An Eritrean cultural festival in Toronto was cut short on the weekend after violent clashes between the participants and a group of protesters sent nine people to hospital, prompting the city to revoke the organizers’ permit.
The clashes on Saturday were the latest in a series of violent incidents that have recently taken place at similar events in other countries, with anti-Eritrean government protesters accusing the participants of supporting a regime that human rights groups consider one of the world’s most repressive.
Festival Eritrea descended into chaos almost from the start on Saturday, and Toronto police deployed the riot squad to Earlscourt Park in the city’s west end after skirmishes broke out at around 10 a.m. The tensions continued throughout the day.
Danait Mehreteab said her father was among the volunteers helping to set up the site of the festival when the protesters showed up. “They beat my father unconscious with a metal bat and a chair, and now he has 12 staples in his head and a fracture in his spine,” she said.
Ms. Mehreteab was not on-site at the time but said she arrived later and has since spoken with her father at the hospital. She said the attack was unprovoked and led by a large group wearing blue shirts.
Protesters said they showed up to demonstrate against the festival, which they alleged supports the government of Eritrea. Ms. Mehreteab disputed that claim, saying it was a community event that had nothing to do with politics.
Since winning independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, the small Horn of Africa nation 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.
“We see here the expression of a diaspora divided between, on the one hand, individuals disillusioned and disappointed with the political decisions taken in Eritrea and, on the other hand, immigrants who wish to remain connected to their roots and celebrate their culture,” said Elisanne Pellerin, a political scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
Last week, an Eritrea-themed cultural festival in a Stockholm suburb took a violent turn when about a thousand protesters opposed to the African country’s government stormed the event, leaving at least 52 people injured. Police later reported between 100 and 200 people were detained. A similar incident in Germany early in July left more than 20 police officers injured and led to more than 100 arrests.
“The fact that events in Toronto are disrupted like those in Stockholm is obviously no coincidence,” Ms. Pellerin said. “Echoes of the Stockholm disturbances encourage protesters to use the same methods to draw attention to their claims.”
In Toronto, police said they first received reports of a person with a knife Saturday around 10 a.m. They said fights broke out in the park and a tent was set on fire. Nine people were taken to hospital, one of whom with serious injuries from a stab wound, while other victims sustained non-life-threatening wounds.
Constable Laura Brabant said in an e-mail there is an ongoing investigation into the incident, but did not say whether police had made any arrests or if any charges would be laid.
Social media pages promoting the festival in Toronto did not answer The Globe and Mail’s questions Sunday, and neither did the Consulate General of Eritrea in Toronto.
One page, “Eritrean Canadians,” posted Sunday afternoon that festivities would continue that night at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. An online petition calling for the Sheraton to cancel the event had accumulated more than 1,700 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
“The event is sponsored by the totalitarian regime of Eritrea through operatives in Toronto to raise funds to finance its military establishment,” the petition alleges. “The Eritrean government is one of the most repressive regimes in the world that continues to commit gross human rights violations and war crimes.”
The Sheraton did not answer The Globe’s questions.
In response to Saturday’s events, the City of Toronto said it revoked the festival’s permit at Earlscourt Park, meaning the festival will not be allowed to proceed there any more. “The City is working with the event organizers to address the impact this may have on festival attendees and activities,” it said in a statement shared on social media, noting the event has been held there annually for several years.
Councillor Alejandra Bravo, who represents the ward where the park is located, denounced the outbreak of violence Saturday.
“I deplore the violent attack in Earlscourt Park this morning that has shaken our community,” she wrote in a tweet. “Use of violence as an intimidation tactic is never acceptable.”
Ms. Pellerin, the political scientist, said the events were unfortunate and risked injuring innocent bystanders as well as being weaponized by anti-immigration groups, as immigration is increasingly contested in Canada and Europe.
With reports from The Canadian Press and the Associated Press.