The City of Toronto has revoked the license for a festival held in one of its parks after the event turned violent on Saturday.
Police officers from across the city spent much of that day at Earlscourt Park, near St. Clair Avenue West and Caledonia Road, as political tensions spilled over at Festival Eritrea, pitting festival-goers against counter-protesters in a prolonged face off.
Police first responded to the incident around 10 a.m., after receiving reports of skirmishes that damaged tents and of a man at the festival site carrying a knife.
Organized by members of Toronto’s Eritrean community, the festival was intended to be a cultural celebration of the small Horn of Africa nation. The protesters, Eritrean themselves, said they supported the government and came to the park to demonstrate.
Since winning independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, Eritrea has been led by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election. Millions of residents have fled the country to avoid conditions including forced military conscription. Human rights groups describe Afwerki’s regime as one of the world’s most oppressive.
The chair of a prominent Eritrean organization, who supported the festival, told Global News he had feared the event could turn ugly and asked police for help days earlier. Toronto police did not confirm they had received a request for increased protection.
Lambros Kiriakakos, chair of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (CECCO), said phone calls were made to two local police divisions voicing concern the festival could be attacked.
“The festival organizer informed the police earlier this week,” he said, adding organizers of the festival were attacked while they were setting up on Saturday morning.
Dawit Demoz, who is aligned with the protesters and fled Eritrea before making his way to Toronto, said the event was organized by sympathizers of the Eritrean government and traumatized those that had fled the repressive regime.
“Young people are not allowed to independently work and go to education, they are all under military conscription, there is no economic activity,” he told Global News.
“The only reason the Eritrean government gets foreign currency, support and power to remain in control of Eritrea is the diaspora. The young people oppose the Eritrean government, they want their countries to be safe, they don’t want anything to retraumatize them. They don’t want (government) flags waving around our parks.”
Tensions at the park continued throughout the day under a growing police presence and eventually spilled out onto local roads as the crowds were dispersed.
Around the middle of the day, after initial clashes, police said nine people had been taken to hospital, including one person who was stabbed. The others were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
Late on Saturday, the City of Toronto issued a statement saying the permit for the festival, which has been held in the park for several years, had been cancelled.
“The City of Toronto is aware of violent incidents that took place today in Earlscourt Park and a protest at the site continues to unfold,” the statement, sent to Global News just before midnight, said.
“In the interest of public safety, the City has revoked the festival’s permit at Earlscourt Park – as of 10 p.m. on Saturday, August 5 – meaning the festival will not be allowed to proceed.”
Coun. Alejandra Bravo, the local city hall representative, said she deplored the violence. “Use of violence as an intimidation tactic is never acceptable,” she said in a statement.
Toronto has not been the only scene of such protests in recent days.
Swedish media reported an Eritrea-themed cultural festival in a Stockholm suburb took a violent turn on Thursday when about a thousand protesters opposed to the African country’s government stormed the event, leaving at least 52 people injured.
— with files from The Canadian Press