A lush park in an immigrant-rich corner of Toronto is about to become a testing ground for how far big Canadian cities are willing to bend to accommodate the traditional practices of immigrant communities.
So far, Toronto is not proving very pliable on the beloved South Asian sport of kite-fighting.
The city has summarily banned all kites from Milliken Park, a 32-hectare green space and unofficial home of a game that sees skilled kite-masters manoeuvre their flying contraptions to slice their opponents' strings. Every weekend, dozens of mostly Afghan-Canadian families flood the park to barbecue, picnic and watch the thrust and parry of the kites, a sight that reminds them of home.
“This is like a slap in the face to every Afghan,” said Ahmad Sadozai, a 33-year-old Afghan immigrant who used to fly kites at Milliken Park and will now face a $100 fine if he returns. “People ship kites and lines and strings and everything from Pakistan and Indonesia to here so we can play kites.”
But the city councillor who pushed for the ban says this is a case where public safety must trump cultural accommodation: The contests leave the park littered with dangerous kite line, some of it metallic or coated in glass. “People have called my office and said they've been cut by it,” Chin Lee said. “In one case, a person's ear was seriously cut by it ... I've been sent pictures of birds hanging from the kite strings in the tree.”
A local kite-fighting club is planning a Saturday protest of the ban, which took effect Tuesday. This new kite fight appears to be a first for Canada, which hasn't had to grapple with major injuries caused by a sport that Pakistan has banned outright.
The country's Supreme Court banned kite-flying in 2005, objecting to the number of deaths and injuries caused by the sport. In February of that year, Reuters reported that 19 people were killed and 200 injured during the popular Basant festival in Lahore, when tens of thousands come to watch steel-wired kitefighting.
So far, kite-fighting hasn't been an issue in the Vancouver area, where enthusiasts “police ourselves quite well,” according to Cal Yuen, past president of the British Columbia Kitefliers Associations.
“There’s sort of a gentlemen's rule in organized kite-flying society not to use steel wire…there's the odd time that people do appear, but people haven’t been doing it on a regular basis,” he said.
In Toronto, the sport's proponents insist they too play it safe.
“We only use cotton string and paper kites,” said Gogi Malik, 40, operator of the Gogi Fight Club and the organizer of Saturday's protest at Milliken Park.
“We're going to try out best to convince them. If the mayor has any issue, if the councillor has any issue, we'll try to solve them.”
Milliken Park became Greater Toronto's major kite-flying site after the city banned the sport from Bluffer's Park on Lake Ontario; sliced kite line was floating out to the water and gumming up boat engines. Milliken and Bluffer's are the only Toronto parks where kites are forbidden.
The park is tucked into an immigrant-rich corner of Scarborough, on the border of the suburb of Markham. It's surrounded by tidy, two-storey homes with double garages, many of which back on to the park.
Elton Highfield, 49, lives in one of those houses and he can see the kites dip and swerve from his back deck every weekend. On a stroll through the park Tuesday, his daughter Katelynn, 11, found enough stray line in the grass and hanging from trees to make a collection the size of a baseball.
“It's risky when children and families are walking through the park, especially in the evening time,” said Mr. Highfield, who immigrated from Pakistan 18 years ago and doesn't agree with the outright ban.
The solution, he said, is to limit kite-flying to one corner of the park and police it more carefully.
Mr. Chin said he spent two years trying to find a solution to the problem – city bylaws already forbid metal kite-strings on pain of a $100 fine, but the rule has proved difficult to enforce. When the parks department told him a ban could be enacted administratively, without taking the issue to council, he agreed. Parks workers banged bright yellow “No kite flying allowed” signposts into the ground Tuesday.
Mr. Malik said he is more than willing to seek a compromise. His group doesn't even plan to launch their kites at Saturday's protest.
“We don't go against the law,” he said.
With a report from Kate Allen