Security fencing seen from Toronto's Front Street.Tara Walton/Toronto Star
By Mary Ormsby Feature Writer
It’s G20 logic: The bigger the meeting, the higher the fence.
And Fortress Toronto looks like a prison warden’s dream, with 5.5 million GTA residents locked out of their own city core by a wire filigree stretching three metres high.
It’s not a neat perimeter but a drunken zigzag of zinc-bathed steel lurching around eight major downtown streets — in some cases three layers deep — to protect the planet’s political power brokers during next week’s G20 summit at the Metro Convention Centre.
By Friday, more than six kilometres of fence had been erected, three times the length identified in early government requests for security bids. Some fence is anchored in concrete footings known as “jersey barriers” — each weighing 1,800 kilograms — some is driven into asphalt for extra immovability, some is simply circumscribing patches of grass and stone beneath the Gardiner Expressway, protecting nothing but discouraging people to linger.
This we know because the Star walked and measured the route. Already there is more than half-a-kilometre of fencing surrounding the Westin Harbour Castle, an international delegates’ hotel on Queens Quay near the ferry docks.
This divisive presence seems at odds with the spirit of the True North, strong and padlock-free. With all the wire, downtown Toronto looks like a city under siege, not the arm’s-open metropolis that has welcomed generations of immigrants.
“Living in a democracy brings out strengths, weaknesses and challenges,” said former RCMP commissioner Norman Inkster, now a Toronto-based security advisor. “One of (democracy’s) strengths is we can go out, protest, express our dissatisfaction with things. One of the weaknesses is it makes us very vulnerable. It’s about getting the balance of those two rights. It is always a question of balance.”
Hence, the fence.
It has roots in the Canadian Shield and old automobile parts and was designed by the RCMP and engineering giant SNC-Lavalin to be climb-proof. It is being erected by sworn-to-silence workers dressed in logo-less clothes and driving unmarked vans. Next weekend, it shuts down businesses like Steam Whistle Brewery, which is too close to the convention centre and beer drinkers like Barack Obama. Twelve kilometres of iron tubing, 100,000 drilled bolts, hundreds of steel-reinforced jersey barriers — 32 line Bay Street from Front to Wellington alone — have already gone into safeguarding international dignitaries who are not yet in Canada.
The cost of the fence is still being tallied, but a reported $5.5 million (it was $4 million in the early planning) is the starting point. The final price-tag could exceed $1 billion, if one included all the security costs. Within 10 days the fence will be gone.
The fence began in the mines of Quebec and Labrador where the steelmaker’s delight, iron ore, is plentiful.
Today, steel made directly from open-pit mined iron ore is used largely for car parts like doors and hoods. Fence wire is made from scrap steel — melted at 1,550 degrees Celsius (think spewing lava), cooled into rods, stretched through dies and galvanized in a hot zinc bath (zinc gives steel that flat grey look while protecting it from rust-making oxygen).
The scrap’s DNA is iron ore but the wire to surround the likes of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have once been a totalled sedan or a long-dead appliance.
“One of the beauties of steel is you can keep recycling it. It is infinitely recyclable,” said Ron Watkins, president of the Canadian Steel Producers Association. “So when your refrigerator dies, it could turn into a piece of steel wire some day.”
For something as simple as a see-through fence, there’s astounding secrecy around even straightforward facts about the billion-dollar summit.
SNC-Lavalin, headquartered in Montreal but with branches in Toronto, landed the contract to provide the fence. However, the RCMP specified its height, strength and how it was to be reinforced with steel poles and concrete bases, the Star has learned. SNC-Lavalin subcontracted the work for custom fencing and installation by crews with security clearance.
Other companies involved are hard to identify, even though the summit walls have been going up since June 7.
There are no signs hanging on the mesh. Vans, cars and trucks near the wall are unmarked. So are the concrete barriers. The crews bear no company logos on hard hats, T-shirts or orange neon vests. It’s like a ghost crew is in charge.
Fence specialists in the GTA identified Simpson’s Fence (with offices in London, Chatham and Windsor) as an installer, but no one from Simpson’s returned phone calls.
Powell Contracting in Gormley is providing the jersey barriers. For 23 years, the second-generation family business helped safeguard Molson Indy fans by supplying concrete supports for debris screens engineered to catch flying parts from crashes.
Dwight Powell, one of the sons running the company, said they were instructed by police to direct media to phone 311 — the city’s frequently busy helpline that answers questions like what goes into recycling bins and where one gets a picnic permit.
SNC-Lavalin directed all queries to the Department of Public Works. Phone calls and emails to public works with basic questions (such as what happens to the fence after the summit) were not answered by a spokesperson citing “national security concerns as expressed by our client, the RCMP.”
The lack of information doesn’t surprise Anna Minton, author of Ground Cover: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-century City. She lives in London, where the G20 met a year ago, and says governments attempt to hide who has been contracted to provide the security when trying to control public dissent at large sporting or political events.
“It’s in contrast to the level of marketing and spinning that goes on with any initiative in (a) city where it’s desirable for the public to know who’s providing X and Y and Z services,” said Minton.
What can be deduced , based on interviews with GTA fence experts, is that the two main types of security being erected are meant to repel or slow down crowds or vehicles attempting to breach them.
The outer ring is composed of one-inch chain link — a single finger pokes through it easily but a shod foot would grip nothing.
“You can’t get a toe-hold in it at all,” Cathy Hofstetter, president of Scarborough-based McGowan Fence and Supply, said of the one-inch mesh.
“For a swimming pool, the links are made small — an inch and a half — so little kids can’t climb it. And depending on how it’s attached to the jersey barriers, I doubt it would stop a car but it would certainly take a beating from a crowd pushing against it. The fence is steel and the posts and rails are steel, too.”
Expanded metal fencing (flatter than chain link) bolsters the inner walls, backed by jersey barriers “that would take 100 people to push one over,” said Paul Kalin, owner of Toronto’s Expert Security. The gaps are tiny — a pen might pass through it — but scaling it with bare hands and feet would be like crawling up a cookie sheet.
“That is severe gauge, man, wow!” said a 30-something tourist to his group after pushing the metal mesh just outside the CN Tower, adjacent to the Metro Convention Centre. The fence didn’t budge.
The convention centre is cloaked in welded wire; there are two tight rows of it running along Front Street with its eastern and southern flanks sewn up via Lower Simcoe and Bremner Boulevard. To the west is the Rogers Centre, swaddled almost completely by fence and gates.
While the convention centre plaza is the nucleus of the summit’s most secure “red zone” with the most expanded metal protection, the outer barricade is the chain link. It’s the first lap of the concentric circle template used in security.
“The fence is an important symbolic outer circle so you know who’s trying to get inside the fence and whether or not he or she has a legitimate interest in being there,” said Inkster, former Interpol president and recently retired chairman of Canada’s Advisory Council on National Security.
“As you get closer and closer to where people are meeting, levels of security increase. It’s called ‘target hardening’ — the closer you get to the centre, the harder it is to reach the target.”
There are also protective rings people don’t readily see. Based on his experience, Inkster said the real outer perimeter is surveillance from the air, lake, street level, underground and from inside and atop buildings. This has likely been happening for months with shared intelligence between Canadian and international security forces and governments.
There are also probably hidden electronic barriers in key areas close to foreign dignitaries.
“Along the U.S./Canadian border, for example, if you wander across the border you will be detected by an electronic beam (and) it works,” he said. “With a border 3,000 miles long, you can’t have (a guard) every 10 feet.”
Nine years ago , Canadian police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds that stormed fences and fought security forces during the three-day Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Hundreds of protesters were rounded up, 60 were reported injured and the RCMP would later be accused of using excessive force on civilians.
The lesson: Fortifications are only as good as the personnel defending them.
But how much fence — and how much force — is needed?
“If no one gets hurt, we will have spent too much,” said Inkster, referring to the $1 billion summit price-tag.
“If somebody gets hurt, we will have spent too little. That’s the test. And believe me, that’s the test law enforcement has been asking themselves.”
However, Minton said massive shows of anti-terrorist security — like walling off downtown Toronto or flying unmanned drones over the 2012 Olympics in London — are a ruse by political leaders to crush opportunities for legitimate dissent.
“Fences are a symbol of the time. It’s this conflation of dealing with terrorism but dealing with political protest at the same time. And it’s been very convenient since 9/11 to roll out extreme security measures all across the urban environment in the name of the war on terror and high security.”
By the time the summit ends, an estimated 10,000 Canadian law enforcement personnel — the Mounties, members of Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, Metro police, Ontario Provincial Police, military, government officials — will have planned, studied, seen or physically passed through the fencing. Countless more international security professionals will have been briefed on its attributes.
American screenwriter Dudley Nichols wrote more than 50 years ago that “fear is the highest fence.” Minton agrees.
It is “fear that’s creating all of this. Their (government officials’) fear of political protest, their fear of terrorism. It’s a statement of strength and authority (but) I think it shows you how scared our leaders are.”
The fearful fence is still being built. Crews work an-aerobically, stopping and starting, sealing off more of the inner core each day.
By June 25, only those with security clearance will have access inside the cage. By June 27, it’s over. Fortress Toronto will strip down to its unadorned self, shucking its wire corset, which will live on in green, ecological fashion as rental fence or scrap.
Physically, the structure will be gone. But not the memory of how world leaders, in order to tear down international fences, erected one in Toronto.