Never mind the ministers. Yesterday, not even the counterculture types were talking.
The shroud of secrecy hanging over a meeting of G8 labour ministers in Montreal was thrown yesterday over an unlikely locale, a well-known Plateau enterprise called Santropol Roulant.
The laid-back Duluth St. meals-on-wheels outfit isn't normally off-limits to media. But when the ministers stopped in for a lunchtime tour after their official activities were over, Santropol's volunteer staff kept out the few press who found out about it.
No eavesdropping, no photographs.
Security concerns, employee confidentiality issues, even fire regulations meant no one but the ministers and their aides were allowed in, Santropol staff said. The business, which delivers food to shut-ins, is funded by Ottawa and the Quebec government.
Meeting once again in private suited the ministers and their deputies just fine, starting with their host these last few days, federal Human Resources Development Minister Jane Stewart. Barring the media made for more "frank discussions," she said afterward.
Besides, there were RCMP officers watching their every move.
"Certainly, in the case of security, we do look to the police to tell us what we should do and we don't meddle with that," Stewart said. "We try to respond to the direction that they give us, and they gave us some very clear directions this time."
From Thursday to its conclusion in a press conference yesterday morning, the G8 meetings were held in three secret locations in downtown Montreal. When the media found out where, they were denied access.
There were also no briefings, no detailed agenda and no communiques until it was all over yesterday.
And even then, as the ministers piled into a chartered bus to take them to a new destination before flying home, Stewart's staff did not volunteer where they were going until pressed, still refusing to hand over a copy of the official schedule even though the conference was over.
This was democracy at work?
"My sense is that we have been open with the deliberations," Stewart said at the press conference in the exclusive Club St. Denis on Sherbrooke St. E., where pre-registered reporters were escorted to and from elevators and were "asked" not to leave the room until the politicians had come and gone.
Even if the in-camera sessions and the lack of details surrounding them annoyed some people, it was good to be able to talk candidly, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labour D. Cameron Findlay. "I think the format of the meetings worked very well and was in the interests of all of our countries."
At Santropol Roulant, Stewart and some of the other ministers toured the kitchens under the watchful eye of RCMP officers in suits with phone cables sticking out of their ears, while windowside patrons of the Santropol health-food restaurant across Duluth wondered what was going on.
"It's not for me to comment on the hush-hush of it, because we've been looked after very well in Canada and had a great time in Montreal," Malcolm Wicks, the British junior work and pensions minister, said outside on the sidewalk.
"But clearly when any of our democracies is hosting a meeting, if there are some people who, using violence, want to disrupt it, it shouldn't be a debating point. It's just a commonsense item that you need a certain security."
A clash Friday night in downtown Montreal between radical anti-capitalist demonstrators and Montreal riot police was the only confrontation during the three days the G8 was in town. Twenty-five people were arrested, 147 demonstrators were ticketed, and homemade weapons were confiscated.
Wicks didn't see what the fuss over secrecy was all about. Most cabinet ministers abroad usually enjoy a low profile and the issues they discuss in their parliaments back home are hardly secret, he said.
"These are issues that in our different countries, in our parliaments, we're discussing very openly, so I don't see it as a secret agenda. It couldn't be more public. It affects everyone, it's the most public agenda I can think of, how we live our lives and how we work."
In their only communique of the event, the ministers yesterday pledged to work on three major policy goals on labour and employment:
- Get more people working who are now under-represented in the labour market (such as youth, the handicapped and aboriginals).
- Improve people's skills so they can get new jobs (especially people over 50, in a process called "lifelong learning").
- Make it easier for people to move around with the skills they have (such as doctors who want to practice in another country).
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