The organizer of an Edmonton Eritrean Festival says the community will not be deterred after violent confrontations around the city drew riot police Saturday.
The event celebrating the east African country Eritrea saw its permit withdrawn by the police, along with the city of Edmonton, because of “rising tensions,” and soon after clashes broke out at a soccer field in a northwest neighbourhood.
Just before 2 p.m., more than 80 police officers were separating one crowd demonstrating against the Eritrean government from another. Some men were armed with wooden sticks, and police said 11 people were injured and taken to hospital.
Hours later, police had formed a barrier between protesters near 34 Avenue and 93 Street. Nearby, at the Maharaja Banquet Hall, windows were smashed out. Several cars outside the establishment also had windows broken.
Lambros Kyriakakos, chairperson of the Coalition of the Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, told Postmedia Sunday after 40 years of running the festival, organizers will not be deterred.
“We will try to solve it in a peaceful way, but definitely, the festival will only grow,” he said.
“It’s a new generation that grew up through this festival that is determined to continue the legacy that brought all people together, and gave a sense of identity of pride, of connection to the motherland and connection to the local community,” he said.
As of Saturday, no arrests had been made, and Edmonton police did not immediately provide an update Sunday.
Still, the impact was tangible in the morning, with police cars stationed at Rosslyn park, and one police source telling Postmedia the Kidane Mehret Eritrean Orthodox Chruch had been threatened with another potential protest, where security was on hand at the gates.
Saturday’s brawl in Edmonton is not the first to flare up among the Eritrean diaspora in Europe and North America.
Earlier this month, a cultural event in Toronto turned ugly, drawing the police’s riot squad and sending nine people to hospital.
Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia more than three decades ago. Its president, Isaias Afwerki, has never held elections, closed independent newspapers in 2001, and according to Human Rights Watch, continues to conscript Eritreans into indefinite military or civil service.
An online petition, signed by more than 2,000 people, aimed to shut down the Edmonton festival ahead of time. It alleged the local event was “sponsored by the totalitarian regime of Eritrea through operatives in Edmonton to raise funds to finance its military establishment,” echoing the language of a similar petition in Toronto.
Kyriakakos said the Edmonton event, run by more than 500 volunteers, was established well before Eritrean independence. Organizers and attendees fundraise for orphaned children of war and families that lost members during the country’s struggle for liberation, but most funds stay in Canada, he said, adding entrance to park activities are free, and tickets for the music concert barely cover costs.
“We had the permit revoked due to the fact that somebody else decided to cross the line of being demonstrative to becoming aggressive,” said Kyriakakos, adding that the festival has always been celebratory and peaceful, but this year was different.
“How come all of a sudden it all turns out to be the target? Nothing has really changed in Canada. What has changed is the geopolitics in the Horn of Africa,” he said.
-with files from David Bloom