Bush jokes as protesters burn his effigy in Montreal
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, October 22, 2009 5:11PM EDT
MONTREAL - As George W. Bush cracked jokes with a business crowd inside a hotel ballroom Thursday, hundreds of people outside the building cheered while he was being burned in effigy.
Police in riot gear and others on horseback held back a crowd of hundreds, including many people who tossed shoes at Montreal's historic Queen Elizabeth Hotel in a demonstration of disdain for the man speaking inside.
Two protesters who tried forcing their way through the line of shield- and baton-carrying police were wrestled to the ground and arrested.
Montreal police said several officers were hit by flying objects, but none were injured. Five people were arrested for mischief and disturbing the peace.
Ironically, this demonstration took place outside the same hotel where John Lennon's antiwar anthem "Give Peace a Chance" was recorded in 1969.
Chants of "George Bush terrorist" echoed in the street as some of the 300 protesters lashed out at the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal for rolling out the red carpet for him.
Many protesters said he should be arrested and charged with war crimes.
Inside the hotel, nearly 1,000 spectators paid as much as $400 to hear Bush speak during the latest stop on his Canadian tour.
He got a standing ovation when he first took the podium to address the eager audience.
"I believe in free speech -- except not today," he quipped, drawing laughs and a huge applause.
Many in the highly supportive crowd guffawed at most of Bush's jokes. The first 10 minutes of his 37-minute speech could have been mistaken for a standup routine.
In his first visit to Montreal, the former U.S. president warmed up his audience by referring to local hockey legends Maurice and Henri Richard.
"I was an avid sports fan (growing up) and I actually knew who the Rocket and the Pocket Rocket were," Bush recalled of his childhood days in the "deserts of west Texas."
Other cracks were more of the self-deprecating kind.
"Look, I hope you can understand me -- I can't understand you," Bush joked through his thick Texas accent.
"As you might remember, during my presidency some of my critics made it clear that English was not my long suit."
He praised the close trade relationship between the U.S. and Canada and thanked Canadian soldiers for their efforts in Afghanistan.
But Bush spent most of his time on stage defending his heavily criticized White House legacy, including how he handled the financial crisis, Iraq and the aftermath of 9-11.
He also brushed off his record-low public approval ratings at the end of his tumultuous presidency.
"If you chase popularity in life, you're often times going to be wrong," he said.
"The only thing that really matters is that when you look in the mirror you'll be proud of what you see."
Outside in the street, activists couldn't imagine why Bush, who spoke in Edmonton and Saskatoon earlier this week, had been invited to the Canadian cities.
"He has nothing to offer," said Helen Hannah, a colourfully dressed member of the Raging Grannies.
"He stands for modes of torture, modes of warfare and modes of lying that don't represent the way most Americans and most Canadians want to face the world -- we don't believe in those things."
Andre Gravel said Bush was a bad president who was incompetent on many levels, including his handling of the environment, the wars in the Middle East and the economy.
The conflicts Bush waged in Afghanistan and Iraq have destabilized world peace, he added.
"I am in favour of (his) right to speak," Gravel said.
"But we have the right to protest against him.
"Everything he did was negative."
Demonstrators blew horns and lobbed footwear at the front entrance of the hotel -- a symbolic act to pay homage to the Iraqi journalist who was jailed for throwing his shoes at Bush.
They also torched a life-sized dummy of the former president.
Following Bush's speech, the former president fielded questions from event moderator John Parisella, the former chief of staff to the late Quebec premier Robert Bourassa.
Parisella asked Bush about his more controversial decisions as president, including the American-led invasion of Iraq.
Bush stood up for the action he took in Iraq, even though the country's former president, Saddam Hussein, never had weapons of mass destruction.
"Had he been in power today, he'd have them," he replied in a defensive tone.
Bush contends he made calls from the Oval Office as best he could with the information he had at the time -- and he has few regrets about them.
"I'm not a hand-wringer, John -- I'm not one of these guys that go: 'Oh man, woe is me,' " he said.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Lennon's recording of "Give Peace a Chance" with wife Yoko Ono during their bed-in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth.
"It's a really sad and tragic irony," said protester Jaggi Singh.
"All we are saying is not just 'give peace a chance' ... we're saying peace comes with justice, peace comes with dignity, peace comes when people struggle for peace and for justice and for dignity."