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The Fence

  • Homepage photo used under creative commons licensing. Original author can be found here.

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

The Fence was almost as high as my house. It might have been made by Frost, but not by Robert, who once spent a day with his neighbour mending the wall between them. Frost’s neighbour had but one thought: “good fences make good neighbours.” But Frost wondered what they were walling in, or who out, and to whom their fence might be giving offence. And so did I. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That’s for sure. In Toronto in June 2010 it was about 3 million people.

We walked The Fence, my wife and I, all along its northern perimeter that stretched from Bay Street to Blue Jays Way. We were always well within the 5-metre challenge zone, but we were never challenged. That surprised me a little. I thought that Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair had gone to Premier McGuinty and asked for more powers and that the Ontario Cabinet had obliged with an Order in Council that gave the police the right to ask you for identification, search you, and if they didn’t like the way you looked to arrest you anywhere within five metres of The Fence.

It wasn’t until after the G20 that the police admitted that the 5-meter zone only applied inside The Fence. That information, said Chief Blair, was plainly posted on a government website for anyone with a computer (and the arcane knowledge needed to navigate government websites) to find. Hmmm. I seem to recall, in my walkabout downtown, watching police poking into bags of disgruntled citizens as far from The Fence as College Street. Oh well, give some people five metres and they’ll take a kilometre.

Walking The Fence with us was a woman with a megaphone assuring the police inside that those of us outside still loved them and cared for their families. Cute, but it was just another one-way conversation of the kind Robert had with his neighbour, and I heard later that all that love just got her arrested anyway. Also walking The Fence was a couple of young men, university students they looked like, after dialogue too, I suppose. One wore a London Bobby’s hat and used it as a conversation starter.

“Hey!” he’d shout to the police officers inside. “Like my hat? How ya doin’ in there? Getting warm out, eh?” Typically Canadian stuff.

Some of the officers called back, “Nice hat” or “Better than snow” or “How about those Jays, eh?” (Roy Halladay’s confrontation with the Blue Jays had been bumped to the City of Brotherly Love, and on Friday, the Phillies blew team Toronto out of Citizens Bank Park.) Easy conversation of the kind Robert’s neighbour liked. But the cops didn’t question The Fence either, or what they had walled in or out or whom their Fence offended.

A few staff members of G20 delegations were there, inside The Fence. They looked out at us puzzled as if they had come down to witness the mayhem they had seen on TV and were disappointed to find only a middle-aged couple, a girl with a megaphone preaching love, and a guy in a Bobby hat flashing peace signs.

Where was the rampaging mob they had been told were at the gates? Where were the vandals? I was wondering the same thing. The Fence was easy enough to get to. We had done it and we weren’t even pros at this sort of thing. But The Fence gave the impression of danger-to the leaders of the world and to democracy itself. It was a palpable defence against the forces of darkness and dissolution and watching it go up was enough to scare you into believing the axis of evil itself was about to overrun civilization right here in downtown Toronto.

But now that we were in front of it, and no one was battering it down, The Fence seemed superfluous and not a little ridiculous, like the riot cops I saw earlier who came rushing out of an alley to protect the American Consulate after half the parade of demonstrators had already passed. Whether the builders of The Fence intended this sleight of hand or even understood who it was they were walling out, I cannot say.

The demonstrators didn’t want to breach The Fence. I heard no one in the 10,000 strong protest march shout, “Get The Fence” or “Down with The Fence.” They just wanted to tell their leaders what they thought about the world. As for the dreaded Black Block and their vow to sack the City, they couldn’t be less interested in The Fence.

If you think about it, The Fence not only had no attraction for the anarchists, it actually served their agenda. Thousands of police and security officials were stuck behind its walls and unable, or unwilling, to protect the windows of Yonge Street. Well, as my wife said on the way home, we didn’t pay a billion dollars for brains.

David McLaren has worked for government, private industry, NGOs and First Nations. He is a writer living on the shores of Georgian Bay at Neyaashiinigmiing, but has been in Toronto for the past year.


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