Community discontent and Caribana’s takeover


“Caribana is commess and corruption”, expresses a widespread discontent repeated in Toronto’s Black community. This discontent is the most potent weapon in the City of Toronto’s arsenal in their determination to seize Caribana’s festival, and re-name it.

Without this community discontent, the City’s plans will fail. With it, the City’s plans will succeed. The City, however, must make it appear that support by mas’ bandleaders is the most potent weapon in their arsenal.

After all, don’t mas’ men make the costumes which draw the paying crowds? But who are these paying crowds – paying travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, groceries, cabs, salaries and taxes – which have massively benefitted these businesses and the city’s, the province’s and federal coffers to the tune of some $4-billion over four decades?

And when then Toronto Police Chief William recommended after another shooting that Caribana be shut down, who rose up in opposition? The hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and other businesses for whom Caribana is ‘Christmas in August’.

But who most funds Toronto through Caribana? African American visitors and African Canadians at home. Without these, based on McCormack’s recommendation, Caribana ‘done gone thru’ since its 28th anniversary.

But what about the sentiments that Caribana deserves what it got because directors and others “cyar keep honest accounts”? And the eternal internal squabbles and ‘bad blood’ scenarios? Well, welcome or not, facts are facts.

In the 39 years the community ran the festival, 36 had clean audits. This is not to excuse the three years when these were qualified. And there were dishonest directors and members. But also with the new CCC/CAG team, when offenders were found out, they were expelled forthwith. Unlike the City of Toronto’s MFP computer leasing scandal in 1999, when $48M grew to $96M and, to date, no one knows how.

Still, more serious than the amounts of the funds misappropriated was the unforgiveable betrayal of community trust these represented.

Equally necessary is to point out some facts: facts like much of the public-sector grants paid for pre-specified services like policing, garbage clean-up; facts like rain falling is red-ink; facts like the perennial under-funding challenges.

For example, take under-funding for the festival last year, when it was headed by City of Toronto appointee, Joe Halstead, a former Commissioner par excellence with the City; someone who knows the City’s ropes and rope handlers. In 2010, a Toronto Star article announced: “Caribana Shut Out Of Funding” while Celebrate Ontario, a provincial Ministry of Tourism and Culture program, divvied up $11 million between festivals in Ontario like Luminato. Caribana “did not qualify”.

With a budget reduced by 35 per cent from $2.6 to $1.8 million, the staff received a 30 per cent cut in salary. To add to the under-funding woes, in another article: “Caribana Short Of Cash”, “The federal Marquee Tourism Events Program with a budget of $100 million gave Caribana $416,000 in 2009, but in 2010 “Caribana was passed over”. And an annual (federal government’s) Heritage Canada fund of $100,000 was scaled back to $40,000, making the festival’s situation even more dire.”

More dire under Halstead? In short, Caribana, under a former mover and shaker the City knows and trusts, didn’t fare any better than the community organizers his team replaced. It was completely passed over for funding by two tourism and culture-related funding programs, and cut back by 60 per cent by another.

And how did other festivals like Luminato fare?

In addition to not being passed over from the aforementioned federal Marquee Tourism Events Program, Luminato had 42 top-flight private and public-sector sponsors including: L’Oreal, TELUS, President’s Choice, Scotiabank Group; every level of government; foundations like Ontario Trillium; and media sponsors like the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Cineplex, CTV, etc.

Its budget in 2010 was $12 million to Caribana’s $1.8 million. Its program, it states, attracted, by comparison with Caribana’s 1.2 million, 1.5 million visitors. By the numbers, Luminato had a visitor economic impact of $193 million. Caribana’s was $450 million.

There are other facts, too. And to reiterate, the perennial underfunding of Caribana, and its monies dishonestly used, mattered much, and justified was the sense of betrayal expressed by the community about such dishonest practices. In my opinion, an even greater betrayal occurred from the immense egos that wasted time and sabotaged opportunity and hope.

However, what was more frequently the case, were directors using their personal credit cards to cover expenses due before promised public funding arrived. Others put up even larger amounts from loans on their homes to stage the festival; hoping rain didn’t fall as occurred several times. And, too, the support of community members, like the publisher of Share Newspaper, Arnold Auguste, assisting on one occasion by paying staff’s salaries.

To return to the initial point: the displeasure of the Black community over malpractices in Caribana being the City’s most potent weapon in their current attempt to take over Caribana, the underfed, but gilded goose, while snatching its golden eggs for re-branding and new masters.

The Black community is to be lauded for its volunteer efforts and other contributions, and also for its rightful displeasure about “people tiefin’ Caribana money”.

But how upset will the same Black community be about the City “tiefin’ the whole damn festival”?!

Finally, Caribana’s carnival will, in the year 2067 celebrate its own centennial, for it will survive and thrive. Whose youth and community will then be reaping the massive benefits – financial, social, political – which its cultural clout will allow? If not the Toronto Black community, which other community … since some community will eventually own it?

Caribana and its carnival, its creativity, hope and opportunity will not be lost. The festival will be returned, properly funded for the first time in its existence, to the Black community from whose womb it was born; and at whose Black tits it has suckled. Our glorious Black community must win, will win and grow this festival even as it mutually grows us!

Lennox Farrell is a retired educator and a former board member and chair of the Caribbean Cultural Committee, the founders and owners of Caribana.

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