No Caribana this year?

By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE, Publisher/Editor

There will be no Caribana this year!

That got your attention, didn’t it?

For many in our community, there are very few things that would raise our ire more than there not being a Caribana. But we will leave that discussion for another day.

O.K. Here’s what’s been happening. The Festival Management Committee (FMC) which has been running the festival for the past five years has been using the name Caribana which is a registered trademark (wordmark) owned by the Caribana Arts Group (CAG), formerly the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC).

The FMC, for their part, believed that they had the approval of the CAG to use the trademark under an agreement signed by a former chairman but which has been determined to be non-binding because proper procedures were allegedly not followed.

CAG officials, claiming that they have been continually disrespected by FMC officials and that ongoing efforts to discuss compensation for the use of the trademark have reached nowhere, successfully sought a court injunction last week to stop the FMC from using the name, Caribana.

So, unless some kind of arrangement can be made – and made soon – the festival, if it is to be held at all, will have to go by some other name.

But there is another catch. The CAG is also seeking to have the courts decide on whether the FMC could legally organize the festival itself, a festival which the CCC/CAG started some 44 years ago and built into the largest festival of its kind in North America injecting more than $450-million each summer into the city’s economy.

Because of alleged financial mismanagement and the then CCC’s failure to provide timely financial reports, the City of Toronto withdrew its close to half-a-million dollars in funding five years ago. (The province matches the city’s funds and bases its contribution on the city’s decisions so its funding was also cut which means that the CCC lost some $1 million, without which it would not have been able to produce the festival.)

Since the festival is so important to the city; since that $450-million each summer is nothing to sneeze at, the city set up its own committee, the FMC, to run Caribana and diverted the funding – both its and the province’s – to this committee.

That was wrong on so many levels. The city was within its rights to defund the CCC but did not have the right to set up another group to, in effect, take over the festival. Caribana was not the city’s to take or to give.

But because the CCC was so dysfunctional, because they had embarrassed our community so much and for so long with their infighting and the public display of ineptitude, nary a voice was raised in their defence. Not even in Share, which had been a staunch defender and supporter for many years. In fact, full disclosure, we supported the handover, albeit as a temporary measure.

Because the festival was so important both to the city and to our community (mostly for its cultural aspect and not its economic impact since we really don’t benefit much from that $450-million), the last thing any of us wanted to see was the demise of Caribana so we chose to go along with the city’s plan, hoping that, once the CCC got its act together the festival would be returned to it and the funding restored.

Since then, the CCC has changed its name to the CAG and says it has reorganized itself and revised its constitution to provide the required accountability and management in order to avoid the errors of the past. According to its spokespeople, it has also banned for life some members who helped to cause some of its earlier problems.

But this is where things get sticky. The CAG is ready, they say, to reclaim their festival. The FMC, however, is saying ‘not so fast’. And the city seems to be standing by them.

The FMC has done a very good job of running the festival and providing the required and timely accounting to the city and its other funders. Since they took over we have not had any of the very public displays of infighting for which the old group was so well known.

But, is that enough? What about the ownership of the festival? Is that important to us as a community? Do we care who owns it? Do we really want to know? And, if so, is it the city, the FMC, the bandleaders?

If it is the FMC, is it owned by certain members of the executive as some have suggested; or the board members? And, if so, do they (or anyone else) have the right to own a festival which was created by members of our community (through the CCC/CAG) who, over a span of close to 40 years, put much of their own money, time, sweat and soul into building it and nurturing it for the community and for the love of their Caribbean culture?

What of these people? What gives anyone else the right to take Caribana away from them and to now lay claim to its ownership, if that is in fact what has happened?

Councillor Joe Mihevc, the city’s liaison to the festival, told me recently that he would want to see the CAG prove that they could run an event successfully before even considering the possibility of them being allowed to run the Caribana festival again. Based on his past experiences with the financial problems at the CCC, I understand his concern. But the fact is that for close to 40 years they have proven they can run a festival. In spite of the conflicts in the organization, there has never been a Caribana that was not successful, didn’t draw a huge crowd and didn’t make a lot of money for the city. Even when it rained!

The problem was not that they couldn’t run a festival properly; it was the financial mismanagement and lack of transparency, which they say they have now fixed.

The real issue with the old CCC was that people on the various boards over the years seemed to have felt that since their efforts made so much money for the city they should not have been held to the same standards as other recipients of government funding. Of course, they were wrong. And the current officers of the CAG have admitted as much and say their new, revised constitution has put in place the necessary protections to avoid a reoccurrence of the previous behaviour but they have not been given a chance to show what they have done or a chance to prove themselves. They are also concerned that the longer the FMC continues to run ‘their’ festival, the harder it would be for them to get it back, hence the reason they are taking these legal steps.

What is interesting is that the structure of the FMC seems to be quite similar to the one the CAG says it has conceived to run the festival. The CAG says its plans include an arms-length body, similar to the FMC, which will run Caribana (just as the FMC does) and report to the CAG board instead of the city. The CAG board will then report to the city and the other funders.

So, here’s the question: Why can’t they get together? Why can’t the CAG and the FMC agree to work together with the FMC reporting to the CAG?

But that doesn’t seem likely now. The FMC seems to be digging in its heels. The organization announced earlier this week that it will find another name for the festival. That announcement will be made next week. This is seen as an effort to get around the court order with regard to using the trademarked name, Caribana, and the CAG plans to challenge it in court later this month. It will seek the court’s wisdom on whether or not the FMC or any other group or organization can run this festival which they claim is their intellectual property.

Obviously, the city and Mihevc have decided that they do not want to deal with the CAG regardless of what the CAG has done to rehabilitate itself and are dead set on taking this festival away from them permanently. (A question we may want to consider later is: Why?)

Whether or not there will be a Caribana this year – or a similar festival by some other name – may now be up to the courts.

Stay tuned!