Edmonton

'A breakdown of trust': Edmonton appeal committee tells police, shisha bar to hit reset button

The city appeal committee that allowed a controversial Edmonton shisha bar to stay open is calling for a fresh start between Nyala Lounge and the hospitality policing unit that tried to shut it down.

Committee overturned decision to close Nyala Lounge on Feb. 19

Nyala owner Moe Tesfay says he is willing to work with police and the city. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

The city appeal committee that allowed a controversial Edmonton shisha bar to stay open is calling for a fresh start between Nyala Lounge and the hospitality policing unit that tried to shut it down.

The call came in a written decision released by the committee Wednesday, a week after it overturned a ruling by the city's licensing department to close Nyala for good.

"The committee believes that Nyala can and will improve, and that much of the problem stems from a breakdown of trust between Nyala and the authorities," states the decision, signed by Coun. Moe Banga, a member of the committee that also includes councillors Jon Dziadyk and Tony Caterina.

The committee ruled in favour of Nyala after owner Moe Tesfay appealed a decision to cancel the business license following years of escalating tension, allegations and inspections.

"The one thing that is crystal clear is that there has been a breakdown of the relationship between Nyala and the PSCT (public safety compliance team), including the EPS, and that neither trusts the other.

"What is clear is that the owner, staff, and some patrons of Nyala believe they are being targeted, while the PSCT feels  that the attention is warranted. It appears to be time to hit the reset button."

The committee examined nine licence conditions allegedly breached by Nyala, according to a submission made by the PSCT. 

Tony Caterina and Moe Banga are part of the appeal committee that said it believes Nyala can and will improve. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Tesfay agreed to the additional conditions last summer — such as cutting lounge capacity to 44 patrons, using a metal detector and ID scanner, and having three security guards in place in the evening — in order to stay open.

The committee found that Nyala had breached a number of conditions but none that compromised public safety. In other allegations, the committee said there was a lack of evidence, it wasn't clear how serious the breaches were or they had been fixed. 

While the committee decided the period of time the business was shut down pending the hearing was sufficient sanction for the breaches, it emphasized the need for Tesfay to take the conditions seriously.

"Nyala is now on notice that they must do their best to abide by the conditions at all times," they wrote.

'Gun being hidden'

The decision also addressed an incident at Nyala involving a gun in January 2018.

Tesfay has pleaded not-guilty to obstruction of a peace officer. He did not address police allegations at the hearing on the advice of his lawyer because the case goes to trial next April. The investigating officer did not give evidence at the hearing either.

 
The committee says there is no evidence African-Canadian businesses are being targeted by authorities. (Nyala Lounge)

The committee said it did not get a full explanation from either party and instead was left to view a security video from that night.

"The videos clearly show a gun being hidden and fingerprints being wiped off the gun," the committee wrote. "It appears that there is potential criminal activity taking place, and that Nyala's owner may be, at least partially, implicated."

Without additional context, the committee said it would be difficult to determine whether "questionable business practices taking place on the part of the owner" had been resolved.

The committee said it was not convinced Nyala was ungovernable based on the evidence. Members noted testimony from staff and patrons indicated they felt safe.

"This would suggest that overall there is no imminent danger to the public," the decisions says. "However, the failure to fully implement the conditions at all times does continue to create a risk to public safety."

Couldn't assess harassment allegations

The committee absolved police of allegations of racial profiling made by Tesfay, Nyala customers, staff, and African-Canadian business owners. 

"The committee is concerned about its inability to cross examine certain witnesses to assess credibility allowing it to make a finding about whether harassment is actually taking place," the committee wrote.

Sgt. Colin Simpson is part of the PSCT that argued Nyala should be shut down. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

It emphasized that ownership, staff and patrons needed to understand that inspections are not harassment and they are warranted when the rules aren't followed. But the committee also stressed that police and the PSCT need to approach inspections in a way that shows their concern is about public safety.

"They also need to make it clear that they are not there to interrupt the enjoyment of patrons that are not causing problems," the committee wrote. "While things could be handled in a different way or with a lighter touch, there is no evidence to support targeting of African businesses taking place. While Nyala to some extent is a target, this is as a result of ongoing breaches of condition and is therefore warranted."

Tesfay's laywer, Tom Engel, described the decision as fair and balanced. He said he's pleased the committee called for a reset and addressed how authorities should conduct inspections.

"If you look at the videos, they came in there heavy-handed and and hopefully this will stop," said Engel, adding he had little confidence authorities would take the decision to heart.

Video provided by the owner of Edmonton bar Nyala shows instances when the police came to inspect the premises. 1:29

Engel welcomed the committee's rejection of another allegation made by the PSCT which accused Nyala staff of deliberately taking poor photos of customers with the patron scanning system.

"That was a completely irresponsible thing to say and had no foundation in the evidence," said Engel.

'I've got to listen'

After the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights helped some community members file complaints in October, they asked to meet with the police chief.

Last week, police Chief Dale McFee told CBC the meeting would happen as he speaks to as many groups as possible in his first six months on the job.

"I think first and foremost I've got to listen," said McFee.

On Wednesday, Edmonton police referred CBC to the city for comment about the appeal committee decision.

"The Public Safety Compliance Team acknowledges the decision made by the Community Standards License Appeal Committee around the business licence of Nyala," the city said in a brief statement. 

Tesfay has repeatedly said he is willing to work with police and the city, if they are willing to do the same.

He filed a complaint under the Police Act a year-and-a-half ago but has not been interviewed by the professional standards branch that investigates complaints.

The committee says testimony from supporters suggested Nyala is not an imminent danger to the public. (CBC/Nathan Gross)

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

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