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Splitting the summit is where it all went wrong

A small story, but telling.

One of the jack-of-all-trades handymen who are as native to this area as blueberries and snowmobiles happened by to repair a problem in the water line. A day later, it was obvious it hadn't worked.

Not to worry, he said, he would come out at his own expense - we're talking 30 kilometres back in the bush here - and do it properly.

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Up here, when you make a mistake you admit to it - and you fix it right away.

Which brings us to the Original Mistake made with the G8/G20 Summits, which no one will openly admit to - but which has been causing shaking heads and rolling eyes for months now in the highest security and government circles.

One summit, good idea; two summits, bad idea.

Two years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Deerhurst Resort would be the site of the 2010 G8 gathering, he referred to Muskoka as a "jewel in the Canadian Shield," which it most assuredly is.

"Our international guests," he continued, "will be charmed by the uniquely Canadian beauty of the region and by the warm hospitality of Muskokans."

Thousands of these "guests" would be journalists who - having time between dull communiqués - would naturally check out this unique beauty and send back reports and images of this green and clean region of Canada.

There would be costs, of course, but the Prime Minister pointed out that the 2002 summit held in Kananaskis, Alta., generated some $300-million for that region. This, obviously, would be a win-win situation in Muskoka, which offers so much more in facilities and accommodation.

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As part of the G8 legacy package, millions would be spent on infrastructure, including two magnificent summit centres, one of which would later become a new hockey rink, one a university satellite. Roads would be paved, bridges repaired, flowers planted - and after three days of G8 meetings, all would go home and Muskoka would gain for years to come.

But then it all began slipping off the rails. The G20 was gaining in importance, especially as the world financial meltdown took hold. The original plan to hold the 2010 G20 in Seoul was cancelled and tacked on to the G8 in Canada.

The critical wrong decision was made when it was decided that so many minor officials would be coming along for the G20 that little Muskoka couldn't cope.

And this is where the security costs began to explode. Not one fence, but two. Not one massive operation, but two. While previous G20 summits in Pittsburgh and London had cost $18-million and $30-million respectively, the combined Canadian G8/G20 security costs ballooned to $1-billion or more.

This splitting of the baby - with apologies to King Solomon - between Muskoka and Toronto is said privately by one government official to have added as much as $400-million to the bill.

If only the federal government had a Department of Common Sense. The obvious answer, early on, would have been to make it one summit, one fence, one operation.

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While it was argued that Muskoka could not handle such large numbers, it is an argument without substance. Not everyone needs to be staying at Deerhurst. There are, within easy reach, ample fabulous accommodations to be had. Besides, why does it need to be five-star? There is a 30-member Russian delegation currently staying at the Tulip Inn out on the Big East River and no one is complaining. There is also the rather obvious point that limits could be put on the number of officials that tag along.

They could also have decided to scrap Huntsville and meet only in Toronto, but infrastructure money was already being spread about the region and Industry Minister Tony Clement, who had lobbied successfully for Muskoka, would not only have lost face but perhaps his seat - a vital consideration in minority-government circles.

Clement, once considered a Toronto outsider, won the seat by a mere 28 votes in 2006 - in no small part thanks to backlash over the Liberals' gun registry - and held it easily in 2008. His success with the G8, many believed, would allow him to one day challenge the record of Stan Darling, who held this seat for the Conservatives from the time of the Magna Carta until his retirement in 1993.

The decision, then, was made to hold both summits - and hold your nose when the bills come in.

But just think.

Had there been no G20 Summit for Toronto, the city would not be moaning about its own butt-ugly fence, the inconvenience, the traffic problems and worry about protesters (one condominium building is said to be spending $850,000 on its own security).

Had both summits been in Muskoka, those protesters might find sound cannons and riot cops mild fare compared to the mosquitoes and blackflies - though in the interest of fair reporting it must be said that the bugs are not bad this year.

Most importantly, however, had it stayed completely in Muskoka, there would never have been a fake lake.

And instead of the world laughing at us, the world could be here enjoying the real thing.

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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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