Caribana was deliberately starved of resources


Last week the publisher of Share Newspaper, Arnold Auguste, issued a prudent call for the community stakeholders to unite in the face of the City of Toronto’s hostile takeover of Caribana and for the future of the festival. His call reminded me that on Caribana’s board in the last four decades, mas’ bandleaders have on several occasions been Chair, Vice Chair and Treasurer. Calypsonians, too. Pannists less so.

There have been other individuals: impresarios, teachers, engineers, dentists, civil servants, accountants, lawyers, other professionals and semi-professionals, et al. Many have been people of distinction. One, during his tenure later as a Judge on the Supreme Court of Canada, saw many of his legal opinions institutionalized as common or case law.

While many directors were wise, many were otherwise. Some were honourable, some not, but just about everyone has at some time or other been on the corporation’s board trying to maintain this piece of Black and Caribbean cultural property.

None of these directors, including the phalanx of accountants who became most influential after 1992, have been able to resolve the fundamental causes of the crises affecting the corporation: underfunding, undercapitalization and understaffing; issues easily resolved in other festival corporations in Toronto. And with much fewer professionals perennially serving as volunteers.

These details, the present furor, and the unmasking of the City’s condescending divide and rule attitude towards the corporation has forced the above three fundamental causes of Caribana’s crises under the magnifying glass of public opinion and discussion. The City’s brazen act and the reaction against it might prove to be Caribana’s finest hour; one in which returned to community directions, it finally receives the respect and funding it needs and deserves.

Think of it as a Rosa Parks moment, one in which powerful interests, by their own unjust measures, ironically created conditions which finally forced ordinary folk into taking extraordinary action…with historic results. Those who know the uses of power oft remain ignorant of the limitations on power; limitations set by issues of morality.

Meanwhile, despite being kept by the public and private sectors on a starvation diet of inadequate funding, the CCC has produced above and beyond. For example, when in 1989 Price Waterhouse conducted its historic assessment of Caribana’s economic impact on Toronto, two things were emphasized in discussions with the then board. One is that the bulk of Caribana’s revenues were from African Americans and African Canadians. The other was that Caribana’s economic impact is so vast that for credibility’s sake only base figures would be released.

It is reasonable, then, to propose that in 2010, Caribana’s visitor economic impact was between $450- and $700-million – instead of the $450-million which is being quoted. And in a city whose budget in 2011 is $3.5 billion, where for every $1.00 in revenue, $0.90 goes to repay debt, the revenue from this Caribana festival is badly needed by the City.

Can the City of Toronto allow Black Toronto to continue owning this cash cow? And are they thereby using, as unwitting foils, ‘stakeholders’, some with no loyalties to the African roots of carnival, not only to re-name Caribana’s festival, but also to re-brand Caribana as “multicultural”?

They are either ignorant of the true roots and history of this carnival or it is their way of removing it from its Black/African roots to make their takeover more palatable.

Will Caribana, by some other name, become a City-owned public corporation or property like the TTC? Or be transferred to the administration of Luminato (which had start-up provincial guarantees of $15-million), the organizers of the Gay Pride parade or the CNE?

When the City required the presence of more accounting skills on Caribana’s board it incorrectly proclaimed the fundamental cause of Caribana’s perennial crises to be inaccurate and improper accounting and accountability on the part of the founders and owners, the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC). And the community, understandably, bought into this without question.

These professional accountants toiled through long days of labour and nights devoid of ease, but were like skilled medics trying to save a critically ill patient, using incorrect diagnoses and basic equipment, volunteer supplies and with no full-time triage staff.

The Caribana patient also suffered from other complications. One was the toxic social climate that too often affected decisions and relationships. The shortage of the means to meet obligations for utilities, rent etc., heightened the tension, insecurity, drift, finger-pointing and free-floating sense of emergency.

Thus, despite the variety of skills, personalities and interests among directors, the fundamental crisis in the corporation remained. In fact, these untenable conditions affected, not only the earlier community-elected directors and boards, but in 2010 also stymied the best efforts of the City-appointed chairman, Joe Halstead, ironically parachuted in to replace community representatives.

If experienced City of Toronto Commissioner Joe Halstead, closely allied with influential City of Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc could not solve this cornerstone cause of crises in Caribana, then who can? Community reps? Stakeholders? Volunteer accountants?

And what is the fundamental reasoning behind why resolving this situation, so easily resolved elsewhere, remains unresolved in Caribana? Why is it that whether or not one is a person of honour or dishonour; someone who is skilled or a shyster; trustworthy or untrustworthy, that serving in Caribana automatically makes one a child of a lesser god?

Is it that the very wealth Caribana creates is both a vast blessing and an insidious curse to the City’s financial well being, already under threat, and which cannot face the uncertainties of community control over this Black cash cow?

The private sector is also in sync with demeaning the festival. In 2004, the year of SARS and the beginning of the steepest slide of the CCC into emergency, in addition to a federal fund of $100-million, private corporate donations and sponsorships across Canada together with other corporate donations of $107 million for 198 performing arts companies, $47.9 million was divvied up between 113 public museums and art galleries. Caribana got zilch!

Scotiabank, the title sponsor of the Caribana festival, received an award last year from the Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada (SMCC) for donations to, and sponsorship of, cultural festivals.

In 2011, in keeping with its acknowledged largesse, Scotiabank will donate an additional new sum; one never before available; toute monde; toute baggai to pan, kaiso and mas: $10,000! Rejoice!

If these sectors treat Caribana as Toronto’s cultural orphan, where from Caribana’s own efforts are its revenue streams, threats to these, and its expenses thereat?

The corporation’s largest revenues come from its outdoor festivities, in particular, the Olympic Island picnic and concert (which have now been moved to Ontario Place). These are subject to the vagaries of weather, and on more than one occasion they have been rained out. In fact, on one such weekend in the early 1990s, rain fell like red ink. These losses plunged the CCC into financial distress from which it really never emerged; having to declare bankruptcy at one point. “Caribana bad-pay”, became the mantra at home and abroad.

However, there were some who were always paid, regardless. In addition to towing companies joyously hauling away the vehicles of African Americans, and City staff who work the festival, were the police and the security firms.

The latter were either owned by former police officers, and/or hired them. Caribana was in a catch 22 situation: without police-issued permits, there would be no festival; without paid security there would be no permits. Therefore, when these two tag-teamed, demanding full payment in advance, Caribana bowed and scraped like windshield wipers. In 2002, for off-duty policing – in addition to earnings decided by them for regular duties from public sector grants – the police demanded $68,000 in hard cold cash. Security obliged for $60,000.

One City Councillor, responding to a reporter’s questions on this blatant anomaly said: “It’s understandable (why) providers of services and goods (to Caribana) would ask for payment up front because of the event’s shaky credit history.”

Indeed Councillor! But why … exactly?!

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

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