Around 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, the politics of northeastern Africa spilled out into a west end Toronto park.
A festival organized by Eritreans to take place in Earlscourt Park was crashed by protesters. Violence between the two sides followed, including a man armed with a knife, according to police.
After police intervened, the festival briefly resumed, before officers said more protesters arrived at the event with weapons.
It spilled from the park onto St. Clair Avenue West and at 10 p.m., 12 hours after the skirmishes started, the City of Toronto revoked its licence.
Both the festival’s organizers and protesters hail from Toronto’s Eritrean-Canadian community.
What is happening in Eritrea?
The Eritrean government has been described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive.
The country won independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, and since then, Eritrea has been led by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election. Millions of residents have fled the country, avoiding conditions including forced military conscription.
The United Nations human rights office reported earlier in 2023 that the human rights situation in Eritrea “remained dire and showed no signs of improvement.” It listed credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and restrictions on rights like peaceful protest.
“The situation in Eritrea was extremely dire; there were no elections, no parliament, no universities, no independent media and no opposing political parties,” the report read.
Awet Weldemichael, a professor at Queen’s University with specific knowledge of the Horn of Africa, said the situation in Eritrea is unimaginable.
“The same president rules the country with an iron fist… the same ruling party (since its independence),” he said.
Since 1998, he said the country has been on a war footing. Weldemichael said young men and women are conscripted into the military and are kept there for “years and years on end.”
Those that escape the country have to make a perilous journey.
They generally travel across the Sahara desert and onwards up to the north of Africa, followed by a dangerous journey through the Mediterranean or Atlantic oceans, into Europe and beyond.
“Trauma that accumulated over these processes is not something that I can even comprehend, much less explain,” Weldemichael said.
Why did protesters appear at a Toronto festival?
The festival in Toronto, along with other similar events around the world, is directly linked to the governing party in Eritrea, according to Weldemichael.
“This is a festival that is, for the most part, organized by Eritrea’s ruling party, and the vast majority — I can’t say all of them — who frequent that festival, are sympathizers or supporters or loyalists of the ruling party in government,” he said.
He said the violence on Saturday was not the first time there had been protests at festivals.
In a Change.org petition, a group of just over 1,700 people appealed to the Toronto Sheraton hotel to cancel another part of the Eritrea Festival, arguing it is linked to the government’s ruling regime.
“The event is sponsored by the totalitarian regime of Eritrea through operatives in Toronto to raise funds to finance its military establishment,” the petition alleged.
A contention for the protesters, many of whom have fled across the world to escape the Eritrean regime, is that a festival linked to the regime will retraumatize them “in a place where they feel they have received some kind of protection,” Weldemichael said.
“They feel that the ruling party that is at the heart of their pain inside the country is chasing them and celebrating itself and holding such festivities to spread its worldviews, its propaganda, and to raise funds,” he told Global News.
Weldemichael said that, while the Toronto event did have a history of cultural celebrations, it would be inaccurate to say it wasn’t a political festival.
“There is a political gathering that happens simultaneously or concurrently with the other nonpolitical things that involve (people who are) not necessarily regime supporters,” he explained.
Similar tensions played out last week in Sweden during an Eritrean festival in the capital city of Stockholm. About a thousand protesters disrupted the event, leaving dozens injured.
What did the two sides say?
People aligned with festival organizers and the protesters have vastly different accounts of Saturday.
The Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (CECCO), which has posted on social media in support of the event, said peaceful people were attacked while celebrating. The group said it had feared violence at the event and called for police support in the days leading up to the festival.
The account also posted a message it said came from the festival’s coordinating committee, calling the city’s decision to cancel its permit “regrettable.” It called the demonstrators “a violent extremist group” and said the city’s decision “rubber stamps” their plans to disrupt and cancel the festival.
Lambros Kiriakakos, chair of the CECCO, said the attack happened during the annual Eritrean Festival at Earlscourt Park.
He said festival helpers were attacked as they were setting up the event in the morning. “This is a long weekend celebration and they were trying to get it cancelled,” he told Global News.
Kiriakakos said the festival was “patriotic” and supports the country’s independence. “In that sense, they will always be linked to national Eritrean society institutions, Eritrean NGOs and welcome(s) representatives of the people, government, Canadian MPs and faith groups, he said.
The protesters opposed Eritrean independence, Kiriakakos alleged.
The CECCO said the festival had been held peacefully for three decades.
Those aligned with the protesters, however, argue the event promotes a repressive regime and is used to fund its operations, including brutal conscription.
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.”
Demoz was conscripted in Eritrea when he was 19 and fled through multiple African countries. He said that, while he remained on the African continent, Eritrean forces and security services worked to bring those who had fled the country back.
The festival and its symbols of the Eritrean government were reminiscent of the tentacles the regime has that extend through parts of Africa, he said. The festival is also directly linked to regime fundraising, he claimed.
The biggest divide between protesters’ and festival organizers’ view of the ruling Eritrean government is generational, Demoz said.
He said those who fled the country while it was still ruled by the Ethiopian government linked the current government to independence, while younger refugees directly experienced the brutality of the regime.
“They were established here, they have kids that were born and raised here, so they struggle to differentiate between the interests of Eritrea as a sovereign state and the current conditions that many young people like myself faced in Eritrea,” he said.
What action has been taken?
The City of Toronto has cancelled the permit for the festival, which was originally due to run through the long weekend.
“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,” a statement from the city on Saturday night 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.”
Global News asked Toronto police if any changes had been laid. A response was not received in time for publication.