George W. Bush gets rough welcome to Canada
Jim Ross-The Canadian Press
A protestor outside Toronto's Metro Convention centre, May 29, 2009.
If the protest fits, people will throw shoes.
The footwear piled up outside Montreal's historic Queen Elizabeth Hotel Thursday, where former U.S. president George W. Bush spoke to a business crowd during the latest stop on his Canadian tour.
Inside the hotel, Bush joked with some 1,000 spectators who paid as much as $400 to hear his pearls of wisdom.
"I believe in free speech - except not today," he quipped, drawing laughs and huge applause.
Bush seems to illicit strong support or intense disgust wherever he goes. Throwing footwear at the Texan is a move that first made headlines last year when an Iraqi journalist was jailed for tossing his shoes at Bush's head.
The act of throwing shoes, or showing the sole of the one's shoe, is an insult used primarily in the Arab world.
'Canada is not Bush country' Angry demonstrators, many demanding Bush's arrest as a war criminal, have followed the former president from venue to venue this week. In Edmonton, hundreds gathered outside a downtown conference centre holding signs that read "Canada is not Bush Country." The next day in Saskatoon, hundreds more chanted "Arrest Bush now" from behind barricades.
Montreal activists outdid their Western counterparts, throwing shoes at riot police ringed around the hotel and burning an effigy. Protestors who tried forcing their way through the line of shield-and-baton-carrying cops were wrestled to the ground and arrested.
But on Bush's first visit to Montreal, his backwater charisma charmed the audience. The first 10 minutes of his 37-minute speech could have been mistaken for a standup routine. He earned extra brownie points for 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," he drawled.
"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 the 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.
No one, not even the protesters outside, were likely to accuse Bush of seeking popularity, whatever else their grievances.
Nothing to offer Protesters did express surprise at Bush's invitation to speak in Canada.
"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."
Following Bush's speech, moderator John Parisella quizzed the former president on his more controversial decisions while in office, 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, was never found to have weapons of mass destruction.
"Had he been in power today, he'd have them," he replied.
Bush contends he made calls from the Oval Office as best he could with the information he was given - 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.' "
Ironically, the speech, and sometimes violent demonstration, took place at the same hotel where John Lennon's antiwar anthem 'Give Peace a Chance' was recorded in 1969. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Lennon and wife Yoko Ono's bed-in for peace.
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If the shoe fits, throw it! Photos of the Canadian protests: