Why is violence breaking out at Eritrean festivals across Canada?

Throughout the summer, violence has erupted at Eritrean cultural events across Canada and the world between protestors and attendees. The explanation for why is complicated.  

Driving the news: The most recent clash in Calgary over the Labour Day long weekend involved as many as 150 people and sent a dozen to the hospital.  One Calgary police chief called it the “largest violent event to happen in our city in recent memory.” 

Why it’s happening: Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, has been a “one-man dictatorship” since gaining independence in 1991, per Human Rights Watch. Some members of Canada’s sizable Eritrean diaspora—most of whom were forced to flee the country by the current government—say the festivals are backed by the Eritrean regime to spread propaganda and raise funds for the state. 

  • Awet Weldemichael, an expert in nationalist movements, told CTV it’s a “known fact” in Eritrean communities that the “Eritrean ruling party holds festivals every summer.” 
  • These events have been going on for many years, so no one is sure why the surge in protests is happening now. Some have speculated that Eritrea’s recent military action, and alleged atrocities, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region may have stoked tensions. 

Bottom line: The UN said earlier this year the human rights situation in Eritrea “remains dire and shows no signs of improvement.” As long as this remains the case, expect more unrest at Eritrean festivals when they pick up again next summer.—QH