Membership organization must run Caribana

By AJAMU NANGWAYA

There are many people who view Caribana as a purely cultural and psychic experience. Unfortunately, they miss an equally important component of this festival. It is an annual economic boost to Canada’s economy to the tune of $438 million. Increasingly, carnivals and the cultural industries of which they are a part are being seen as potential economic drivers for sustainable development.

Dr. Keith Nurse of the University of the West Indies in a paper The Cultural Industries and Sustainable Development in Small Developing States asserts that “the cultural industries play a dual role (in development) in that it is an economic sector with growth potential and an arena for identity formation”.

Caribana has the potential to play such a function in the community. But my focus here is on the economic possibilities.

Caribana is by far the most successful, collectively-owned asset that has been created by the African Caribbean community in Canada. This festival has its roots in the political resistance and cultural creativity of the African working-class or labouring classes in the Caribbean. However, there is one persistent feature that has remained with Caribana and its sister carnivals in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, New York, Barbados and elsewhere. This problematic issue is that the African working-class does not reap the bulk of the economic returns from its cultural productions.

The members of this class do not own the hotels, the major retail establishments, car and truck rental companies, eateries, clubs, airlines and other modes of transportation, and do not set the priority on how the taxes generated from the festivals should be spent. The estimated US$30 million from Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival-related visitor arrivals, the ₤93 million revenue of the Notting Hill carnival in London and the over US$200 million from the West Indian Day Parade in New York do not significantly contribute to the material welfare of the race-cum-class grouping that makes this income possible.

In what ways could the community use Caribana to contribute to its economic, social and cultural development? I will briefly outline five ideas that I believe may contribute to a community-controlled festival that will collectively reward its creators for their cultural, physical and intellectual creativity, innovation and effort.

Firstly, any organization that organizes the two-week festival that is Caribana must be a democratically-controlled, membership-based one. This carnival is a collective resource and for most of its history it was organized and managed by the people. Currently, Caribana is managed by the Festival Management Committee (FMC) that was born out of the financial coercion levied against the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) in 2006 by the City of Toronto. Funding was withdrawn from the CCC as the traditional organizer of Caribana and given to the FMC (which was established by the City for that purpose).

Even the most informed Caribana fan in Toronto would find it difficult to tell you how many members are on the board of directors of the FMC and give you their names. This information is like a classified state secret of Canada’s secret police, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Caribana is a people’s festival and its affairs should be democratically-determined by the people. This summer festival should not be controlled by a “private club” or a “secret society” of faceless notables backed by private corporations and the different levels of government.

Secondly, we need to transform Caribana into a year-round operation with activities, initiatives, programs and attractions that will generate revenue and bring people from outside and inside the city to its sponsored events. The Calgary Stampede is a 365-day affair, although the actual festival is a 10-day event that generates $173 million in economic impact. This western-themed enterprise employs 1,200 permanent employees to carry out its day-to-day activities and an additional 3,500 workers for the festival. Its total estimated annual economic impact is $353 million.

Caribana is a two-week festival with an economic impact of $438 million in 2009. Can you imagine what its economic contribution would be if the infrastructure and resources were in place to make it a year-round affair? It would provide direct employment opportunities to members of the community as well as indirect employment through activities or tourism products related to conferences on cultural productions and resistance, educational workshops, theatrical productions, mounting of annual exhibitions and national and international tours of said products and schools of art on costume designing and production, just to name a few.

One thing that should be made clear is that the different levels of government must fund Caribana in the same way that they do with White-controlled cultural institutions. In April 2009, the government of Ontario gave a grant funding of $43.4 million to the following six White-directed organizations: the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Ontario Science Centre, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Royal Botanical Gardens. The provincial government allotted $24.8 million of that money as permanent annual funding, which increased the total operational grant to the six favoured cultural organizations from $56 million to $80.8 million. The federal government gave $3 million each to the Toronto International Film Festival and the Strafford Festival in April 2009 from its Marquee Tourism Events Program. Yet Caribana received a mere $415,000 from the same fund in that year.

As a year-round operation, Caribana would likely leave its privileged cultural siblings gasping for breath in the cultural industries’ economic impact “Olympics.” It is already the biggest grossing festival in the country.

It should be clear that Canada provides life-line or strategic funding to cultural organizations. Therefore, the community and its allies should politically organize their forces to challenge the state’s current practice of using cultural racism to determine the allocation of funding to arts groups.

To be continued.

Ajamu Nangwaya is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a labour activist.

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