Bush comes to Calgary

By Katy Anderson

Perhaps the most powerful man in the world for the last eight years, former president of the United States George W. Bush, gave his first speech since leaving office in Calgary on Tuesday.

The setting outside the Telus Convention Centre was intense as approximately 200 shoe-baring protestors rallied outside– four of whom were arrested– and at least two snipers were visible on the rooftop of a neighboring building.

The Calgary Police Service separated the activists from the 1,500 guests who had paid $400 to hear the Texan speak. Guests included members of Calgary’s economic elite– one protestor suggested to a friend that these were the real capitalists, “all they were missing was a monocle”– to two of Calgary’s aldermen, John Mar and Ric McIvor, and former-Alberta premier Ralph Klein.

The lunch not only garnered front pages in the city, but across the continent. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann featured the event on his Countdown program, bringing Canadian Gail Davidson of Lawyers Against the War onto his program.

Davidson led the fight in calling for Stephen Harper, who declined to comment on Bush’s visit, to bar the former American president from Canada.

Davidson told Olbermann (link to YouTube clip) and his viewers that Canada has a legal obligation under the Convention Against Torture to either prosecute him or extradite him to a country that is willing and able to do so.

“The fact of the matter is, if we’re going to look at stamping out torture, the torture created and administered by the Bush administration has to be remedied and one of the principal remedies is criminal prosecutions of those people that are responsible,” she said.

Conservative MP for Calgary-Centre Lee Richardson was on hand for Tuesday’s lunch. Richardson said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but thought the speech was “remarkable.”

“He had a grasp of the issues that surprised me, frankly, from seeing him on television and throughout his presidency,” said Richardson. “He must have stiffened up in front of a camera and he just didn’t relate. He said very many of the same things, but he didn’t say them as awkwardly.”

Pengrowth Corporation vice-president Charles V. Selby, who had the opportunity to meet Bush before the speech, said Bush came across as a very thoughtful, principled man.

“Given the opportunity to explain a lot of the decisions that he made, we can see that there’s a real rationale behind them and I think he will be judged more favourably by history than perhaps most of the commentators in the press have given him credit for recently,” said Selby, noting Bush was “certainly among friends here in Calgary.”

The protesting crowd outside, however, indicated not all Calgarians were pleased Bush chose their city as the friendliest option to test out his speaking career.

Protestors yelled at many of the guests, alleging they were complicit to war crimes and should be ashamed of themselves for paying the large amount to dine with a criminal.

Nikki Baker, who held a sign calling for Bush to be arrested, said she thought it was important that the world saw that there are people in Calgary “who do not think Bush is welcome here,” noting the invitation made the city look “barbaric.”

“George Bush is an enormous war criminal and he should be in jail,” she said. “I think it’s really, really sad that he was invited to Calgary for lunch instead of getting arrested. He should be tried for war crimes.”

Not everyone at the event thought of Bush’s visit in black and white terms. Peter Yates, a lawyer who received a ticket to the event from his company, said, if nothing else, the speech was entertaining.

A dual citizen, Yates registered to vote in the 2004 U.S. election so he could vote against the unpopular president.

Yates said Bush reiterated a lot of positions he’d already told, adding, “It was as you’d expect from George, a lot of personal stories about growing up on the farm.”

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