Although this time of year is supposed to be joyous for Iranians, one of their traditional ways of celebrating has become an issue in Toronto. Iranians will not be allowed to create bonfires and leap over them this year because the city won’t allow it.
On the last Tuesday of the year, Iranians celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Soori during the evening. They believe jumping over the bonfires will rid them of their misfortunes and illnesses.
The Iranian community is upset because banning the bonfires puts an end to an important cultural practice, which won’t be passed down to the younger generation. Singing and dancing around them, family and friends spent time together in the days leading to No-Rooz, meaning New Year.
In last four years, the city has expressed discontent with the event. The bonfires are seen as hazardous to the environment because they can cause a dangerous fire. Also, there is concern for the safety of the people leaping over them.
Roger Macklin, parks supervisor for a portion of North York, says the bonfires are now banned because “it is a liability issue, it’s unsafe activity and it’s contrary to the fire code.”
Previously, he attended the celebrations and held his breath through the entire event because he feared someone would wind up hurt, he says.
However, there have not been any reported cases of major injuries, Macklin adds.
Police officers from 33 Division oversee the parks in North York on Chahar Shanbeh Soori. Sunnybook Park and Wilket Creek Park, which are connected to one another near Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue East, have been the centre for this event.
The Iranian community was celebrating for a number of years unsupervised. The parks became overcrowded, Macklin says, and there were numerous bonfires unattended. That’s why the city decided to manage the event with Toronto fire services, Toronto police services, the parks, local politicians and the community.
Since last year, the city determined the two parks will remain closed on this day.
“Most folks still think that Sunnybook Park is the place for the celebration, but the information is slowly filtering out that it is being held at Mel Lastman Square. We have police officers at the gate to let them know it is no longer held at the park,” Staff Sergeant Robb Knapper says.
There is no entry into the parks, but if someone manages to get in and create a bonfire, he or she can be charged. A bylaw calls for a fine up to $500 for lighting a fire.
However, Inspector Kim Yeandle of 33 Division says this will not be an issue because the parks will be heavily monitored.
An end to a tradition
Although many Iranians understand the concern, some feel that the traditional way of celebrating No-Rooz has been changed by this bylaw.
“It has been a success, however, it is not the same without the bonfire and the jumping. It is basically a concert with music, dancing and one minute of fireworks at the end of the show”.
Vida Azarakhsh, 21, an Iranian student at York University student, has been living in Toronto for 10 years. As a board member, she has been volunteering with Iranian Student Association at York University (ISAYU) for two years. They organize parties and events.
This will be the third year they are working with the city, including the police and firefighters, to organize the event at Mel Lastman Square. They work under the name Iranian Fire Festival & Celebration Committee.
She says that restricting Iranians holds them back from celebrating a traditional and cultural event. It’s especially a disadvantage for children born and raised in Toronto because they miss out on the opportunity to experience the event.
“It’s not [police officers] that close the parks. It’s the parks and recreation, the city of Toronto, that closes them,” Yeandle says.
“I think the authorities should give permission to Iranians to celebrate this occasion in a few parks around the city under their supervision.”
Faramarz Pourtaheri, 50, has been living in Toronto for 20 years and in 2005 he created a website, Norooz.ca. It explains the customs and traditions of No-Rooz, which will be celebrated on the first day of spring. In Iran, the New Year will be 1387.
Pourtaheri has been involved in this issue for the past four years.
Along with fellow Iranians and the Iranian media, he spoke with the city to get permission to celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Soori with bonfires.
From a policing and safety perspective, having the parks closed and monitored is for the best Knapper argues.
“Sunnybrook Park is huge and if something were to happen to someone, access for us is an issue.”
Macklin says the event at Mel Lastman Square was successful last year; there was a good number of Iranians that attended.
According to the ISAYU, the event drew over 10, 000 attendees. They are expecting a good turnout this year, Azarakhsh says, but it will depend on the weather.
Andy Rahimi, 45, is an Iranian living in Toronto for 18 years. He says No-Rooz is an important part of the year and although the celebration at Mel Lastman Square is exciting, leaping over bonfires is symbolic.
“Toronto is multicultural and with so many people living here, it is difficult to allow everyone to celebrate all the traditions from back home. I understand they don’t want these bonfires to cause any danger but I still think they could compromise with Iranians,” Rahimi says.
“I feel like we’re being discriminated against because jumping over a bonfire is part of our culture and they’re taking away our right to perform this. They need to respect the Iranian cultural practices.”
Azin Validipak, 22, an Iranian student at the University of Toronto, has been living in Toronto for eight years. She says the celebration could continue in Sunnybrook Park if one area was designated for it.
Rahimi points out that if Iranians cannot leap over the bonfires, the city should allow them to gather around one. Family and friends can sing, dance and simply spend time together before No-Rooz. The police can patrol the parks to ensure everyone respects the restrictions.
Azarakhsh agrees with Rahimi.
“I understand why the city is concerned about this event, but if the city tried to provide a place where a controlled fire could be set up, Iranians would greatly appreciate their help.”
In 2006, Rahimi was in Sunnybrook Park with other Iranians. They created bonfires but no one was jumping over them. The police and ambulances were present but the event went smoothly, he says.
This was one of the ideas proposed by Pourtaheri and other Iranians in the recent years but the city has refused to permit this from continuing.
The new plan
“Mel Lastman Square is the compromise. It’s a big venue and it is right by the subway so there is easy access. It’s a special events location,” Macklin says. For Validipak, No-Rooz just won’t be the same because jumping over the bonfires is the most important and thrilling part of the celebration, she says.
Although many Iranians are not happy with the changes made to Chahar Shanbeh Soori, the city is not reconsidering its decision. Pourtaheri says this has affected how his family celebrates, but they have to make adjustments because Mel Lastman Square is their only option now.
This year, the event will be held on March 18, between 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.