African-Canadian bar owners hit with 'militaristic style' police inspections, Edmonton coalition says

A human rights coalition has demanded a community meeting with Edmonton’s police chief to discuss concerns about local African-Canadian businesses being targeted for “militaristic style” business inspections.

Coalition for Justice and Human Rights demands meeting with police chief to discuss heavy-handed treatment

The coalition says it has heard from other business owners of African descent who say their bars have also been unfairly targeted by police. (Nyala Lounge)

A human rights coalition has demanded a community meeting with Edmonton's police chief to discuss concerns about local African-Canadian businesses being targeted for "militaristic style" business inspections.

The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights issued a media release Wednesday following a series of  meetings with the owner of Nyala Lounge and its patrons and staff, plus other business owners.

Nyala owner Moe Tesfay has accused police of racial profiling and harassing his customers during dozens of heavy-handed inspections. Police have denied any wrongdoing, arguing the inspections are based on public safety concerns.

"Nyala's experience isn't just about one business; we have heard from current and past business owners that unfair practices are ongoing and the community believes there is unfair targeting and harassment of African owned businesses," the coalition said in the release.

The coalition plans to hold a meeting Thursday to help concerned community members file written human rights complaints.

Concerns involve "the militaristic style which law enforcement enters into business establishments they deem a concern for public safety" and the "inappropriate access to privacy information of business patrons by law enforcement," the coalition said.

'Inappropriate access'

Earlier this month, police and city officials held a new conference to announce that Nyala was being shut down. They accused Tesfay of dozens of public safety violations — which he denies and is fighting in court.

A day later, the city informed Tesfay the decision had been overturned because authorities had failed to properly notify him that his business licence was under review.

Coun. Scott McKeen later said the city owed Tesfay an apology but the owner has not received one. McKeen, who is also a police commissioner, is among several city councillors who have signalled their intent to ban public smoking of shisha, which is sold and smoked in hookah pipes at Nyala and a number of other establishments in Edmonton.

McKeen, whose ward includes the neighbourhood where Nyala is located, has declined an invitation to Thursday's meeting. He told CBC concerns about the police treatment of Nyala should be raised in court.

'Undue hardship" on owner

On weekends, Tesfay's once-popular nightclub on 98th Street near 108th Avenue is now largely empty and he has put the building up for sale. Three other owners have told CBC their bars and cafes suffered similar consequences after frequent inspections by police.

"We question if there is a desire to put undue hardship on this business owner, forcing him, and other businesses, to close," the coalition said in its release.
The coalition says Edmonton police refused to participate in mediation last year with Nyala's owner Mulugeta Tesfay.

It's been nearly two years since Tesfay first raised concerns about police inspections at Nyala and other African-Canadian owned businesses. In a letter requesting a meeting with police Chief Rod Knecht in the spring of 2017, Tesfay complained that inspections ramped up after he complained.

"I have co-operated with police, and I have always treated your members with respect during their visits, but I consider their lack of transparency, the increased frequency of their visits, and their interference with my business and my customers to clearly amount to harassment," Tesfay wrote.

A letter from Edmonton police dated Aug. 28, 2017, shows Tesfay agreed to participate in mediation with police. But Tesfay told CBC the police service later refused.

"This is unacceptable," wrote the coalition. "If this establishment is deemed to be a public safety risk, what better way to work through addressing concerns in an open, honest and transparent manner?"

Videos provided by Tesfay show large teams of armed officers inspecting Nyala at different times. During one such inspection witnessed by CBC, several police cars and a van pulled up out front for an inspection involving a team of police officers, while about 40 customers looked on.

The coalition warns that kind of enforcement can be traumatic for many who come from countries with police states, or have families living in them.

"Recognizing the trauma that exists for many in our community, having such an approach to law enforcement is triggering and only serves to place barriers between law enforcement and community," wrote the coalition. "We have also heard of staff being Tasered, harsh arrests and harassment by police."

Dozen bylaw tickets dropped

Tesfay has racked up 34 bylaw tickets for allegations such as breaching a liquor licence or failure to provide proper incident logging.

But documents show 12 of those tickets were withdrawn or dismissed after Tesfay fought them in court. He has paid two fines, including one for overcrowding, which prompted the city to issue a news release, something that had not been done in a few years, according to one city official.

Tesfay pleaded not guilty to two criminal tobacco-related offences that were stayed. He is fighting a charge of obstructing a police officer.

Disclosure documents for a city hearing suggest that in July 2017 police arrested Tesfay in front of his customers and held him overnight, because they believed he was a "flight risk" due to his "roots in Africa."

Police have not responded to a request for comment on the coalition statements.


About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca