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Fake Lake Gate riles Canadians

The G-8 summit gets underway in the northern Muskoka region of Ontario tomorrow, but it's closed to a lot of visiting media. So organizers have decked out part of the media center in Toronto to look like Muskoka.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: President Obama heads north tomorrow. Members of the Group of Eight industrialized countries will meet just north of Toronto, the Muskoka region of Ontario to be precise. Then Saturday, the G-20 summit kicks off actually in Toronto. It's the first time these two meetings are happening back to back. Organizers say that's part of the reason the price tag is so high -- about a billion dollars all told. And the overall cost is, of course, controversial. And so to are some of the line items.

Sean Cole has our story.


Sean Cole: Originally both of these summits were going to be in a small town in the pastoral Muskoka region. But the planners realized there wasn't enough room in the venue. So, they moved the G-20 down to Toronto. It was kind of a scramble. Still, says someone quite familiar with these get-togethers...

PAUL MARTIN: The cost is just simply unbelievable. I've never seen numbers such as this.

Which is troubling. Considering who this person is.

MARTIN: I'm Paul Martin and I am the former prime minister of Canada.

COLE: So if you don't know what could be costing so much, God help us.

MARTIN: Well that's... I would hope that that's not as high as we have to go to get an answer.

COLE: You don't think we have to go to God?

MARTIN: I would certainly hope not.

COLE: We can just go to Stephen Harper.

MARTIN: Yes I think it's up to him.

I.e. the current prime minister. To be clear, most of the money is going toward security. But the government hasn't been any more specific than that. So a lot of Canadian taxpayers are up in arms -- about that, and about another widely publicized aspect of these meetings.

MARTIN: You mean the fake lake?

I do. See, even though the summits are back to back and more than a hundred miles apart, there's only one media center -- based in Toronto. A lot of the reporters can't go to Muskoka. So, part of the media center has been decorated to look like Muskoka -- with dock chairs and canoes, and yes, an artificial lake. It was originally reported that just the lake cost $2 million. Naturally, Prime Minister Harper's critics in parliament had their way with it.

NDP LEADER JACK LAYTON: Mr. Speaker, the fact is that "Fake Lake Gate" is infuriating Canadians.

But Harper said the $2 million bought them more than just a lake.

PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER: Mr. Speaker, what there is, is a $2 million marketing pavilion, Mr. Speaker. There are thousands of visitors from around the world.

The "Experience Canada" Pavilion. It has a bunch of exhibits. And the hope is that reporters will spend time in there, learn about Canada, taste Ontarian wines and write positive tourism stories. Which raises the question: What are these meetings for again?

But John Kirton, a summit expert at the University of Toronto, says these promotional tactics are nothing new.

JOHN KIRTON: The last time we held a summit in Toronto, we had a fake lake.

This was 1988.

KIRTON: It was a very little lake.

And it was outside.

KIRTON: But it was highly important in spreading a favorable image of Toronto around the world.

COLE: How so?

KIRTON: It had a beaver in it.

A real beaver. Named Amik. With her babies.

KIRTON: All of the international journalists fell in love with those beavers. So, if I have one complaint, it's that they didn't spend enough to bring the beavers back. All Torontonians should say to Mr. Harper, "Bring our summit beavers back!"

That's not likely to happen. Polls show that most Canadians think these summits aren't worth the cost. But former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who pioneered the G-20 summit, says they're still hugely valuable.

MARTIN: The purpose of the meeting is to deal with the global economy, and if as a result of the host country's leadership, we advance the yardsticks in this area, then let me tell you, the beauty of Canada will come forth.

Whether or not that's true, the Experience Canada Pavilion is now open. I've seen it. And it looks exactly... how I expected.

In Toronto, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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