Demonstrators clash with supporters outside Festival Eritrea event at Toronto hotel

Demonstrators took to the streets outside a downtown Toronto hotel to oppose an Eritrean cultural festival in what they say is direct support of a repressive regime.

By John Marchesan and The Canadian Press

Demonstrators took to the streets outside a downtown Toronto hotel to oppose an Eritrean cultural festival in what they say is direct support of a repressive regime.

Tensions were high throughout the evening as the anti-government protesters clashed with those attending Festival Eritrea at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel on Queen Street West.

Hundreds of protesters swarmed the entrance to the hotel, attempting to block access to the event. A large police presence, including the mounted unit, kept the two sides apart. Several protesters were taken away by police but there’s been no word if any charges were being laid.

Anti-government protesters

Demonstrators outside a downtown Toronto Hotel on Aug. 6, 2023. CITYNEWS

Protesters say the proceeds of the three-day annual festival benefit the Eritrean government which has been described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive.

“The people who wanted to come here, they’re supporting the government and we don’t want to allow that kind of thing because it’s war financing,” one of the demonstrators told CityNews. “We’ve been demonstrating peacefully but nothing happened. So this year we tried to step it up a little bit.”

“We have a right to hold our festival here peacefully,” one of the supporters told CityNews. “Those people are not allowing us to hold our cultural festival.”

The demonstrations Sunday came on the heels of a violent protest at Earlscourt Park on Saturday that sent nine people to hospital and stalled local traffic for hours.

Mayor Olivia Chow called the violence “unacceptable” while the city revoked the festival’s permit for the rest of the weekend.

A spokesperson for the city said the permit for the festival was issued to the Eritrean Cultural Centre. While this group could not be reached for comment, an account on X, formerly Twitter, appearing to represent the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations posted statements in defence of the festival, saying it’s been held peacefully for almost three decades and alleging participants were attacked.

The account also posted a message it said came from the festival’s coordinating committee, calling the permit cancellation “regrettable.” It called the demonstrators “a violent extremist group” and said the city’s decision “rubber stamps” their plans to disrupt and cancel the festival.

The Eritrean Canadian Community Center of Metropolitan Toronto said it is not affiliated with the organizers of the festivities but, in a statement Sunday night, it expressed “deep concern and distress” after hearing about Saturday’s chaos.

“While ECCC is not affiliated with any of the organizers, we have consistently received numerous concerns from our community members regarding the event organizers’ close ties to the Eritrean government,” the group said in a statement.

“These concerns are particularly distressing for some of our community members who have fled oppressive circumstances in their homeland, causing them to experience re-traumatization. We recognize the significance of these issues and are committed to addressing them with utmost sincerity and sensitivity.”

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, and since then, 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, avoiding conditions including forced military conscription.

Similar tensions played out last week in Sweden during an Eritrean festival in the capital city of Stockholm. About a thousand protestors disrupted the event, leaving dozens injured.

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