The Toronto Caribbean carnival provides a platform to have fun in the sun while showcasing the region’s dynamic culture and traditions.
It has been that way for former band leader, Tony Ishmael, ever since the first celebration in 1967 as the Caribbean community’s gift to Canada’s centennial year festivities.
This year will be different for the veteran costume designer.
While in Trinidad & Tobago last February for that country’s carnival, Ishmael’s middle daughter – Nicole Carolan – relapsed after giving birth to her third child. By the time he hurriedly returned home, she was dead.
“When I left here, she was doing fine and within a couple of days she was gone,” he said. “It still haunts me that I did not get to wish her goodbye.”
A designer with Jamaal Magloire’s Toronto Revellers, Ishmael said the lead up to this year’s carnival celebrations has proven to be effective therapy.
“For me, the hurt of losing a child will never go away,” he said. “You never expect your child to die before you. But being a Catholic and Christian, it’s my belief that we will meet again. In the meantime, I am taking care of her children while preparing for this year’s carnival which helps to take my mind off my deceased daughter and ease the pain a little bit.”
This is not the first time Ishmael has had to endure extreme pain.
In 2002, he suffered severe burns to the left side of the body when a car he was riding in was involved in a serious accident and caught fire in northern Ontario. Employed with the Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration at the time, he and a co-worker were returning to the city from a provincial volunteer service award ceremony when the single-vehicle mishap occurred on a snow-covered road between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie.
Despite the setbacks, Ishmael marches on.
A three-time Band of the Year winner in his native St. Lucia, which honoured him five years ago with a Governor General Homecoming Award to celebrate the island’s first Diaspora Homecoming Reunion, Ishmael migrated to Canada in May 1967 and, three months later, entered a band – Sailors of the Caribbean – in the inaugural Toronto carnival.
“We had about 70 members in our group and there were about 15 bands that assembled at Devonshire Place and then worked their way down Yonge St.,” he said. “I was in awe to see so many people from the Caribbean come together. At the time, you seldom saw people of colour in the city.”
The inaugural parade attracted almost 30,000 spectators and influenced then Mayor William Dennison to challenge the organizers to repeat the cultural extravaganza.
“This was supposed to be a one-off event, but the mayor received a lot of mail from Canada and abroad with people expressing positive sentiments about the parade,” said Ishmael. “When he called our committee for a meeting after the successful event, he showed us the bags of mail sent to him and one of the first things he asked us to do was provide a date for the event the following year. We were shocked.”
Realizing the festival could become an annual affair, the committee held several meetings to chart a course for the future.
“One of the things we talked about was establishing ‘Caribana House’,” he said. “It was going to be a space that was rented with the option to buy and the vision was for the basement to be used to archive our material and as a place for our meetings. The middle floor – which would have steelpan music piped in – was supposed to house display cases with King and Queen headpieces. The upstairs would have had meeting rooms for various island associations to meet and the backyard would be used to teach young people how to design and other things associated with Caribbean culture. That never happened and it’s one of the things that still bother me.”
Ishmael has played an integral part in every carnival celebration in the last five decades.
Besides being a long-time board member, he helped launch the junior carnival in which his late daughter and other two children, Melissa Duncan and Susan Westmaas – she was a Queen of the Band winner on several occasions – were participants and he was a section leader with Louis Saldenah’s Mas K-club before joining Toronto Revellers.
“Designing costumes and being part of mas’ is something I inherited from my parents,” said Ishmael, a regular visitor to T & T since 1961 when he represented St. Lucia in the 2nd Caribbean Scouts Jamboree at Valsayn Park. “My dad, who was born in Barbados, was very creative and my mom, who was a nurse, loved to sew, make costumes for carnival queens and jump up in the parade. That rubbed off on me and I was never a sports lover as many of my friends. I would go to cricket with them just for the lime and not to watch the game.”
On July 24, Ishmael and other long-time carnival volunteers and participants will be recognized for their efforts.
Silhouettes steelpan leader Daniel Mosca, Barbara Parks, Margaret Ayoung, Michael Redhead and Bonnie Hector, who will be presented with the Kathy Searles Memorial Award for volunteerism, will also be honoured.
Searles, who died in December 2008, made an extensive and continuous contribution to the carnival from its inception in 1967, when she served on the Caribbean Centennial Committee board up until 2007, when she attended the parade.
Musician and businessman, Dennis Renwick, who died on the last day of 2014, will also be posthumously recognized at the event.