Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray, the general manager of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel, was visiting relatives in the south of France in his native Basque region about a year ago when he received a call from the federal government.
He didn’t know it at the time, but federal employees had made three incognito visits to the hotel to scope it out and determine whether it was fit to welcome seven of the most prominent heads of state in the world.
“The person on the phone wanted to talk to me — he never said he was from the G7,” Etcheberrigaray said. “The news came about a month and a half later.”
“Of course they told me why they chose the Manoir — the reason is because we are very beautiful,” Etcheberrigaray said, standing on the grounds of the hotel as workers buzzed behind him tending to the garden on the Pointe-au-Pic cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
The 405-room Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie will host the 44th annual G7 summit on June 8-9, when the leaders of seven industrialized countries, their spouses and other dignitaries make their way to the idyllic Charlevoix region about 150 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
As the final mounds of dirt-capped snow recently melted on the hotel grounds, the property was beginning to resemble a sealed fortress, ready to host a serious number of VIPs.
A metal fence has been erected around the hotel through the forested area surrounding the building, down to the shore of the St. Lawrence River. A thick, black cable is fastened along the centre of the metal fencing, supplying electricity to the security cameras mounted along the length of the structure.
Global Affairs Canada has rented the entire hotel from May 27 to June 12.
Management office spokeswoman Alexandra Young wouldn’t give the specific number of people invited to the summit but said the journalists, security personnel and delegates who will gather at the Manoir will be in the “multiple thousands.”
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The hotel is located in the so-called “red zone,” a fenced-in area strictly controlled by the RCMP, the police force that is taking the lead on the event’s security.
Like the layers of an onion, another fenced-in “green zone” with nine entry points will be established around the red zone, accessible to residents and business owners with proper accreditation.
Circulation will be free outside the green zone, said RCMP Sgt. Camille Habel, who is also acting as a spokesperson for the summit security team, which is composed of members of the RCMP, the Canadian Forces, provincial police and officers from the Quebec City and Saguenay municipal forces.
While protesters are largely expected to converge in Quebec City, police have set up a controversial “free speech” area in the so-called white zone of La Malbaie.
Civil liberties groups have deplored the fact the RCMP has established an immense security perimeter and isn’t allowing protesters to get anywhere near the hotel, increasing the likelihood, they say, of large-scale arrests.
Habel said protesters will be allowed to leave the so-called free-speech zone, but will have to remain peaceful.
“As long as people follow the rules, they are allowed to walk around with a sign elsewhere,” she said, referring to areas outside the red and green perimeters. “So if people go (outside the free-speech zone) we’ll treat it as a case-by-case issue.”
Amnesty International and a Quebec civil liberties advocacy group are also concerned about how protesters will be treated at a detention centre that is being set up north of La Malbaie to house arrested activists.
RCMP spokesman Erique Gasse said there will be an “operational centre for the treatment of offenders” adjacent to the arena in Clermont.
He said he didn’t know how big it will be, how many detainees it can fit or in what stage of construction it was as of early May.
The last time Canada hosted a similar event, the 2010 G20 in Toronto, officers arrested hundreds of people, a process made easier after the city’s police chief was granted a special regulation by the provincial government that gave authorities additional temporary powers to detain people around the security zone.
Quebec’s Public Security Department confirmed that no such requests had been made from police for the G7 in Charlevoix.
Habel said she wasn’t aware of any either.
“I know that we haven’t asked for any special requests of any kind to have laws changed because there is a G7,” she said in an interview.
Back at the Manoir Richelieu, Etcheberrigaray said his team is ready to deliver the “G7 execution.”
“We have to be impeccable as far as the product itself,” he said. “The carpet, the rooms, the paint (on the walls). The execution from my team is more about the food and beverage aspect — all the meals. There will be lots of VIPs and (Ottawa) wants it to be smooth.”
The Manoir Richelieu is renowned across the province for positive and negative reasons: its history is as storied as it is controversial.
It was first built in 1899 and destroyed by fire in 1928 before being rebuilt a year later.
Its golf course was opened by former U.S. president William Taft in 1925 and the Manoir has welcomed generations of well-known Canadians appreciative of the surrounding landscape, nature and tranquility.
The Manoir is also infamous for a multi-year labour conflict that resulted in the death of a protester who was suffocated by a provincial police officer in the mid-1980s.
Wealthy businessman Raymond Malenfant bought the property from the Quebec government in 1985 for $555,555.55 and refused to recognize the union representing the hotel’s 350 employees.
During the conflict, workers had broken in and ransacked the hotel. In the end, the union was broken and all the employees lost their jobs. Malenfant, who had reportedly amassed a fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars by the 1980s, eventually went bankrupt by the early 1990s.
Etcheberrigaray said that while the Manoir is well-known in Quebec, he hopes the G7 will raise its profile internationally.
“There is something special about the hotel,” he said. “It’s very spiritual.”