Halstead proud of Caribana accomplishments

By JOE HALSTEAD, FMC’s Founding Chair/CEO 

I can’t believe that I’m leaving the best summer festival in Toronto, and even Canada.  I’m so proud that I’ve been associated with the Caribana festival.

My association started a long time ago when I was the Economic Commissioner for the City of Toronto and worked at making City officials understand what our festival was all about and its importance to our community.

At that time, I was responsible for the funding of all festivals in the city and other community events and programs. In my job with the City, I tried to ensure that funds would be made available so that the bandleaders, pannists and calypsonians could share their immense talents and bring enjoyment to the Caribbean and wider communities for a number of years. Then I took a major leap – I took over the helm of the Festival Management Committee (FMC) that was appointed to manage the festival at a critical time in its existence.

The last five years have been both interesting and challenging. The situation I met was not a pretty one at all and certainly not one that anyone without a passion for our community would have wanted to lead. When I took over the helm, there was no money, a lot of debt, and creditors who previously dealt with the Caribbean Cultural Committee coming after us with legal actions against this brand new organization.

There were days that were as dark as the night while we were trying to bring stability to an organization that was floundering in so many ways. We had to put on blinders so as not to be distracted from what we perceived to be an important goal – which was to move the festival to a point that we would attract the big name sponsors that our festival so justly deserved. We had to endure rejection, with many doors being shut in our faces and our requests being ignored by organizations because they basically did not want to be associated with the brand we were presenting to them. We had doubts as to whether this would ever work, and questions about our product, wondering if we would ever be able to restore the value of the brand. However, we knew that it was only a matter of time when doubts would wane, questions would turn to answers, and welcoming gestures would replace rejection.

Over the five-year period, we’ve implemented and adhered to strict financial and operating policies, improved accountability, trust and credibility – a fact that has been acknowledged by all levels of government, sponsors, stakeholders and other funders. Our audits have been on time and clean.

One of my main goals throughout the past five years was to ensure that the festival continued to succeed, remained in the hands of our community, and that the focus and strategies of the festival were entrenched in the Caribbean culture.

I would like to set the record straight that this festival is a product of the Caribbean community and will always be that way. The relationship we have with sponsors and supporters is that of a funding relationship. Any reporting that is done to these organizations is the same as all other festivals – Stratford, Shaw, Luminato – which is to tell them how their money was spent. They do not control the running of the festival.

When I initially started with the FMC, a new name was suggested for the festival but I insisted that we continue with the original name because I strongly believed that we needed to work together as a community. We went out of our way to ensure that we continued on that path and signed an agreement with the owners of the name to allow us to use the brand so we could bring back credibility to a brand that we believed was great for our community, our city and entire country. We still to this day hold on to that belief.

The board for the Festival Management Committee comprise the stakeholder organizations and senior members and contributors to the community. That is important because we want to preserve our culture within the festival. We also want to ensure that the stakeholders (band leaders, steelpan players and calypsonians) have input into and are in agreement with every aspect of the festival that affects them. All the information regarding the running of the festival is available to them because they are part of each and every board meeting and their input is required and valued.

In order to ensure that we continued with this focus, my exit from the organization was planned so that the hard work that was started would be carried on. We made this happen by ensuring that there was a transition in leadership which could continue with the stability, accountability and also credibility to attract new sponsors, and keep the current sponsors as we move forward to taking this wonderful festival to new levels of success.

Our festival was conceived by a group of forward looking Caribbean people – representatives of several Caribbean countries. They got together to create a cultural blueprint that would showcase our talents to the City of Toronto when it celebrated its bi-centennial in 1967. I’m so proud that even after all these years, our festival is the only one from that time that has lasted up to now.

We inherited the traditional events of Junior Carnival, King and Queen, Parade and the Island. To revive the dream of the pioneers to grow the festival and offer a wider range of events, we’ve revived the gala in spectacular fashion, introduced the art exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada’s largest and North America’s fifth largest museum, and established relationships with other tourism and entertainment organizations, and venues across Ontario.

There is so much passion for our cultural products both within and outside of our community. I’ve met people who are absolutely enthusiastic about the cultural inputs and outputs of the festival – they are the creators, event managers, volunteers, office staff, funders, sponsors, partners and consumers. I’ve also met people who see the importance of making the festival economically viable in the long run. Trying to manage these varied expectations and inter-relationships continue to be the most demanding requirements for the Festival Management Committee.

We’ve strived in spite of funding challenges because of the commitment and continued growth of the cultural products associated with the festival. We see so much involvement by our youth in the steel bands, as performers in the mas’ bands or composers of calypso and music, as well as producers of events around the festival. This makes it so much more imperative that we continue the dream of the pioneers and make their dream a viable reality. That is why we are confident that this festival will continue to grow and transcend generations. This is a legacy and we need to treat it in that manner.

I’m proud to state that our Festival has been recognized by Festival Events Ontario as one the major provincial festivals. We’ve also won awards in viral marketing and are moving forward in utilizing social media that has enhanced communication and sharing among our consumers. Over 1.2 million viewers in the Greater Toronto Area watched this year’s parade on television, according to the Nielsen ratings.

This past year, the educational aspect of the festival was also evident in the month-long successful programming at the Toronto Public Library in July and in the programs at the Ontario Science Centre which also offered an award for the best environmental use of material in a mas’ costume. The winner of this award is the Queen costume in Louis Saldenah’s band, titled Portraits. The fabulous costume – Chandelier – is currently on display at the Science Centre.

Another achievement in a winning partnership was the participation of the Hospitality and Events program at Centennial College. The students built a costume that was paraded in the King and Queen Competition and carried by a young student who was born in Kenya and who participated for the first time in the festival.

The journey has been one that can be categorized by the old famous movie ‘from rags to riches’. It is not yet over but we are now on a solid path of stability, growth and continued success.

We’ve been told that this factual success story is well suited for a business case in a master’s degree university program in a Canadian university. The bar has now been raised depicting that we (people of Caribbean descent) do have what it takes to produce, stage and execute any activity at world class level and manage the associated business aspects accordingly.

When I made the decision to leave the management of the FMC, it was difficult. As the Chief Executive Officer, I had to ensure that I was leaving at the right time. My family, which includes people from my birth country, Jamaica, as well as those from the eastern Caribbean, knew how this festival has become an integral part of my life. I’ve come to love this festival with the same passion as the people who contribute to its creativity as well as the people who enjoy it. It’s time for me to move on but I will continue to be a proud supporter and enjoy the beauty and creativity of our culture.

Halstead is the outgoing Chair/CEO of the Festival Management Committee, for the past four years the organizers of the annual Caribana.

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