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Toronto's downtown banks empty out ahead of G20

Business owners, bankers and brokers who normally throng Toronto's busy financial district have made themselves scarce ahead of this weekend's Group of Twenty summit, in the face of a growing police presence and planned protests. With security worries mounting and traffic disruptions expected to increase, banks are shutting downtown branches and have told many employees to work from home.

business Updated: Jun 24, 2010 13:23 IST

Business owners, bankers and brokers who normally throng Toronto's busy financial district have made themselves scarce ahead of this weekend's Group of Twenty summit, in the face of a growing police presence and planned protests. With security worries mounting and traffic disruptions expected to increase, banks are shutting downtown branches and have told many employees to work from home.

The few that have shown up for work have dressed down, swapping expensive Brioni and Canali suits for casual Polo shirts and slacks to avoid making themselves targets of protesters who have promised to disrupt the downtown ahead of and during the June 26-27 Toronto summit.

The smaller summit of the rich Group of Eight countries will take place in the resort town of Huntsville, Ontario, 215 km (135 miles) north of Toronto, just ahead of the broader G20 gathering.

"Business has virtually stopped this week. Clients say they're working from home, but for a lot of them, home happens to be (summer cottages) for the week," said John Ing, president of Toronto investment dealer Maison Placements.

"Meetings have been postponed, because restaurants are closed."

In a very visible sign of the exodus from Toronto's business core, lineups at popular coffee shops that would normally stretch out the door during business hours have shrunk dramatically. Some smaller sandwich shops have already closed as business drops off.

"It's disruptive, is what it is," a senior currency trader at a Toronto bank said of the security precautions.

"We have people going to different areas because we don't all want to be trying to come to work at the regular office if we can't get through (due to protests or police)." He said market volumes were weaker due to the run-up to the G20, as many of the bank's clients were reducing staff to deal with security issues.

Given the proximity of Canadian banks' head offices to the G20 summit, where financial sector reform will be a key issue, there are fears the office buildings and nearby branches could become targets for protesters.

That concern was underscored by the firebombing of a Royal Bank of Canada branch in Ottawa last month. An anarchist group claimed responsibility for the blaze, which caused about C$500,000 in damages, and said it also planned to disrupt the G20 summit. Police arrested three man last week in connection with the firebombing.

"We will be closing some branches in close proximity to the security zone and putting in a plan to ensure that our critical businesses continue to operate," said Rob McLeod, a spokesman for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Canada's No. 5 bank.

A total of about three dozen branches among the big banks are expected to be closed during the summit.

Fears of violence prompted the U.S. State Department last week to recommend that Americans avoid downtown Toronto ahead of and during the G20, due to the potential for large demonstrations that could turn nasty.

The security bill for the two summits -- estimated around C$1 billion ($960 million) -- is far above the cost for past gatherings and has been a subject of public and political criticism.

Protests, meanwhile, have begun to disrupt traffic on downtown streets, although not in the immediate summit area, where the police presence is heavy and three-metre (10-foot) fences have been erected.

A group of about 100 people walked through the main downtown commercial area earlier this week and briefly disrupted operations at a gas station.

One organizer said a reason for the demonstration was to observe police tactics.

Police, whose presence has been notable over the past week with personnel brought in from several regional forces, sent more than 90 officers to the protest, nearly outnumbering the activists.

"It's our belief the vast majority of protests will be peaceful," said Constable Wendy Drummond of the G8/G20 Integrated Security Unit, which combines teams from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Armed Forces, and Toronto and other Ontario police services .

But some downtown workers are determined not to get swept up in worries about security or violent protests in the downtown core. Maison Placements' Ing stubbornly remained in his downtown office on Wednesday and plans to work normal hours.

"What do we expect, World War Two on our streets? I don't expect that," he said.