To a foreigner, the Canadian police are a confusing bunch. With Toronto locked down for the G20 summit, several of them have been cycling around the deserted streets on mountain bikes presenting what we would see as the very picture of community policing. Yet side by side with this benign image is an intimidating, militarised presence that many Canadians feel has been deliberately cultivated in order to undermine their right to protest against the G20 and its damaging impacts.
The security operation on the streets of Toronto has provided Canadians with the greatest single talking point of the G20 gathering this weekend. Many locals are furious at the $1bn price tag for policing a summit which they never wanted to host in the first place. As John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty pointed out, that same money could have paid for five years of the provincial food supplement programme that has just been scrapped in the latest round of austerity cuts.
The high level of militarisation that has been witnessed over the past couple of days has also been a major talking point, as Canadians are not accustomed to seeing such weaponry being so openly paraded at civil demonstrations. One small protest against poverty and homelessness in Toronto itself was quickly surrounded by vast numbers of police in full riot gear, including mounted police. More chilling still was the visible presence of heavily armed officers touting tear gas rifles and other firearms; police have also confirmed firing plastic bullets and pepper spray capsules at demonstrators on Saturday night.
Many Canadians have become suspicious of police tactics since the Quebec police force admitted that it had disguised three of its own officers as rock-wielding anarchists in an attempt to provoke violence at a peaceful protest in the town of Montebello two years ago. Somewhat farcically, the three were exposed as agents provocateurs when they were found to be wearing official issue police boots identical to those of the uniformed officers "arresting" them.
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There are concerns that similar skulduggery may have played a part in Toronto this weekend, where the burning of three police cars quickly became the defining image of Saturday's otherwise peaceful demonstration. Questions are being asked as to why the police chose to drive the vehicles into the middle of a group of protesters and then abandon them, and why there was no attempt to put out the flames until the nation's media had been given time to record the scenes for broadcast around the world.
The fact that so much attention has been directed towards the policing is largely due to the lack of anything newsworthy coming out of the summit itself. Even David Cameron, attending for the first time as British prime minister, published his own desperate plea in the Canadian press this week for summits to be turned into something more than the hot air and photo opportunities they have been in the past. (How this relates to his stated intention to take time out to watch the second half of the England v Germany game with Angela Merkel was not made clear.)
As an invitation-only club whose membership was literally drawn up on the back of an envelope, the G20 never laid any claim to legitimacy. Now it is also in danger of losing any credibility as a forum for global economic governance. Its failure to address any of the structural problems that caused the financial and economic crises of the past three years has certainly not gone unnoticed in Toronto, let alone its complete refusal to deal with the challenge of climate change.
Unbelievably, the G20 is scheduled to hold its next summit in just a few months. If the Canadian experience has taught us anything, it is that such meetings are simply not worth the candle. There are more than enough forums already available for national leaders to discuss the key issues of our time, and almost every one of them has a greater claim to openness and inclusivity than the G20. Now is the time to end the charade of these summits once and for all.