Refugee claimants staying temporarily at a hotel in the east end of Toronto say they fear for their safety after a string of recent incidents that has put many of them on edge.
On Friday, police released a photo and description of a suspect involved in the most serious of those incidents — someone left a lit canister in the hallway of Radisson Hotel Toronto East earlier this month, an act investigators are treating as an arson.
All told, 146 rooms in the hotel are being used to shelter 577 refugee claimants, about half of which are from Nigeria. Some arrived as recently as this summer while others have been living there for nine months or more.
Significant numbers of asylum seekers have been coming across the U.S.-Canada border since the election of Donald Trump, many of them to Toronto. The city’s shelter system has been over flooded, with many claimants being housed in hotels and college dorms across the city. As of now, there are around 2,600 such refugee claimants in Toronto’s shelter and response programs.
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Most claimants staying at the Radisson feel like they’ve been welcomed into the city by people from all walks of life, but the past week-and-half have more than tempered that initial sense of comfort.
The trouble started on Sept. 28, when three individuals with recording cameras entered the Radisson to make an “expose” of how refugee claimants are purportedly living lavishly on the taxpayer's dime while trashing the hotel’s facilities.
The trio includes a noted white supremacist figure and two other far-right activists who walked in the hallways documenting markings on the walls and overflowing garbage bins, while stopping refugees to ask them questions like, “The poop-stains, you think that’s okay?” The group was eventually reported to security.
Then, on Oct. 2, fringe Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy held a small press conference right outside of the hotel, using the building as a backdrop. Vlogging herself, she vowed to evacuate “all illegal migrants” from the city as a means of making Toronto safer, thus countering Justin Trudeau and the Liberals’ “open-borders, globalist agenda.”
But the most frightening occurrence in this string of odd incidents unfolded several hours after Goldy left the premises. After hearing the smoke alarm go off, a maintenance worker discovered a red gasoline canister on the hotel’s third floor, with a lit rag stuffed in the nozzle.
“The surveillance at the hotel shows someone going in with a white bag as he’s walking quite determinedly through the lobby,” said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI, the settlement organization that has been helping the newcomers. “You can see a flash of red inside the bag, and then when the fire happens, there’s video of him running out the back door.”
Calla made the comments before police determined the suspect to be a woman. The suspect is described as medium build, standing between 5’6” to 5’8”, and wearing a black jacket, dark pants, and blue running shoes.
The maintenance worker who found the the lit canister kicked it into a nearby stairwell, thus defusing it. The entire hotel was evacuated as police and firefighters showed up.
“Before that incident, we were staying safe and were comfortable,” said Mohamed, a former dentist from the Middle East who would rather not reveal her first name or exact country of origin.
“Now we don’t feel safe anymore, especially outside the hotel.”
“But now we don’t feel safe anymore, especially outside the hotel. We don’t feel like our privacy is being respected. People are taking photos of us, of our children. The fire incident was a big shock for us, we never thought it could happen inside the hotel.”
Hours before the incident, Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy published a piece about the hotel by compiling a number of negative reviews on TripAdvisor. In it, she details how a visitor purportedly from Virginia noted that the newcomers were slaughtering goats in the hotel bathrooms — a claim backed up with no evidence and officially denied by Radisson’s spokesperson.
A TripAdvisor spokesperson has also confirmed that the website temporarily suspended any new reviews from being posted about the hotel. It has opened up again.
Though the claim of animal sacrifice in a hotel bathroom may come off as outrageous, another aspect of Levy’s piece induced fear among newcomers staying at the hotel.
Levy’s article featured an image of a number of women, two of whom are pushing strollers, walking not far from the hotel entrance in a tight group. Refugee claimants staying at the hotel, many of whom came to Canada to escape political persecution, see the publication of these women’s faces as a serious breach of their privacy and security.
“That could have been me and my family,” said Louis, a West African newcomer who worked in journalism and advertising back home. He was walking with his wife and kids to the clinic that very day and passed the group of women featured in the Sun photo.
“I felt like I could easily have been a victim,” he said.
“Those ladies are my friends, I know them,” Mohamed said. “I called them from upstairs when I saw them and I told them to look out for the people with cameras in the parking lot, taking pictures of us and our kids.”
“People are rightfully scared. They’re asking, ‘Why are there people making videos of us?”
“People are rightfully scared,” Calla said. “They’re asking, ‘Why are there people making videos of us? We came to this country to be safe and now we don’t feel safe.’”
He noted that COSTI staff along with their clients have all been briefed on the recent events. Security guards have increased their hours and extra surveillance cameras have been installed. COSTI and hotel staff have also told newcomers to report to security all individuals who approach them to ask provocative questions while filming or taking pictures.
These measures have helped alleviate some anxiety among the refugees staying at the Radisson, but many are now afraid to leave the hotel.
“I feel safer now inside the hotel,” Mohamed said. “Outside, I don’t feel as safe, they’re not respecting our privacy and are even trying to talk to our kids.”
“I think I speak for everybody when I say that the media has to stop this,” added Louis. “I think it amounts to harassment. We’re here, we want to live our lives peacefully, we want to work, and we want to live like everyone else.”
With files from Mack Lamoureux
Cover image by Steven Zhou