Date: Sunday, 20 August 2023
About a dozen people were hurt at an Eritrean-themed event in Edmonton on Saturday during a clash with a group who said they were protesting the Eritrean government.
Edmonton Police Service monitored the group of protesters all day as they moved across the city in the shadow of the festival, sometimes in riot gear while controlling the crowds. Police read more than once what's colloquially known as the riot act.
Lambros Kyriakakos, the chairman of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, said he helped organize the annual Eritrean community festival that draws people from across western Canada.
"We've always gathered 40 years peacefully. This year? No. We have a challenge," he told CTV News Edmonton that afternoon at Rosslyn School as police cleared out the remaining crowd.
He said the protesters attacked some in the festival crowd with sticks.
"Few of our people were hit," Kyriakakos said.
He claimed any violence by festival attendees was self defence.
One of the protesters denied that his side started the fight.
Michael Asfha, from Winnipeg, Man., said his group was there to "oppose the regime government, or the regime, in Eritrea."
"From that side, they started to hit us and we defend ourselves," Asfha told CTV News Edmonton.
At least one person was "assaulted with an object" and hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, Edmonton Police Service said.
Police counted 10 or 11 others hurt, most with minor injuries.
According to EPS, the festival kicked off at St. Francis Xavier High School in west Edmonton Saturday morning.
The police service says it worked with both the organizers of the festival as well as a "demonstration" taking place in the same area.
But, when violence broke out a first time, EPS and the City of Edmonton cancelled the festival's permit, Insp. Brenda Dalziel told CTV News Edmonton.
EPS says both the festival attendees and demonstrators left the area.
Around 11 a.m., the police service learned both groups had moved to the Rosslyn neighbourhood in north Edmonton, near 132 Avenue and 113A Street.
That is where another "altercation took place between both groups," EPS said.
Dozens of police units were called in to break it up. Officers separated the groups and remained on scene until everyone left.
Hours later, the protesting group set up in front of Maharaja Banquet Hall in south Edmonton.
Police closed the area until 8 p.m. and, using OC spray and smoke at one point, marched the crowd to the other side of 93 Street.
Once the crowds and police were cleared, damage was visible on the Maharaja Banquet Hall's storefront, as well as a vehicle parked in its lot. Police said the damage was likely caused Saturday but were investigating.
As of late Saturday afternoon, no arrests had been made.
"It was very important to us to maintain peace and order and that was absolutely the reason for EPS to have the resources we had," Dalziel said.
Asfha told CTV News Edmonton the festival that had been organized "doesn't represent all Eritreans."
He and his group wore shirts and carried flags that were light blue in colour and featured an olive branch – the flag used in the 1950s during the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
He said the flag used by the festival – Eritrea's current flag – represents a "dictatorship."
Eritrea's president, Isaias Afwerki, has not held an election since becoming president three decades ago, when the country won independence from Ethiopia. Millions of residents have fled the country in order to avoid conditions such as forced military conscription.
Kyriakakos said it was a mistake to think of the festival as anything other than a celebration of culture and community.
"[Eritreans] are co-suffering with the unjust and unfair pressure that is happening to our people. And because they," he said, referring to the protesters, "are considering we are part of that, unfortunately, the advocates of human rights, they came with a goal and hit people, broke cars, terrorized children."
Nine people were hurt when violence broke out between attendees and protesters at an Eritrean festival in Toronto at the beginning of August. People were also hurt at recent Eritrean events in Germany and Sweden.
Those events made festival attendees wary, Kyriakakos said.
"People are very scared they are going to hurt their children, families and their wives. And that was the main reason there was a defensive position. Not an aggressive position," he said.
"It's not fair to put the aggressor and the demonstrator together with a peaceful participant. The peaceful participant may be acting in self defence."
The organizer said he warned police of the potential for trouble ahead of Edmonton's event.
Dalziel confirmed EPS was aware of what had happened at other Eritrean-themed events but said given the "open lines of communication" with organizers, "We felt that the event could carry on without any conflict. Unfortunately, today, there was conflict."
She said more information would be provided later about EPS' preparation for the day.
The festival was scheduled to continue Sunday. Dalziel said EPS would "be diligent" about monitoring events over the coming days.