Caribana the best yet, but…the more things change the more they stay the same

By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE, Publisher/Editor

Another Caribana has passed, not too quietly, into history.

The 43rd anniversary of this Caribbean festival is being hailed as the best ever. And it is/was. But, so was last year’s and the year before that and on and on.

In fact, every Caribana, since its inception in 1967, was the “best ever”, better than the last, down through the years – except, of course, when it rained. Then, that was a different kind of party; that was when the true West Indians (and those with a true West Indian spirit) really showed how to play mas’.

The first Caribana was held to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. It was not meant to be an annual affair. But, because it was such a success, the “best (time) ever”, the organizers determined that it should be repeated. They had a lot of fun doing it and sharing their culture with their fellow Canadians.

What made each year the “best ever” was the passion these folks had for the culture and for the sharing of it and they worked diligently to make it better each year.

That passion wasn’t only on the part of the organizers, it was also shared by the creative types in our community for whom carnival was like a second skin. This was a chance to relive all those long nights back home designing, sewing, stitching, pasting and doing all those delicately intricate things that mas’ makers do. And it was a chance once again to share the camaraderie, the old talk, the midnight cook-up and all that coffee with a little something in it.

Year after year, the passion just seemed to increase. And year after year, the challenge was to outdo the previous year. Then, as new mas’ bands formed or big ones divided and the crowds grew, the challenge was to outdo each other.

While all this was going on, the steel pannists and the calypsonians also saw a chance to grow their craft here. And, together, they helped to evolve the carnival in Toronto that we have come to know as the world famous Caribana, the largest of its kind in North America.

Who could have imagined that 43 years ago?

The success of the festival, however, came with its own share of problems. The organizers, for example, who saw this as their festival which they created, failed to recognize the importance of the other elements – the mas’ bands, the steelbands, the calypsonians – at least not as the equal partners they were or should have been.

The other failure was the inability to understand that old saying: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Four years ago, the City of Toronto which, together with the Province of Ontario, financially supported the festival to the tune of almost $1 million, decided to “call the tune” and take the festival away from the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), the originators of the festival who, for better or worse, are really the folks responsible for keeping this thing alive for all those years. But, their failure to recognize the other stakeholders, especially the people who actually created the carnival bands which continue to draw the estimated one million people to the streets of this city each summer, was their undoing. When the city threatened the CCC, there was no one to stand with them, especially not the masquerade bandleaders.

Add to that, the constant problems with regard to financing and the constant squabbling among its members, even their strongest supporters in the community elected to remain silent.

So, what we have now is a Caribbean carnival festival that is, for all intents and purposes, owned/run by the City of Toronto. The committee which now runs the festival was set up by the city or, more accurately, one city councilor, who started out being the liaison between the city and the festival. Now, it seems, he runs the show.

As bad as they were, when the CCC controlled Caribana, we kind of always knew what was happening. At least, we knew a lot more than we do now. There were annual general meetings at which there was some attempt to report to the membership which was drawn from and representative of the community. Board members who fell out of favour were thrown out and new ones elected.

Now, however, people get appointed/hired to run a festival under terms and conditions that we know absolutely nothing about. We hear that some government funding this year was cut entirely or reduced. We hear that the festival was in trouble until its lead sponsor came up with some last minute cash. We hear that some staff had to take a massive cut in salary because of all this.

We don’t know how much money the festival received in total nor do we know how much was cut. As far as we know, there is no accounting to our community. What we do know (or hear) is that the festival this year was underfunded and has been struggling to pay its bills.

Where have we heard that one before? Oh, yes, with the old CCC. And we mocked and reviled them to the point the city felt empowered to take the festival away from them.

So, what has changed, except that we are more in the dark now than ever before?

Does anyone care about this? Is it all right that the City of Toronto has literally taken away control of this Caribbean festival from the community?

This year’s Caribana was the best ever just as last year’s was the best ever at that point and the last year that the CCC ran it was the best ever at that time. That is because of the talented masquerade bandleaders and all those amazing people who toil night and day each year to bring their best for Caribana, not because of the CCC or the City of Toronto or the Festival Management Committee. It is the mas’ men and women and the magical splendour of their creations that we throng the Lakeshore every year to see. They are the ones responsible for the million people coming into the city and the more than $400 million that Caribana injects into this economy.

How much of that money are the bandleaders getting? Whatever it is it is not enough. If the city wants to own/control the festival, maybe we should be calling on them to pay the bandleaders properly for their work. The payments should also be enough so that they don’t have to charge band members for their costumes. These people are providing a valuable service to this city. They should be paid well for it. If this city needs Caribana so badly, those responsible for producing it should be adequately compensated and respected.

Oh, another thing that hasn’t changed is the pace of the parade once the bands leave the CNE. What’s up with that? Last Saturday, some people began leaving at about 3 p.m. because they thought the parade was over since they didn’t see any more bands coming. We thought that was one of the things that was going to change with the new leadership.

And that fence. Wasn’t it supposed to keep people without costumes from climbing over and joining the mas’ bands? Sorry folks, it ain’t working. Don’t know what they are feeding the young folks these days but even young women (and a couple of girls) were seen climbing up and over with ease. And it just made the rest of us look like monkeys in the zoo.

Ours is probably the only festival in North America where people are fenced out like this. It is very humiliating!

It was a pleasure to hear/see Caribana spokesperson, Alicia Sealey, on television explaining details of the festival in a coherent, knowledgeable and intelligent manner. Not so with the other spokesperson, Stephen Weir, who didn’t seem to know what this festival is all about, although he has been around for quite some time. Maybe he should visit the mas’ tents and get to know what is going on, who is doing what and also to pick up on some of the carnival jargon. Or, maybe he should let Sealey do all the talking. She knows her stuff. After all, she has grown up with this thing.

Weir has also been referred to by the people in mainstream media either as the organizer or as one of the organizers of Caribana. We thought he was just handling public relations for the festival. Can anyone imagine someone who is straight speaking for and on behalf of – or being referred to as a leader of – the Gay Pride Parade?

This is not about turning Caribana back to the CCC or whatever they call themselves now. But, this Caribbean festival should be accountable to the Caribbean community and we should have a say in how it is run and who is running it. At the very least, we should expect some transparency.

Finally, can anyone think of any other ethnic festival in this country that the government could just go in and take it over without serious pushback from the community?






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