Column: Area businesses blinded by their own self-interest

Business Beat by Mike Hinds

Protest, not profits. That’s what last weekend was about. And that’s what many local businesses seem to have overlooked.

The meetings of the G-20, International Monetary Fund and World Bank saw dozens of delegates flock to the Conference Centre on Rideau Street and thousands of protesters take to the streets. The two-year-old G-20, chaired by Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin, has as its lofty goal international financial stability; the IMF and World Bank have a similar goal, which both organizations seek to attain in large part through loans to financially troubled countries.

As the meetings got underway last weekend, much of the downtown core and the surrounding area were cordoned off to pedestrians – including Daly Street under the Congress Centre, Rideau Street between the Rideau Canal and Sussex, and Mackenzie between Murray and Rideau.

Many local merchants are saying last weekend was disastrous for business, as it kept consumers at home at the start of the holiday shopping season and rendered the streets more or less deserted save for protesters and police. Some businesses might even launch a lawsuit, in an attempt to earn government compensation for losses in sales over the weekend of up to 75 per cent.

To adopt this attitude is to miss the point. Granted business owners – along with their employees – must provide for themselves and often for others; there are 362 other days during the year when they can do this. Never before have the meetings for these three major financial institutions been held concurrently in Ottawa; such an occasion affords the opportunity to make one’s voice heard, and to air one’s discontent with organizations composed of dozens of individuals who help decide the fates of billions. One need only look to Jamaica, Nicaragua, Zaire, Tanzania, and any number of other nations for examples of how IMF and World Bank policies have damaged a country’s infrastructure, as opposed to strengthening it.

As for those shop owners who did suffer a decline in business this past weekend, they should place the blame where it belongs. They should place it on the shoulders of a federal government that chose unilaterally and at the last minute to allow these meetings to be held in Ottawa without even the remotest form of consultation with the local citizenry – a citizenry that includes the business population. It is clear that – one McDonald’s aside – the vast majority of protesters had no intention of harming local area businesses; they sought, rather, to exercise a collective democratic right in the face of unrepentant injustice. Any harm befalling local businesses was an unfortunate side effect bred overwhelmingly of the federal government’s unilateral tendencies and not of protesters’ political views.

That certain streets were shut down and hundreds of police officers on hand had little to do with the protesters themselves. Rather, these are measures bred in part of security concerns stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, coupled with an ongoing effort – conscious or otherwise – on the part of certain voices in the federal government and mainstream media to stigmatize protesters as being both aggressive and hostile. Granted some would claim that the behaviour of protesters in Seattle, Quebec City and elsewhere would justify a major police presence. Yet it has arguably been the behaviour of the police themselves that has elicited the sporadic outbursts of aggression seen on the part of those waving placards in the streets.

Business owners must eat. So, too, must the Third World. The former have all year to provide for themselves. Protesters were in the streets last weekend to ensure that the latter might one day enjoy a similar opportunity. It is truly a shame that many business owners have chosen to focus on the bottom line, not on the bigger picture.