Park permit pulled for Toronto Eritrean festival after clashes send 9 to hospital
City revoked the festival's permit for Earlscourt Park on Saturday night
The permit for a festival celebrating Toronto's Eritrean community in a west end park was revoked by the city Saturday night after violence erupted earlier in the day. Participants clashed with demonstrators in exchanges that sent at least nine people to hospital.
Eight people have non-life-threatening injuries while one person has serious injuries after being stabbed, police said in a tweet. Police did not say how the eight people were injured.
City police ultimately deployed the riot squad to Earlscourt Park in the city's west end, where Festival Eritrea descended into chaos almost from the start. Skirmishes first broke out at around 10 a.m. and tensions continued throughout the day.
As of 10 p.m. Saturday the city revoked the festival's permit for Earlscourt Park in the interest of public safety, meaning it won't be allowed to proceed, according to a statement from Russell Baker, Toronto's manager of media relations. Baker said the permit was originally granted for Saturday to Monday.
"The City is working with the event organizers to address the impact this may have on festival attendees and activities. The City does not tolerate or condone violence of any kind," Baker said.
Lambros Kyriakakos, a co-organizer of the event, said the city's decision was disappointing.
"Basically what they're telling us is that when you have a peaceful gathering, and somebody comes and hits you and injures nine people and threatens to hit and hurt and terrorize children and the elderly," Kyriakakos said. "He has the right and the power to stop an event."
He says another festival event slated for Sunday night at a Toronto hotel will go ahead as planned, as of Sunday morning.
In response to Kyriakakos's criticism, a city spokesperson reaffirmed that the permit was revoked in the interest of public safety and said the city is committed to providing a safe environment at Toronto's parks.
Protesters were demonstrating against festival
Protesters, Eritrean themselves, said they showed up to demonstrate against the festival, which they said supports the government of Eritrea.
But Yordanos Tesfamariam, Eritrea Festival organizer, disputed that claim.
"It's a lie, it's a fabricated lie," Tesfamariam told CBC News.
Eritrea has been described by human rights groups as one of the world's most repressive countries. 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.
Rora Asgodom said the protesters were "lighting things on fire" and destroying other things that had been set up for the festival.
"We had multiple people going to the hospital, being bandaged up for bleeding and things like that," Asgodom said.
The protesters dispersed for a while, but returned later.
Dozens of Toronto police officers responded to the chaos and remained at the scene for hours to maintain the peace.
"One thing [the protesters] don't acknowledge is that we're a mixture of different backgrounds within the country, different ideologies, different views and different things," Asgodom said.
"But they had the assumption that if someone is proud to be from Eritrea that they support whatever they're against and they thought violence would be the answer to dealing with that and cancelling the celebration."
On Saturday morning in Toronto, police said they first received reports of a person with a knife. Further tweets later indicated fights had broken out in the park and tents had been set on fire.
Toronto Paramedic Services Deputy Commander David Hissem said nine people were taken to hospital, one of whom had serious injuries.
But the morning's tension did not dissipate. By mid-afternoon, about 200 demonstrators had gathered across from a roughly equal number of festival-goers, separated by a wall of police.
By 5 p.m., protesters had blockaded the intersection of St. Clair Avenue West and Caledonia Park Road, bringing traffic and public transit in the area to a standstill. They parked a truck with a screen displaying videos, one of which read "cancel the festival of hate."
Alem Hagos said the demonstrators were defending themselves.
She said police told demonstrators they were going to shut down the event, but that was not the case.
She said police escorted demonstrators back to the festival.
The festival continued amid the protest, and there was no comment from organizers on the day's events.
'I deplore the violent attack in Earlscourt Park': councillor
In a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, Alejandra Bravo, city councillor for the area, said she was "shocked and saddened" to hear what happened.
In another tweet Saturday evening Bravo said, "I deplore the violent attack in Earlscourt Park this morning that has shaken our community. Use of violence as an intimidation tactic is never acceptable."
The situation at Earlscourt Park is ongoing. <a href="https://twitter.com/TPSOperations?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TPSOperations</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/TTCnotices?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TTCnotices</a>, and other divisions will be providing further updates. <a href="https://t.co/vrUzk7Dnx1">pic.twitter.com/vrUzk7Dnx1</a>—@BravoDavenport
Toronto has not been the only scene of such protests in recent days.
Swedish media reported an Eritrea-themed cultural festival in a Stockholm suburb took a violent turn on Thursday when about 1,000 protesters opposed to the African country's government stormed the event, leaving at least 52 people injured.
The protesters set booths and vehicles ablaze, sending smoke billowing into the sky. Swedish newspaper Expressen reported hundreds of protesters marched toward the festival grounds, pushing past police cordons and using sticks and rocks as weapons.
Police later reported between 100 and 200 people were detained.
With files from Lane Harrison, Travis Dhanraj, Jean-Loup Doudard and The Canadian Press