Caribana Evolved from Emancipation

By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE, Publisher and Editor

One important question for the Caribana Arts Group (CAG), the founders and owners of Caribana, will be whether or not they can convince the bandleaders, steelbands, calypsonians, volunteers and others involved in making the festival happen each year to work with them again.

The question for these stakeholders will be whether or not they can trust the CAG to be fair, respectful, open, honest and, above all, inclusive.

Over the years, the relationship between the CAG’s forerunner, the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) and the people who helped in great part to make Caribana what it has become, who are referred to as the real stakeholders in the festival, has left a lot to be desired. That’s why it was so easy for the City of Toronto – through Councillor Joe Mihevc, its Caribana liaison – to take away the festival and set up a committee to run it.

One of the complaints from the calypsonians is that they always had to “make noise” in order to be included in Caribana shows which focused more on the inclusion of imported talent from Trinidad. The steelbands might have fared a little better but they always seemed to have concerns over how they were treated.

The most dissatisfied, though, are the masquerade bandleaders who, actually, are the ones putting on the parade.

Their biggest concern has always been about money – the funding they depend on each year to help produce their bands. Under the CCC, this money has always been late in coming. Some say they are still owed money from past Caribana festivals.

Most of the money comes from the various levels of government – the City of Toronto funding which is matched by the province and a small pittance from the federal government – to the tune of some $1 million. Some have blamed the late payment on the funders being slow to release the funds while others have blamed officials of the CCC for mishandling or redirecting funds meant for the stakeholders. The City, for its part, has always blamed the CCC’s failure to provide timely audited financial statements to show how the money was being disbursed.

Whichever story is correct – and there would be a bit of truth in all of them – the bottom line is that the bandleaders and other stakeholders were consistently inconvenienced.

That’s why many of them are happy with the Festival Management Committee (FMC), the committee Mihevc set up to run Caribana when he took the money away from the CCC. They say they now get their money on time or, if there is a delay, they are informed promptly and given the reasons for the delay and given a date when they would get their money, a date that is usually kept. They like the fact that the FMC shows them respect unlike what they experienced with the CCC.

So, yes, the CCC messed up big time. But, what do you expect from the FMC? Their job is to see that Caribana takes place – not for us but for the City. According to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll of the 2009 Caribana, the festival injected more than $400 million into the economy with the City and the provincial and federal governments benefiting as well as the hotels, restaurants and all the other service providers in Toronto – everyone, that is, but our community.

According to what we have been able to determine, the folks at the head of the FMC are very well paid for their efforts and it seems that theirs are full time, year round jobs. (Remember when the FMC complained during this year’s Caribana that they were short of funds, they said that staff had to take a 30 per cent pay cut? One couldn’t do that if one wasn’t paid well to begin with, could one?)

By the way, who is paying them? Is the money coming from the government funding, the bank’s sponsorship money or are they being paid from another City fund that we don’t know about? So many secrets.

The CCC didn’t have that luxury. They had to struggle to pay even the staff they hired during the Caribana season.

It has been said of the FMC that they feel no responsibility to report to the community; that their only responsibility is to report to their funders, their sponsors and their board of directors. Which seems to mean that they own Caribana (or feel they do) and that we, the members of the community who have helped to keep it alive for the first 39 years of its existence, now have no right even to know what they are doing. That’s why everything is done in such a secretive manner. And that’s why so many people in our community are becoming increasingly concerned.

There is another issue that is worth noting. Some of the bandleaders, especially the big ones, do not have an African heritage. Some of them seem to feel that they have been snubbed by various CCC directors, if not entire boards over the years, because of their race. The CCC directors have mostly all been of African heritage.

Caribana, as we know it, is an offshoot of the Trinidad and Tobago carnival which, itself, is the evolution of the celebration of the emancipation from slavery of Africans in the Caribbean. Over the years, carnival – as our Caribana – has been accepted into the wider cultural landscape and has attracted people of all races and cultures. So you see White kids playing pan and jumping up in a mas’ band together with Indians and Chinese and people of other races. And it is wonderful.

However, the cultural purists – and even those who just want to see Black folks have something of which they can be proud – continue to fight for the festival to be recognized as the celebration of an important historical milestone in the African experience in the Diaspora. But this does not have to be at the exclusion of everyone else; as long as the roots of the festival are acknowledged and respected.

Someone emailed me a blog post from a woman who self-identified as White who had a problem with Black people calling Caribana “we ting”. She wrote that if she ever hears anyone use the term “we ting” again, she will hit somebody.

I had a good chuckle at that. I thought: “Lady, that is why there was emancipation; that is why Africans were freed from slavery so that White people would no longer be able to “hit” them.

But that is a serious issue. Because so many different races in our very diverse city have embraced Caribana, there are concerns both on the side of Blacks that Caribana would lose its historical significance and on the part of those not Black that they would never be fully accepted.

That is one of the reasons some people support the takeover of Caribana by the City. With White folks (at the City) calling the shots, those who are not of African origin may feel more comfortable. But will it maintain its true essence? There is already talk about Caribana being a multicultural festival. It is not. It is a Caribbean festival and must always remain a Caribbean festival.

The City of Toronto and Councillor Mihevc have no right to be running our festival albeit through a committee made up of people from our community. If they get away with this, who know what their next move could be. In a few years down the road we might not even be able to recognize this festival as Caribbean.

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