The Current

'It was like a nightmare': Police investigate fire started at Toronto hotel housing refugees

A flaming gas can was found at a Toronto hotel last week. The hotel, which is currently housing 577 refugees, has drawn the attention of anti-migrant groups.

Employee found lit gas can on third floor of a Radisson hotel last week

Scorch marks were left in the third-floor hallway of a Radisson hotel in east Toronto (left) after a gas can was set alight there on Tueday, Oct. 2, 2018. (Julie Crysler/CBC)

Update Oct. 12, 2018: Toronto police have released images taken from security cameras of a woman they believe may have been involved. 

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Toronto police are investigating a fire they believe was deliberately set at a Toronto hotel housing refugees last week, stoking fears in some that it was motivated by anti-migrant sentiment.

A gasoline can was discovered — on fire — in a third-floor hallway of a Radisson hotel in east Toronto shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 2. The hotel's smoke alarm alerted an employee, who was able to kick the can into the stairwell, and then put it out.

"It was like a nightmare," said one refugee from Sudan, who is staying at the hotel with her husband and eight-month-old daughter. The Current is not revealing her identity out of concern for the family's safety.

We were holding the children — even other people's children.- A Sudanese refugee who was in the hotel the night the fire was discovered

She described hearing the fire alarm late that night and trying to evacuate via the stairs.

"We were holding the children — even other people's children — because they were in hurry and they were crying. Most of them they were almost sleeping," she said.

No one was injured, police say, and the residents returned that night. 

Police believe the fire was deliberately set and confirm a melted gasoline container and matches were found at the scene. Investigators are reviewing surveillance footage from the hotel, but there have been no arrests.

The lit can left scorch marks in the hallway as it was kicked towards the stairwell. (Julie Crysler/CBC)

Fire could have been 'horrific'

The Sudanese refugee said she believed the hotel was targeted because of the refugees staying there.

"I know there are some small groups … some people that are protesting, that they are saying: 'They are taking our money, they are taxing our taxes, just to give them a better life,'" she said.

"But it's not true, we just want to find a safe place."

The same hotel is believed to be featured in an online video expressing anti-refugee sentiment, produced by a group that describes itself as "dedicated to promoting Nationalism and exposing the idiocy of the Left." 

There is no free money ... somebody wrote that just for that purpose, to discredit us, to malign us- Louis, a refugee living in the hotel

In one scene, the video shows the words "free money" written in the hotel hallway.

Residents at the hotel had seen the video and were upset by it.

"A lot of things were said about us and the management, which are not true," said Louis, a refugee. The Current has agreed not to reveal his full name for security reasons.

"There is no free money," he said.

"Somebody wrote that just for that purpose, to discredit us, to malign us."

The hotel told The Current that it was an honour to assist the city of Toronto by providing housing and its management is installing extra surveillance cameras in the wake of the fire.

COSTI — the agency that has housed some of the refugees in the hotel — has hired extra security personnel.

The fire was a 'serious attempt' to burn the hotel down, said Mario Calla, COSTI's executive director. (Submitted by Mario Calla)

"This could have exploded and created, you know, [a] horrific, horrific fire," said Mario Calla, COSTI's executive director.

He pointed out the burned carpet where the can had been lit, and the extra burned patches where it had landed while being kicked toward the stairwell.

"We are talking about a serious attempt at burning this place down," he said.

Housing arrangement draws criticism

As of Oct. 1, the hotel was home to 577 refugees.

Patricia Anderson, who works with the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division, said that approximately 2,600 refugee claimants are currently in the city's permanent shelter system and the temporary refugee response programs.

Many refugees have moved to hotel accommodation from college and university dorms in recent weeks, when students returned after summer break.

The housing arrangement has drawn criticism from some refugee advocates who want to see a more coordinated response.

In August, Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister responsible for immigration, said the federal government should foot the entire bill for supporting asylum seekers

She said that it could take "upwards of two years" to process claims and move people to more permanent accommodation.

"It really isn't a sustainable process," she said.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was unavailable for an interview but in a statement to The Current, his office wrote: "It's not uncommon for governments or a service provider organisations to use temporary accommodation such as hotel rooms to house refugees."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler. With files from CBC News.