutes as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, disembark at Toronto's airport Friday. (Dmitry Astakhov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A family crosses a largely empty street in downtown Toronto on Friday. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The helicopter in center carries British Prime Minister David Cameron after his arrival in Toronto on Thursday for the summits. (Justin Lane / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. City of Toronto workers clear rocks from gardens in a park close to the security zone around the G-20 site on Friday to prevent protesters from using them. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Police officers stand with riot gear as demonstrators move through the streets of Toronto on Thursday, protesting for indigenous people's rights and against the upcoming summits. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Protester Rachelle Sauve yells during a march through the streets of Toronto for indigenous people's rights on Thursday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A police officer patrols a security fence in downtown Toronto that walls off an area where the G-20 summit will be held. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Protesters march from the Ontario legislature building in Toronto. (Jacques Boissinot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A police officer stands by items removed from a car they seized near the intersection of Scott Street and Esplanade in Toronto. The driver was arrested, but police said the incident wasn't related to the G-20 summit. Also in the car were gas cans, a chainsaw and a crossbow. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Canadian police arrest the driver of a car laden with five gas cans, a chainsaw and a home-made crossbow close to the Toronto center where G-20 leaders will meet. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. World Vision activists dressed as "pregnant with promises" G-8 leaders demonstrate in Toronto. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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