By LENNOX FARRELL
This is the first in a series on this 1967 Centennial gift to Canada, Ontario and Toronto. The series is to look again at the blessings and the curses, the acknowledgements and the denials inherent in a carnival like this, and staged in a multicultural city like Toronto.
Who benefits? Who pays? Politically, culturally, financially? What does the template of this annual carnival say about the history from which it has sprung? And how one-sided is it, assessed from the perspective of one individual from experiences, observations and choices which are those of a Black Trinidadian? Now, where to begin? At the ending.
That is, at what can occur, generally planned in the next two years, and particularly delivered in the spring and summer of 2017 to honour this festival and carnival. One, for which to me, the avatar is naturally that of an abused but indomitable Black woman.
To those of us, Canadians concerned about Caribana, what follows is an offering of what is possible in the next two years, and which for decades following, can assist this great Caribbean festival to reach its true potential both as 21st century celebration and as historic commemoration. In other words, what the following is intended to introduce is a reversal of how the festival was hobbled through how it was planned and executed in its first and subsequent years.
In fact, the latter is the main, of several thrusts. First, this 50th anniversary commemoration must ensure through strategic planning (the mid-1990s five year strategic plan is a good place to begin) the means by which the costs of staging and growing this festival and its carnival arts are guaranteed; that is remuneration must be matched dollar for dollar by benefits. Second, this thrust is intended to increase even further, attendance and quality participation, both local and from abroad in Caribana – and for periods extended beyond summer. Third, but in no way the least, is in the effective recalling and honouring by all participants of what has always been commemorative but seldom observed, the history of enslavement and emancipation from which Caribana and its nursing mother, the Trinidad & Tobago carnival, have sprung.
While the benefits most cited are monetary, among some others which are equally of value is that Caribana can thereby be the vehicle through which the City of Toronto can itself become more celebrated as a contemporary 21st century City of Sanctuary. The role today of Toronto as a City of Sanctuary is a continuation of two great historic 19th century roles.
The first was the offering of sanctuary to African-Americans escaping enslavement from America via the Underground Railroad. This escape route was a triangular conurbation of crossings in which Toronto was the apex. Many Canadians do not know that Toronto’s most expensive real estate in the downtown today was once occupied primarily by escaped slaves and their descendants.
The second great sanctuary era was staged, ironically, in yet another summer, that of 1847. This occurred because of the numbers of Irish immigrants fleeing such British-staged disasters as the Potato Famine in Ireland and dying from typhus. A film on this period, Death or Canada says it all. Then, Toronto’s population, spearheaded by the Catholic Church, rescued more than 38,000 Irish refugees, doubling the city’s population. Even as they were being turned away from U.S. ports.
Canada today is still seen globally as a country of sanctuary. In this context of sanctuary here, is that the suffragettes, led by people as Nellie McClung in the 1920s (to prove that women, too, were “persons”, as were Africans), were inspired by the 19th century Abolitionist struggle against African enslavement. Thus, the symbols used by the suffragettes were those of the familiar “clenched Black fists, fettered with chains”. This perception of sanctuary was further advanced in the mid-20th century by the humanitarian, global policies of Prime Ministers like Lester Pearson, and nationally, by those of elected politicians as the inestimable Tommy Douglass.
This sensibility to sanctuary, continued in our time, was further enhanced by offering sanctuary to Black South Africans fleeing Apartheid, and Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing genocide and civil war. As one wit put it, “Toronto is the city to run to”. It doesn’t get more prosaic than that, but it’s correct. In fact, as late as 2002, Americans, unwilling to fight in wars abroad, were fleeing to Canada and to Toronto for refuge.
While the arrival now of African-Americans is for vacation and not sanctuary, many with Caribbean roots, and equally as many without, visit Toronto annually. It is a city reasonably safe, inexpensive for nearby travel, with much with which to do, to see and to find fun that is free. However, they come primarily during the Caribana summer season.
One 1980s Caribana economic impact study of their visits showed that they come primarily from border states, are “middle-income”, and visit for periods that are relatively brief, like extended weekends. They do not go north to cottage country, but instead stay in the downtown at hotels and motels paying prices which are exorbitantly jacked-up to the hilt. These Black Americans, who subsequently re-visit during other seasons to places like the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Toronto Zoo, are also bled by vampire tow-trucks that fang visitors.
In tandem with the above, one cultural vehicle, appreciated world-wide, and particularly treasured by African-Americans, is gospel music. Given that most of the billions earned over five decades by the city, province and country also come from the pockets of African-Americans, why has the city not annually sponsored, “Toronto Gospel Fests”? Staged like the events for one-time visitors during the Pan Am games? Do likewise, in official appreciation for African-Americans: “Toronto Outdoor Gospel Fests”.
Given the number of Black churches in Toronto, the world-class gospel choirs, choristers and directors, what is needed is an invitation that is credible, courteous and timely. Gospel fests could add a much needed dimension to the city that is wholesome, participatory and exclusive. Why “exclusive”? Which other city in Canada, in fact in North America, is best positioned to do what has not yet been done, and will sometime be done by some other city? That is, staging annual gospel fests, and explicitly in appreciation of the annual visitations of African-Americans? To honour their matchless contributions to morality, humanity, culture and justice.
Details could be later fleshed out, but this could begin by inviting the participation of Toronto’s Black churches. The scheduling, occurring during the annual festival, would thereby assist with increasing and varying the local and international participation. This would surely also increase festival opportunities for sponsorships and in addition, provide another cultural platform for a city priding itself on its “multicultural” diversity. Additional to its cultural enhancement, such a staging would assist, too, in further defining the ethos of the festival period.
There are other visionary aspects to the above. There is one, though, which in my opinion is most pertinent to defining the cultural ethos and historical relevance of carnival; an aspect which must be front and centre during Caribana’s 50th anniversary commemoration. It is a commemoration that offers unique opportunities during and following the scheduling and staging of this special anniversary. This anniversary is one by which Toronto can reach both outward to the rest of the world and inward to its history associated with welcoming and sanctuary.
It is as follows. Caribana’s carnival commemorates – though now understated – the ending of chattel slavery in the British Empire with the 1838 Emancipation Proclamation from the British Parliament. This came during an era of vast slavery: the Indian Ocean Arabized slave trade to the east trading Black women to harems and brothels, and the Atlantic Ocean European slave trade to the west trading Black men primarily to plantations of sugar and rum.
This 50th anniversary offers a natural occasion during which to link past struggles against 19th century slavery to current 21st century struggles against sexual slavery, child slavery, and other forms of slavery widely practised today.
Centres of scholarship like Ryerson University, York University, the University of Toronto, etc., could sponsor speakers having global impact on slavery like Sir Hillary Beckles, the CARICOM representative on Reparations. Others could include Canadians like MP Joy Smith of Manitoba who, in 2009, successfully introduced BILL C-268 – CHILD TRAFFICKING OFFENCE. Unfortunately, no serious budget was then allocated at any level of government to tackle this 21st century iniquity. Toronto can be the Canadian and global leader in this, galvanising others as it has done in the past on similarly grave social issues.
These tropes of our history, these images of our struggles and commemorations of our victories over oppression, could then inform, and surely transform our masqueraders into what were and remain the grand designs of the high mas: that is, mas is history costumed in dazzling spectacle, paraded in historic relevance, and with cultural impact, memorable beyond occasion.
To be continued: Caribana’s cultural personality disorder.