Edmonton shisha bar owner owed an apology, says city councillor

An Edmonton city councillor says a bar owner deserves an apology after city officials shut down his business, denounced him at a news conference and then reversed the decision one day later.

Last month, city officials cancelled the business licence for the Nyala Lounge and sent out a media release before properly notifying the owner Mulugeta “Moe” Tesfay. A day after the news conference, they overturned the cancellation.

“That’s obviously not good,” said Coun. Scott McKeen, who represents Ward 6 area just north of downtown where Nyala Lounge is located, and who is also a police commissioner.

“The city owes him an apology, and then once everything is done right if they still pursue this then he will have his ability to appeal.”

He spoke to CBC Wednesday just before returning to a city hall committee meeting considering the future of shisha bars in Edmonton. McKeen, who has led efforts to ban shisha in public venues, first ordered a report assessing their risk to public safety, but later cited public health concerns due to shisha smoke.

On Sept. 26, Nyala was shut down based on a recommendation from the city’s policing hospitality unit known as the Public Safety Compliance Team. At the news conference, members of the team accused Tesfay of running an unsafe operation and made numerous allegations that have not been proven in court.

But Tesfay insists he runs a safe business that has been unfairly targeted since he complained that police were harassing and racially profiling his customers, who are mostly of African descent.

It’s unfair, it’s abusive and it’s unacceptable without due process.– Lawyer Tom Engel

Civil rights lawyer Tom Engel said the city’s hasty actions announcing publicly the business was shut down could be grounds for a lawsuit for wrongful termination of his licence, or for making defamatory statements.

He said the city didn’t give Tesfay a chance to refute the allegations before holding “a big news conference and saying all sorts of defamatory things about him, probably irreparably harming his reputation.

“I don’t know how the city could have screwed up so badly that they would have proceeded with this drastic remedy of canceling his licence and not even made sure that they complied with their own bylaw,” said Engel. “It’s unfair, it’s abusive and it’s unacceptable without due process.”

Tom Engel says the city’s hasty actions could be grounds for a lawsuit. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Engel said it troubled him that someone community members describe as a responsible business owner has had his lounge targeted “in a very unfair way, like piling on with a bunch of tickets.”

Over the past two years Tesfay has received 31 bylaw tickets, a third of which were withdrawn or dismissed after he fought them in court. He has paid two fines. He pleaded not guilty to two criminal tobacco-related offences that were stayed and is fighting a charge of obstructing a police officer.

Coalition takes up cause

Tesfay’s case has caught the attention of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, which is holding a community meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. at Nyala.

In a media release, the group said that the father of three, who served with the Canadian military for 20 years and was wounded in Afghanistan, “has faced undue hardship.’

“His crowding limits have been reduced over half. He has been arrested in front of his patrons by a dozen police officers and held over night. He was told he was a flight risk because of his African descent. His establishment is under constant police surveillance,” the release states.

The coalition says Tesfay is not the only business owner of African descent experiencing problems but afraid to speak out. “It’s time to come together as a broader community to address these (issues),” the group says. 

A group will meet here Thursday to discuss concerns about the treatment of business owners of African descent. (Nyala Lounge)

McKeen has declined an invitation to attend the meeting, citing previous commitments.

“I think this has to play out through our systems which are available to everyone,” said McKeen​. “If this person is guilty of running an illicit venue then he needs to pay the penalty for that, doesn’t matter what his background is.”

“That is a dangerous thing to do to accuse cops of being racist, because I don’t believe it. It’s systems that criminalize poverty,” McKeen added.


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