Organizers billed it as a Folklorama-style cultural event, but protesters called it something very different -- an illegal fundraiser for one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
About 20 protesters greeted cars and vans as they inched their way into the parking lot of the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church hall on College Avenue Saturday night. Inside the hall, the Walta Cultural Group, an Eritrean band, was performing as part of a "mini-festival."
Protesters with the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba said the band is a military one and is touring Canada accompanied by Zemhret Yohannes, the minister of research and documentation for Eritrea's ruling party. The tour is a fundraiser for Eritrea's military-backed dictatorship, disguised as a cultural event, they said.
A monitoring group's report to the UN earlier this summer red-flagged such festivals, and local human rights lawyer David Matas says the African country has been involved in financing groups associated with terrorism. Allowing the country's leaders into Canada to pass the hat is unacceptable, he said late last week.
In 2010, Canada adopted a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting anyone from providing money to Eritrea for military activities.
Ottawa also made members of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front inadmissible to Canada. The law says it is an organization "known to have engaged in acts of subversion and terrorism."
Still, dozens of local Eritreans paid $35 to attend the event Saturday night. Protesters said many did not realize where their money was going or were simply homesick for Eritrean culture. Or they feared bucking local agents of the Eritrean regime.
"We escaped from these people and now they're in our backyard," said protester Bereket Yohannes, no relation to the minister.
Protesters questioned whether the RCMP or the Canada Border Services Agency was investigating the event and its organizers, and how the minister and the band gained entry into Canada.
They also questioned why officials with St. Joseph's church allowed the group to rent their hall for the event.
Officials with the church and with the Archdiocese of Winnipeg could not be reached Saturday.
Four security guards, local members of the Eritrean community, kept the protesters at bay and ushered cars into the parking lot.
They would not allow a reporter into the event, even with a ticket. Security guards said no one from the event would speak to the media, and would not say where money raised from the event was going.
"It's a cultural event," said one security guard. "You need to leave us alone."
The guard denied the minister was attending, though protesters said the minister attended similar events in recent days in other cities, including Edmonton and Toronto.