Caribana and the perils of equivocal ownership


In 1993, the Board of the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) faced a Civil action in court to the tune of several million dollars.

Served notice along with the CCC were the City of Toronto and the Harbour Master’s office. What had happened? Unfortunately, a patron on a boat cruise had fallen overboard. At night.

The court was on Grovesnor Street, south of College, and between Yonge and Bay Streets. A YMCA stands opposite the site today. There were a battery of lawyers representing the City, so many in fact they outnumbered the spectators. The lawyers for the Harbour Master’s office sat on their side.

On the other side sat our one lawyer, a young Black woman who undertook our defence on short order and did so, pro-bono. The number of occasions on which other Black lawyers have likewise come to Caribana’s assistance is innumerable.

The occasion was very difficult and for very unfortunate reasons. Having to sit in a court and listen to a parent speak of a child who had died is never easy.

On that occasion, after all the lawyers on the other side had ably defended their clients, it came down to the CCC’s ownership and its legal responsibilities. The City and the Harbour Master’s office were off the hook. Caribana was on it.

Recalling this trial reminds of how many people not involved with the board and, sadly, too many who sit or sat on it remain ignorant of these legal issues and, in some instances, escaped judgment, oft remaining blithely unaware of how close they had come to disaster.

In any new dispensation, following retrieval of the festival for the community, ownership of the Corporation must be unequivocal, and not be shared with, nor be allowed to be encroached on, by any other entity.

The issue of ownership versus control is, moreover, not primarily the fault of non-board members. CCC directors by their actions and/or inactions have in too many instances lacked necessary attention to their fiduciary duties to defend the corporation, and were also ignorant of how they and others can be affected if any lawsuit goes against the corporation where they have not taken the proper precautions in advance.

For example, one area in which there has been, and probably continues to have, a glaring lack of ownership oversight is with the large transport diesels contracted by mas’ bandleaders during the festival season.

How many times have individuals been seen dancing, some inebriated, on the top of large speakers stacked on these flatbeds? How many times have celebrants not “jump up, jump up” alongside the wheels of these vehicles? On one occasion one of these ran over the foot of a celebrant, and it was the CCC which had to defend itself in court.

Now, in the unfortunate but likely event of a lawsuit, who has primary responsibility in court? …for the safety of these trucks?

There are other areas, too. The festival organizers allow on site, concessionaires that sell food. Do those who allow in these vehicles and their owners have the responsibility to check if Ontario standards are met, and remain in place?

Raising these questions is not merely academic, nor to make life more difficult for the current organizers. They are, in fact, to try to assist in making organizers more protected. Accidents can not only affect the organizers but also the patrons. In addition, these issues have always come back to knock on the doors and homes of the CCC now the CAG. This is because, regardless of who assumes control of the festivities, legality is the cornerstone of ownership.

In 1993, facing civil action over the death of a young man, and with the lawyers on the other side emphasizing the CCC’s responsibilities for safety, our lone lawyer was able to prove that, not only did we have sufficient security on the boat, but also that the CCC’s security had on at least two occasions cautioned the individual.

When the community regains control of Caribana’s festivities, the past cannot remain prologue. Ownership must also mean unequivocal control, and as defined by the corporation’s owners, and the laws of Ontario.

What must also change is the manner of choosing directors. Happily, that is an issue already resolved when in 2003 under the sterling leadership of Dalma Hill and Monica Pollard, the corporation underwent the most comprehensive re-structuring in its decades-old history; a re-structuring plagiarized by the City to copy-cat entities it ironically now considers successful.

But under whose ownership? Legal issues and even more, community opposition must clarify this.

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