As Hibba Asim and her friends were on their way Saturday evening to The Lights Festival — which was advertised by its U.S.-based organizer as taking place in the Toronto area — the 16-year-old said she was imagining a scene out of the Disney movie Tangled.
“All the lanterns go up, and it was really pretty in the sky and it’s dark, and you see all these beautiful lanterns. I was really looking forward to seeing that,” Asim, who’s from Milton, Ont., told CBC Hamilton.
Instead, she found herself in an area that felt like “the middle of nowhere” without cellphone service before having to turn around and drive over an hour back to Mississauga with her friends.
Attendees had been given directions to a farm on Six Nations of the Grand River, the First Nations community over 100 kilometres from downtown Toronto. Some arrived to the spot and were able to participate, but local police turned others like Asim away.
“It was just disappointing and you felt devastated,” she said, adding she and her two friends spent a total of roughly $190 on tickets.
Asim is among numerous people outraged by what happened on Saturday and are demanding answers from organizers. They include those who were unable to attend and local residents who say the event should have never taken place at all.
Six Nations Police said Tuesday morning it was investigating the “unsanctioned” event and charges are pending.
Lack of communication frustrated ticket holders
The event was advertised as a “magical evening” starting at 6 p.m. ET in the Toronto area. It was part of a series of events taking place in cities across the U.S. and Canada where people release rice-paper lanterns, lit by a flame in the middle, into the sky.
The City of Toronto confirmed sky lanterns are banned in Toronto, “as they fall under the Open Air Burning section of the Ontario Fire Code,” the city said in an email to CBC.
It’s unclear how many people bought tickets or planned to attend the Ontario stop, but the event’s latest Instagram post had over 800 comments as of Monday evening, with dozens of them saying they were there or had driven to the location.
Krista Chiaromonte, who drove to Six Nations from Woodbridge, Ont., said she paid $122 for two tickets.
She said she got stuck in traffic on the way to the event.
“On the other side of the road, we heard people rolling down their windows saying, ‘Oh, it’s cancelled,'” Chiaromonte said.
Asim said police were set up on a road outside the farm, asking people in cars to leave. She said police told them the event was cancelled.
Terri Monture, who lives beside the farm where the event was slated to take place, had different concerns about the event, saying it was problematic when it last was held at the same location in 2019.
“People were cutting through our fields and through our driveway, and damaging my cousin’s crops.” Monture told CBC Hamilton.
“Several of the lanterns landed close to the longhouses that are over on the next concession and almost caught the roof on fire.”
This year, despite many people being turned around, Monture said she saw at least 300 lanterns floating through the air.
“I have no idea how many cars were coming in and out. It was crazy,” she said, adding that police arrived shortly after 6 p.m. to turn people away, while the event’s social media pages remained silent.
Hours later, “it was still mayhem,” Monture said, with people trying to reach the site.
“It was literally an invasion of people who had no idea … they were on a reserve,” she said. “There were thousands of people who were frustrated, pissed off, only to be turned away … It was completely disorganized … People were urinating up and down the road.”
Six Nations-elected council said lanterns weren’t allowed
According to its website, the festival is run by Viive Events. The non-profit organization the Better Business Bureau (BBB) lists the company as based in the U.S., in Utah.
A letter sent Aug. 16 by Six Nations elected Chief Mark Hill to event contact Collin Maki said it was recently brought to the council’s attention that the event was planned for Aug. 20 on a farm on the 4th Line.
The elected council “has not and will not authorize the release of lanterns from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory,” the letter said, because “the threat of loss due to fire is far too great.”
The largest Carolinian forest in southern Ontario is located on Six Nations.
The elected council takes the personal property and the health and safety of our community members very seriously.– Mark Hill, Six Nations elected chief, in a letter to event contact
“The elected council takes the personal property and the health and safety of our community members very seriously,” the letter read.
“This could cause harm to our neighbours in the surrounding municipalities … adjust your festival activities accordingly.”
Six Nations spokesperson Caitlin Court told CBC Hamilton the elected council heard from Maki and a representative of the property, called Johnson Farm, as early as Thursday — two days before the event. It is unclear who exactly owns the property.
“Mr. Maki and Johnson Farm have both assured the chief that there will be no lanterns released on the territory. The event will only include music and vendors,” Court said in an email sent to CBC last week.
Six Nations Police said officers saw “an extremely large amount of vehicles waiting to enter the property” and had to conduct traffic control to turn away vehicles showing up after the “unsanctioned” event ended. It also said at least 30 lanterns flew into the air. The local fire department didn’t respond to questions about the event.
Organizers say event was ‘100% approved’
Festival organizers responded to questions from CBC Hamilton ahead of the event and said lanterns were still planned to be released, adding it worked “closely” with the Ontario fire marshal to ensure the event was safe.
“Our lanterns’ fuel cell has a burn time of less than one minute … [They] will burn out before ever descending within a safe recovery area around our event,” read the email, adding the lanterns are biodegradable and the team would ensure they would be cleaned up.
The festival didn’t respond to more questions from CBC Hamilton on Monday, but posted an online statement Sunday evening.
“We want to apologize for any confusion and inconvenience you may have encountered at last night’s [Saturday’s] Toronto Lights Fest. Our event is one of unity and love, and it is disheartening when things get in the way of our purpose,” read the statement.
The statement said they followed all procedures and had proper permits, adding the event was “not even close to being oversold” and people were enjoying entertainment as they waited to launch lanterns.
The statement also said the festival has been held in the same location before “and it was a great time.”
“We were understandably shocked to learn that at some point toward the end, the police had shown up and were turning people away,” said the statement.
“They would not allow us to talk to those stranded participants and were not forthcoming with any information to help us understand why they were trying to shut us down … this event was 100 per cent approved. We are still trying to figure out why this happened.”
Event organizers did not respond to questions from CBC about the letter sent to them by the elected council on Aug. 16.
“We will make this right. We have already started the search for a new location that will properly host The Lights .. and you will all be welcomed back to truly experience,” the statement said.
Requests for refunds, apology
Asim and Chiaromonte said they want an apology and a full refund to everyone who attended, especially after hearing that Six Nations didn’t approve the event.
The website’s frequently asked questions section says tickets are non-refundable unless the customer opted for the Refund Protection Plan.
The other chance at getting a refund is if the event is cancelled and a new date isn’t set within 90 days of the original event.
“It’s really, really unprofessional, disorganized, frustrating,” Chiaromonte said.
The company has 52 complaints registered with the BBB, with the pattern of complaint “alleging events that consumers register and pay for are not taking place … The consumers reach out to the business for refunds and are unsuccessful in reaching them … BBB urges consumers use caution when registering for these type of events.”
Asim said the organizers should also apologize to Six Nations.
Chiaromonte added there shouldn’t be any other Light Festivals in the future.
“If this is the way they operate, they shouldn’t be allowed to,” she said.