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G20 preview: What to watch for in Toronto

Expect cops. Lots of them.

World Vision activists
World Vision activists dressed as "pregnant with promises" G8 leaders demonstrate ahead of the G8 and G20 summits in downtown Toronto, June 24, 2010. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — If you want to see more police officers than you’ve probably ever seen in your life, come to Toronto this weekend.

Downtown, particularly in the area around the iconic CN Tower, they’re everywhere. They hang out like gangs on practically every street corner. You might think they’re just loafing about, calculating their overtime. But you’d be wrong. They’re looking for trouble.

Their job is to protect leaders attending unprecedented, back-to-back economic summits: On Friday and Saturday morning, the G8 meets in the cottage town of Huntsville, 140 miles north of Toronto; Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the expanded G8 — the G20 — wrestles with the world’s economic troubles in Toronto.

It was revealed Friday that Toronto’s chief of police, Bill Blair, requested and secretly received from the provincial government extraordinary new powers for the G20. They allow his officers to arrest anyone who comes within five yards of the security fence and refuses to identify themselves or agree to a police search.

“We have heard from a number of individuals who have frankly said they're going to come here and wreck the place,” Blair told reporters Friday. “We need to make sure we have the proper authority to deal with those threats.”

A university student has already been arrested under that law, widely denounced by critics as an outrageous abuse of power.

By now, any Canadian who hasn’t been living in a cave knows taxpayers are on the hook for the whopping $1.2 billion cost of the summits — $1 billion of that for security alone. (Security for the G20 summit in Pittsburg last year reportedly cost $18 million.) Part of the cost is a $5.5 million concrete and steal mesh fence that snakes for about 4 miles around the area where the leaders will be meeting and sleeping.

The Toronto Star newspaper has calculated that the total amount of time the world leaders will meet during the three-day economic jamboree is 24 hours. The bill for the twin summits, in other words, works out to about $50 million an hour, or $833,000 a minute.

The real costs are higher. Fearing the sometimes violent protests that accompany international summits, many downtown stores and companies will be closed. And many employees are forced to stay home without pay.

It would be all worth it, of course, if the most powerful men and women in the world took serious steps to eliminate poverty, tackle climate change and rein in Wall Street’s greedy gamblers. But what are the chances of that?

The most obvious result so far is that downtown Toronto and idyllic Huntsville have been locked down like armed camps. It’s a sign of the times, Canadian government officials insist. Yet Canada’s spy chief says terrorists are not targeting the summits.

“I think [there is] surprisingly little on the terrorism front,” Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told CBC TV. “We don't think there is anyone who is really interested in doing any harm from that perspective.”

The arrest tally so far has not made for shocking reading.