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A humbler summit that produced big results

"This," says Phonse Griffiths with a grand sweep of his paintbrush over the windswept bay in front of him, "was the First Summit."

The self-appointed keeper of the memory of the Atlantic Charter has been painting most of the day. First he worked on the little memorial Parks Canada erected two miles out from a gravel road to the beach where Winston Churchill once picked wildflowers while he contemplated the state of the world. Now Griffiths is finishing up the large anchor at the beginning of the harbour where the British prime minister and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met in the summer of 1941 to forge the Atlantic Charter.

Out of which, it has been claimed, came the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the essential ideas of the United Nations and even, much to Churchill's later regret, the right to self-determination in such places as India.

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Griffiths considers it among the most important international documents ever agreed upon, and even keeps the table - on which Churchill, Roosevelt and a handful of assistants hammered it out - in his living room, propped up against the wall behind the couch.

"I found it in a warehouse in New Jersey," says the 53-year-old ship's carpenter with Marine Atlantic. "Cost me $2,000 to ship it here."

The table is made of cherry oak. It is large, but only compared to one that might be found in an average dining room - nothing, absolutely nothing, to compare to the massive table required to seat the G20 members and their staff in Toronto this weekend.

But that is hardly the only difference.

"Ridiculous," Griffiths says when considering Canada's most recent summit compared to what he believes should be considered its first.

"A $1-billion waste."

With costs and crowds out of control in Toronto, the lifelong resident of Ship Harbour can only laugh at the contrast between the Ontario capital and this tiny little community on the northeast shore of Placentia Bay.

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"No fences here," he says. "Only one road in and one road out - with no other route possible.

Can you imagine what it was like back then? Protesters? The people here didn't even know what was happening. It was completely peaceful. Phonse Griffiths

The two most powerful leaders of what would become the victorious Allied effort met here August 9-12, 1941. It was a meeting long deemed necessary - Britain already in the war, Roosevelt convinced the United States would soon have to commit - but one that had to be held both secretly and safely.

Roosevelt, the American public was told, was off on a 10-day fishing holiday in New England. Churchill left behind film footage that would convince the British he was still at work in London. They came by battleship, covertly, to meet near the American naval base in nearby Argentia.

"With humble duty," Churchill telegraphed back to King George VI that Saturday when the Prince of Wales - which would be sunk off Malaya shortly after - anchored off Ship Harbour, "I have arrived safely, and am visiting the President this morning."

They dined together that evening aboard Roosevelt's battleship, USS Augusta. It was hardly haute-cuisine Deerhurst Resort fare, the broiled chicken and buttered sweet peas followed by chocolate ice cream, coffee, tea, cigarettes and, of course, cigars.

Security was also rather different: Apart from the naval presence, Churchill's bodyguard Walter Thompson and Roosevelt's bodyguard Mike Reilly passed the time hanging out together, with nothing really to do. Churchill insisted on going ashore to walk the beach and think, but since no one else was around it was hardly a concern. The people of Ship Harbour had no idea who the lonely figure was walking along the stone shore in the distance.

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The two leaders eventually hammered out an eight-point agreement that became known as the Atlantic Charter. It presumed that, following the hoped-for outcome of the war, there must be, among other matters, freedom of the seas, that neither the United States nor the United Kingdom would seek territorial gains, that trade barriers must be lowered, that people had a right to self-determination (Churchill believed this applied only to those who had fallen to the enemy).

The ideals were at one point so popular that in 1943 the Office of War printed and distributed 240,000 posters of the joint declaration.

While the charter certainly had its criticisms and various arguments over interpretation, it has often been said that it marked the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the American Empire.

It's import, Phonse Griffiths says, cannot be overestimated. He hopes to have a website ( up and running soon. Too few, he believes, are even aware that such a pivotal summit once took place in the waters off what would soon become Canada's 10th province.

A summit that saw no violence.

A summit with costs that no one ever bothered to calculate.

A summit that did not produce a single protester - until, that is, last summer.

In fact, there were six: Phonse Griffiths and five other locals who believe the Atlantic Charter deserves better recognition.

They lowered the flags at the memorial to half staff.

And they put up placards saying: "Fix the road!"

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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