Canada and the World

SUMMIT FOR SALE

Corporations are paying as much as $500,000 for a profile at the Quebec City meeting

Julian Beltrame April 16 2001
Canada and the World

SUMMIT FOR SALE

Corporations are paying as much as $500,000 for a profile at the Quebec City meeting

Julian Beltrame April 16 2001

SUMMIT FOR SALE

Canada and the World

Special Report

Julian Beltrame

It’s everywhere—product placement in movies and television shows, corporate logos at hockey games and cultural events. At the Olympics, companies compete for a chance at the exposure that the ubiquitous “official” designation, tacked onto everything from automobiles to dairy products, brings. But government-run events? In fact, over the past 20 years, corporate sponsorship has become an increasing presence at such gatherings. The April 20 to 22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City will be no different, with more than a dozen Canadian firms paying anywhere from $75,000 to more than $500,000 for exposure. And that has left some critics wondering whether the government-business relationship is getting way too cozy. “What on earth is next?” asks NDP Leader Alexa McDonough. “Is the Prime Minister going to pull the Maple Leaf down from the Peace Tower and replace it with a McDonald’s flag?”

The question is only partially sarcastic.

McDonough and others opposed to the hemispheric free-trade talks point out that by bestowing special insider status on corporations, the federal government is showing favouritism to only one point of view.

While business executives from the Bank of Nova Scotia, Alcan, Bombardier, Domtar and others get to rub shoulders with the 34 heads of government attending, demonstrators are being kept out in the cold behind a 3.8-km chain-link fence and a cordon of police. It’s a tad unseemly, says Duff Conacher, co-ordinator for Democracy Watch, a citizen’s advocacy group.

“Common sense tells you what the government is really selling is access for cash,” he notes.

By that reckoning, corporations may be getting a poor return on their investment. The Bank of Nova Scotia is laying out $500,000 for the privilege of being named one of the lead sponsors, which gets them top billing in signage and at a key social event—the Prime Minister’s cultural gala. Yet Scotiabank chairman and chief executive officer Peter Godsoe is not permitted even to address delegates at the gala. As well, corporate officials are excluded from leaders’ negotiating sessions, says Henry Storgaard, the vice-president of sponsorship with GPC International, a government and public relations consulting firm the Liberal government hired to sign up sponsors for Quebec City.

The closest any sponsors can get to making a pitch to the government heads—what GPC advertises as “a potential speaking opportunity”—is at socials, where some leaders and cabinet ministers may be in attendance. Among other sponsorship benefits, according to a GPC brochure: on-site exhibit space; invitations to “networking events”; brand identification on easels and banners; and a “certificate of appreciation from the Prime Minister of Canada.”

According to some business officials, the prestige of being associated with a large international event is well worth the price. Cisco Systems Canada Co., which is installing about $1.2 million worth of technological gear for the media centre, says it is more interested in showing off its state-of-the-art Internet phone system to an international gathering of journalists than buttonholing politicians. “Access to the leaders is not why we’re there,” says Cisco spokeswoman Willa Black. “Our president is not even going.”

Although General Motors of Canada is not a sponsor in Quebec City, it considers its presence at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver to have been a worthwhile promotion of its vehicles and brand. Networking does go on at summits, says spokesman Stew Low, but it occurs more often with other corporate executives than with world leaders. “They tend to be by-chance opportunities and often you have no control over who you meet,” Low told Macleans.

As for the federal government, corporate sponsorship is simply money in the pocket, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told the House earlier this month. “We’re sharing the cost, so I don’t apologize when I save money for the Canadian taxpayers,” he said, brisding at Opposition allegations that the government was selling access. In fact, a sizable portion of the costs for staging an international summit can be recouped from the sale of sponsorships. The 1999 Francophonie summit in Moncton, N.B., cost Ottawa $9.2 million—excluding security—of which $4.7 million was raised from corporations. Although the government has not finalized the cost for hosting the Quebec City summit, Storgaard estimates the sponsorship program will net about $4.5 million.

So why all the fuss about sponsorships if

Corporations are paying as much as $500,000 for a profile at the Quebec City meeting

access to leaders is so limited? Part of the controversy, says Marc Lortie, the Prime Ministers personal representative for the summit, stems from the rising scmtiny that international conferences now attract. Lortie says corporations have participated at summits in Canada since at least 1981, when Canada hosted the Group of Seven meetings in Montebello, Que. The practice has been going on even longer in other countries, he added.

But in the past, corporate presence was less prevalent, he notes, even as demonstrations, if they occurred at all, were smaller too.

The 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, where thousands of protesters fought black-clad riot police outside the conference centre, changed all that. Ever since, international conferences, particularly those dealing with trade, have become battlegrounds between insiders—governments and corporations that favour liberalized trade—and those who feel

excluded and fear the globalization agenda will undermine worker rights, the environment and other such causes. In Quebec City, organizers are anticipating as many as 30,000 demonstrators, most of them suspicious of the sway corporate interests have on governments. “That is the major difference were seeing today,” Lortie says. “Now, international summits attract demonstrations from those who feel excluded from the process.” Still, even supporters of corporate sponsorship worry that the practice is open to abuse. Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark says he cant recall corporate sponsors being so visible when he was external affairs minister from 1984 to 1991. “I think the time has come to set down some rules,” he says, governing what corporations can and cannot do at international summits. For instance, Clark believes corporate executives would have been permitted to address leaders in Quebec City if the is| sue hadn’t been raised in the ! House last month. But Eric I Pelletier, a spokesman for the I department of foreign affairs and international trade, says there is no need for new rules since corporate behaviour is already regulated by the summit sponsorship contracts companies sign. For instance, he says, the government limits access to leaders and will ensure that corporate banners do not visually dominate the conference centre. “It’ll be done tastefully,” he says. “We’re not talking about the Adanta Olympics here.” The irony, Lortie claims, is that even groups that complain about the overcommercialization of international summits may have come to view sponsorship as the price of doing business. Organizers of the April 16 to 20 People’s Summit, which will attract more than 10,000 opponents of the official conference, also went looking for sponsors to pay for their event, he notes. They came to the federal government—which chipped in $300,000 to help stage a talk-fest whose main purpose is to derail its own summit. There is a lesson in that, Lortie says: money doesn’t necessarily buy influence. Those corporations shelling out funds for a chance at summit visibility might not necessarily agree. [13