G20 anthem: Don't Fence Me In

Business columnist Don Pittis laments the erection of a high security fence in the heart Toronto for the G20 summit.
A worker puts finishing touches to a three-metre-high security fence outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))
Cole Porter was more urban than cowboy. He was gay before gay was gay. His favourite city was Paris, where he had wild parties. He might have been comfortable in modern day Toronto.

But not this week.

Don Pittis has reported on business for Radio Hong Kong, the BBC and the CBC.
Cole Porter wrote the cowboy song Don't Fence Me In

The Bing Crosby and Andrew Sisters version  went to the top of the charts in 1944 and stayed there for weeks. You should click on it and listen as you read.

It may be hard to believe but Don't Fence Me In was as popular in the 1940s as a Lady Gaga hit is today. Heck, Roy Rogers sang it while his horse, Trigger, danced to the song.  And in the 1940s you couldn't get much more star-studded than that.

I didn't know all this last week when the tune came unbidden to my lips. The song was embedded in my brain someplace, and it welled up spontaneously as I was strolling the sidewalk outside the CBC headquarters where I work.  For those who don't know, the Toronto CBC building is now completely surrounded by three-metre-high fences.

We've never felt so safe from the public or the politicians.

And we don't like it.

On the north side is chain-link fencing. The kind you'd see around a swimming pool or tennis court but with smaller holes. You'd need cowboy boots or "winkle-pickers" to climb these ones. Sneakers wouldn't do.

On the south side of the building is something more sinister. Between us and the convention centre where the G20 leaders will be meeting are two rows of bright corrugated sheet metal punctured by little holes.

Don't say the SH-word

Sprayed with reflective paint, this barrier shimmers in the sun, making it impossible to take pictures of things on the other side. On the elevator a colleague and I were discussing the fact that it was impossible to shoot through. I felt compelled to explain to the other passengers that I meant "shoot" as in video camera. Though I suspect these metal fences would do a good job of deflecting bullets as well.

As for climbing over, even pointy-toed shoes won't do you any good on this variety of fence. The holes are the size of your baby fingernail. And the serrated top looks like it could slice you in two.

Construction of the G20 security fence was completed Monday. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))
Although the fences are up, until the end of last week some of the gates were still open. On the last day before the convention centre closed to public traffic, I traipsed across no-man's land for a final tour.

There was a carnival atmosphere on Front Street. Tourists cruised through in double-decker buses, thrilling to the prison-camp ambience of our business district. Everyone snapped pictures of the gleaming fences with the CN Tower in the background. There were clusters of uniformed police all over, acting more like amiable tour guides than bully-boys.

There were men with odd things sticking out of their ears. With the paranoia of the fenced-in or fenced-out, I was sure they were Secret Service agents scouting sniper positions. I decided one was a foreign security man in native dress till I saw him go back to his job at an ethnic restaurant.

A tip to security forces the world over: Rather than using stocky men in suits with space-age headsets, disguise your staff as aimless teens with earbuds. No one will notice them. Except the truly paranoid. I had my suspicions about several aimless teens.

Curtains for us

The main south entrance to the convention centre had airport-style security already set up. The windows facing the CBC were hung with new curtains, preventing us from seeing what the global politicians get up to.

It made me wonder what global politicians could possibly be doing in there that would shock a CBC journalist. They must be planning on dancing naked.

Inside, the enormous convention floor has been divided into large meeting rooms, one more bit of evidence that a G20 conference is a giant production, not just a few face-to-face meetings between leaders.

Like Cole Porter and Trigger, I can't stand fences. Fences are for gated communities, prisons, toxic waste sites, restricted military zones, extremely unfriendly borders. Fences are for keeping the unwanted out or the unhappy in.

I remember the fences along the border between the main part of China and Hong Kong. In colonial days, Gurkha soldiers would ride the perimeter on bicycles.

The police here aren't as picturesque. But there are a lot of them. Many carry Batman-style utility belts with various offensive devices. One asked for my ID as I passed through the north fence. I haven't tried to cross no-man's land this week.

This is not the image that Canada or Toronto should be trying to create. The G20 is supposed to bring the world together. But Toronto does a better job of that all by itself. Without the fences.

Toronto still good

Toronto is people from around the globe riding the subway shoulder to shoulder, eating each other's national foods and trying to make allowances for the peculiarities of each other's culture.

On my little tour last week, I noticed a woman feeling the more brutal of the two metal fences and asked her what she thought of it.

"It seems excessive," she said. "But you've got to be prepared."  

It's sad that this global media show has become such a symbol of conflict. In the longer term we must figure out a way to hold an international meeting without creating a Green Zone in one of the most crime-free, integrated, international cities in the world.

We can only hope that the country and the city don't get tarred with the image of  fences and police and violence. "Like what happened in Toronto," people would say.

I just hope when the conference is over the fences come down quickly, and some of the delegations and media stay for the Gay Pride festival and see another side of this country and this city. One that Cole Porter could have lived with.

They can stay and dance (semi) naked. In public. Without curtains. Without fences.