Mayor Rob Ford, John Graves Simcoe and Caribana


When Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attends this 44th anniversary of carnival festivities – but without the historic Caribana name, something akin to a Scotiabank St. Patrick’s Day Parade – he will rub shoulders with some historic ghosts of Toronto’s – and Trinidad’s – heroic past.

The Mayor might probably be unaware of this vast historicity. And, too, of the supreme irony of the carnival’s name-change from Caribana to Scotiabank. And especially so in the light of yet another City Councillor today making a decision, probably unintentionally, but nonetheless as historic as those made by two earlier City Councils: in 1869 and in 1965, directly related to African Canadians.

All three sets of Councillors, in one way or another, had and are having, something to do with John Graves Simcoe, Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, appointed in 1791 to Upper Canada, then primarily Ontario.

The Toronto City Council of 1869 decided to honour Simcoe a half century after his historic actions ending slavery in Upper Canada and a first in the British Empire. He was also honoured for his efforts defending the rights of workers. To this end, the Council established August 1, Simcoe Day, to annually commemorate his memory. And why August 1? It was on that historic date in 1834 that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the British Empire.

What had Simcoe done? Had he been an American, his stature would be the same as that of a George Washington for military prowess, and a Thomas Jefferson for intellectual incisiveness and moral span.

An accomplished singer, dancer and music composer, among Simcoe’s civil acts as Lieutenant Governor were: bringing to Upper Canada the British legal institution of Trial By Jury, Courts of Law, English Common Law, Free Land Tenure; legislation to protect workers against being exploited; and founding the city then known as York, today’s Toronto. He also laid out Yonge Street. Described as the world’s longest at almost 1900 km, it stretches from Lake Ontario to the Town of Rainey River, and had for eons been a trail used by the Hurons.

However, Lord Simcoe’s most historic act and for which August 1 became Canada’s first Statuary holiday was his unparalleled humanitarian actions against slavery. This occurred in 1810, several decades before similar actions were taken anywhere else in the British Empire.

This is where the second Toronto City Council comes in. In 1965, almost a century after the 1869 City Council had named August 1 Simcoe Day, these City Councillors faced off against other forces intent on erasing the anti-slavery roots from this holiday. These forces wanted to call it, not Simcoe Day, but Civic Day. They, too, wanted a name-change! The 1965 City Council stood their ground and decreed that, “henceforth this day shall be called Simcoe Day in Toronto”.

Other Toronto City Councils, after the 1967 carnival celebrations then commemorating Canada’s centennial, proclaimed the August 1 Simcoe Day as the date to celebrate Caribana’s annual carnival festivities. This historic date was not chosen by accident. August 1, John Graves Simcoe, and Caribana are a historic trinity linked to the Abolitionists, Emancipation and accompanying carnival celebrations by the freed slaves, ancestors in the West Indies, the descendants of whom, for Canada’s centennial created Caribana – the only centennial-inspired cultural activity to survive to this day.

What does Scotiabank have to do with any of these historic events and individuals?

Caribana’s West Indian creators saw the natural and historic links between commemorating the anti-slavery actions of Canada’s John Graves Simcoe, the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the British West Indies, and Caribana’s carnival festivities.

Mayor Ford might also consider the historic and contemporary ironies between the 1965 City Councillors who had to fight off attempts by Civic authorities then to re-name Simcoe Day as Civic Day. He might also see the similarities between these two ironies and the activities of other Civic authorities in 19th Century Trinidad who also tried to de-link the carnival activities from their Emancipation sentiments. Their opposition to the carnival led to the historic Canboulay riots in 1881.

Enter Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc. On July 12, 2011 at the re-named Scotiabank carnival’s launch when asked how he could allow what is now occurring in this move away from Caribana’s Black roots into Scotiabank’s bland multiculturalism, the Councillor, imploring palms stretched over his heart declaimed, “you are blaming the wrong person”. Similarly, a representative in the office of the President of Scotiabank, when contacted earlier as to why Scotiabank would allow its name to be used thus, replied, “… as a financial sponsor, we have no input as to the decision of who runs the annual event … and it is not our intention to cause any offence …”

In short, the official liaison between the festival and Toronto City Council, and the Title Sponsor have absolutely nothing to do with the current untenable situation.

These actions, in some ways, parallel those of other public figures in 1974, only seven years after Caribana was founded. Then, according to the organization’s Chair at the time, Mr. Elmore Daisy, following that year’s successful West Indian Expo, the centre-piece of which were the carnival festivities, the board presented to the Province of Ontario a request for assistance to meet the huge cost over-runs.

Toronto merchants and businesses had profited greatly, but it was the directors who were on the hook for a deficit of $16,000. This they had from their own pockets reduced to $2,500. The board’s request for $25,000 to keep an office open was refused, forcing directors like Mr. Daisy to sign loan guarantees.

However, not only did the provincial officials refuse the board’s request, but they also designated another group to form a rival carnival. This rival group received from the province $20,000, plus a permit. However, opposition by Toronto’s Black community caused the rivals to fail.

Enter Mayor Rob Ford. He can hold an enquiry into what administrations immediately prior to his did to bring about a set of circumstances over which, while they hold the financial and legal whip-hands, nonetheless claim to be hands-off.

Mayor Ford can also take the side of the historic City Councils, especially of 1965, and not the side of those who, unaware that the first act of civility by an individual or institution is to stand against injustice and for justice, wanted a Civic Holiday instead.

Finally, Mayor Ford is faced with two diametrically opposed choices. He can do nothing, or he can keep faith with these two historic City Councils who themselves also kept faith with the memory of a heroic Canadian, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Because of them, Simcoe’s Emancipation memory is today enshrined in his August 1 annual holiday, the main activities of which have for almost a half-century been, not a corporate Scotiabank carnival, but Toronto’s Black community’s Caribana.

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

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