By LENNOX FARRELL
Canada, in 1971, became the first among North American and European nations to officially adopt multiculturalism. It was a policy towards reducing existing social inequities against Canadians who were not White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP). Other countries, from Australia to the Netherlands, followed. Today Canada is the only one among these that is still multicultural … officially.
However, while the history of multiculturalism – and what has replaced it, unofficially – is a discussion all by itself, calling Caribana ‘multicultural’ is cultural erasure, ambiguity, and possible cultural kidnapping.
Without detailing some subtleties of cultural differences which are oft more vast within – than between – cultures, a comparison between HMS CARIBANA, Toronto’s cultural economic flagship, and two other galleons of state in Toronto’s cultural flotilla might prove useful.
These are the Jewish Festival of Lights and the Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade. How do these festivals reflect the historic experiences of Jews and the Irish and which, while open to wider participation by others, still maintain their communal validity and clout?
The Irish flag is a tricolour of green, white and orange. Orange symbolizes the Protestant Irish who sided with William, the Prince of Orange, in England’s war (1690) against Catholic Irish nationalists. Green represents the colour of the nationalists, the Gaelic Catholic majority. White symbolizes peace between them. The ‘green’ is, however, associated, more with the March 17 annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and festivities.
From historic events as St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland sometime in the 4th Century AD to New York’s Irish population in the 19th Century, the ‘green’ has been symbolic of life and death. For example, St. Patrick used a shamrock leaf as a teaching tool to assist in bringing Catholicism to Ireland. His birthday, March 17, is the date for the annual parade. The ‘green’ also featured in New York’s then recently arrived Irish, who recognized and used the political clout in their numbers, or their Green Machine.
One gruesome association of the ‘green’ comes from the years 1845-1852, the Great Hunger, or an Gorta Mó. Among the countless numbers who starved to death – while British exports of Irish beef continued – were Irish victims with mouths desperately stained green from eating grass.
The Jewish Festival of Lights reflects one episode (168-167 BCE) of their struggles against oppression. This particular commemoration, along with some of its symbols: the cheese eaten, its Menorah, this one a nine-branched candelabrum, and other activities come from the times of the Maccabbees, a sect of Jewish nationalists and priests who defeated the Seleucid Empire and stopped its leader’s degradations against their temple.
In the Jewish narrative of I Maccabees, Antiochus, leader of the Seleucid Empire – one formed from the breaking-up of the empire of Alexander the Great – issued decrees proscribing Jewish religious practice. He then instituted the worship of idols, the sacrificing of animals ritually unclean, and imposed his own High Priest, a Hellenistic Jew. A revolt followed in which a priest, Mattathias, killed this High Priest. After Mattathias was himself also murdered, one of his sons, Judah Maccabee, seized the ‘hammer’ of his father’s revolt.
The Jewish festival, Hanukkah, an eight-day festival held between late November and late December, today continues to commemorate the eventual rededication and cleansing of the Temple. Among the events commemorated by the eating of cheese is the killing of one Holofernes by Judith, a Jewish heroine. She had fed him salty cheese. Thirsting, he drank wine, becoming drunk. Using his sword, she then beheaded him.
Regarding the symbolism of the Menorah, according to tradition, the “victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated by virtue of a seal, and although it only contained enough oil to sustain the Menorah for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days”.
These festivals, like Caribana, have origins unique to the history and culture of their peoples. For all people, memory is the first act of resistance against oppression. The unquestioned uniqueness of Irish and Jewish peoples does not however prevent other peoples with different histories and cultures from celebrating with them. Such celebratings do not diminish nor threaten ownership and control over these unique symbols; the most potent alphabet of a people’s culture and future.
Some, including Black people, might question the validity of comparing Caribana with other celebrations like the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Festival of Lights. Why? Have the ancestors of the immigrants who created this African Canadian carnival and its arts not also come through the fires of oppression, revolt and emancipation?
And what would likely occur were the City of Toronto, for whatever reason, to name-change these: either the Scotiabank St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or the Scotiabank Festival of Lights?