Caribana: golden goose and ugly duckling?

By Admin Wednesday December 03 2014 in Opinion
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Dear Councillor Mihevc:

Please ask, one at a time, any three Black and three White individuals if they’d ever heard the remark, “go back where you come from”? You might find some Black reactions possibly assuming you’re rude. But persevere; you will better understand the underpinnings of Caribana’s challenges. The above is premised on the subtext of an interview with a reporter in which, looking at Caribana’s low priority, you said, “The Feds don’t get it.”


Braced by these two statements above, this article aims at the heart of why the Feds, and possibly others, also don’t “get it”. Or how to square Caribana’s chronic overachieving when it comes to revenues it provides, vis-a-vis its chronic under-capitalized circumstances.


How might the opening question, and your statement in August 2007, the 40th anniversary of the festival, explain Caribana’s circumstances: a revenue earner par excellence; but operationally, a pauper?


The Black community, after the Price Waterhouse 1989 study, was certain that every level of government had finally “gotten it”. That Caribana would now be treated as a full-fledged member of Canada’s cultural clans. Thus, subsequently keeping her under-capitalized didn’t make sense, not in the same way it would make sense for other institutions delivering less than she did. In fact, we believed, and many –myself included – have argued that her fundamental challenge was being under-capitalized. However, on reflection, is it?


Speaking that year to a reporter with Metroland City Centre Mirror you’d said (summaries mine), “the festival was impressive, yet it still fails to get the financial attention it deserves from the (Feds who benefit) substantially from sales tax generated… (and remains) a minor contributor”.


The reporter continued, “This year…was better promoted than ever…and corporate sponsorship to the tune of $300,000 helped to float the festival – like a car-jack hoisting a cruise liner (my comment) – which has suffered financial hardships in the past.”


However, further quoting you, “even when the festival suffers, the (Feds) still makes its money…and we are the biggest contributor… (Thus) the City as a corporation loses money.”


That year, the City’s $437,000 was matched by the province, plus $250,000 in-kind services from the City. Also, while “golf and Indy racing” got between $300,000 and $700,000 from the Feds, Caribana had $100,000 added to a budget of $1.5 million. Disappointed, you wondered why, “the Feds find a way to fund art-based events like the Stratford and Shaw festivals (yet) they don’t see the value in supporting a cultural event like Caribana”.


Your observation was precise. It correctly sums up the history both of Caribana and of her founders. For example, one of these early founders was an individual who with others – after they’d incurred personal loans to launch that year’s festival – had met with a 1970s Metro Chairman, and were peremptorily dismissed, to “get it from your community”.


That particular Board member, some years later would become the first Black Canadian to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada: Judge Julius Isaacs. (Do we live in a country in which there is still “the first Black person” doing what for others are commonplace things?)


Someone close to him said of him, “despite his brilliant mind, he had once found it difficult to find an articling position and later, a job”. Yet, as Supreme Court Justice Julius Isaacs, he accomplished what few others do: pen legal precedents so many and so profound: broad gauged and incisive, that they then became ground-breaking jurisprudence in the British Commonwealth: from Australia to Zambia; subsequently cited to assist in clarifying, edifying and interpreting thorny legal challenges.


Justice Isaacs, a Director of the Board of the Caribbean Cultural Committee – over the decades, not all members have been as trustworthy – had also been a Treasurer. He, like many others of Ontario’s most prestigious Black community today, was among those then also seeking adequate funding for Caribana. In fact, if you were to list today’s coterie of Black Canadians as elected officials, lawyers, entrepreneurs…they more than likely have served Caribana, and Canada, incurring debts from their own pockets – as one Metro Chairman advised – to stage a Caribana carnival, otherwise chronically underfunded.


Do note the following: the fact that every generation of Caribana organizers has been stymied by officialdom at every level; that in every generation, Caribana has had input from among the most prudent of Black Toronto from every Caribbean island (nota bene); that Caribana remains, five decades later, the underappreciated overachiever. Why? The answer does not primarily come from Caribana’s financial insecurities. These are the latitude and longitude mapping Caribana’s coordinates as a cultural outsider.


Herein is everything that’s at the heart of why Caribana has become a cultural Niagara Falls annually coursing cascades of revenues for everyone but herself. Born in Toronto, now matronly middle-aged, it’s a miracle that she’d survived the first two decades: 1967-1989. Then, founding members and organizers like (later) Justice Romain Pitt and Dr. Maurice Bygrave had to joust annually with Toronto police to obtain parade permits. She survived not because of her ancestral links with Black Canadians, but for her revenue potential to the hospitality industry in the conurbation of the Golden Horseshoe.


Therefore, the reason why the Feds and others, “didn’t get it” with her, is because of an attitude more vast than that of mere police hostility. The 1983 “Phil McKellar” affair exposed this underside of anti-Caribana and anti-Black sentiment. He, popular radio host and authority on “All That Jazz”, was overheard on an open mike, describing Caribana as “a bunch of ni**ers jumping downtown”. Here he was, Toronto’s buttinski on Black music, no less!


Put another way, Caribana, though born in Toronto, and the golden goose to Ontario’s hospitality industry, remains a cultural ugly duckling. The 21 carat eggs she lays are dues she pays for her presence here; much like so many other Black people, still too unempowered to be fully Canadian. Including the offspring from generations of Black Canadians, e.g., Black Nova Scotians.


They, for example, arrived in the Maritimes in about four waves. First were slaves brought in the early 1700s by French owners settling Cape Breton. Next were the Black Loyalists in 1783. Thirteen years later, were the Jamaican Maroons. These were those who’d fought and lost the Second Maroon War against Britain. Next were the Black Refugees – African-Americans fleeing and fighting against slavery during another American/British conflict: the War of 1812.


What were commonplace experiences to these Black Nova Scotians? Many eventually fled from the chills of winter and racism. The Maroons, having rebuilt a bastion in the “Third Citadel” wing to defend Maritimers, some returned to Jamaica. Others re-settled in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Among the 1812 arrivals, some even emigrated to form “Company Towns” in the Mayaro and Moruga districts in South Trinidad; one ship presumably lost at sea.


In conclusion, Caribana is a cultural avatar to these anti-Black attitudes versus Black Canadian contributions. So, to make her festivities more “civilized” – again like so many of us descendants of former slaves – they have been brazenly re-christened; given a good Anglo-Saxon name to upgrade their status. First, denied her right to be fully Canadian; she is furthermore denied the right to her African heritage.


Question: How can a carnival, not yet a decade old, still celebrate a 50th anniversary? Anglicize its African name.


Finally, this is a summary, in my opinion, of why Caribana chronically remains a cultural bag-lady! I think, too, that even when she earns TorOntCan a billion dollars annually, she’d still wear the cuffs of a cultural émigré; the Feds – and others, still wouldn’t “get it”; and she’d still be under advisement to “go back where you come from”.


However, is the upstart, anti-Caribana carnival – its cultural moorings adrift except for anchoring its website with the face of a Black woman – sufficiently Canadian?



Lennox V. Farrell

To Be Continued: Caribana: a 21-carat woman, or brass-trinket strumpet?

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