By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On July 1, 1867 Canada became a country with four provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec.
Prior to Confederation where the “British North America Act” (BNA) was produced in January 1867, this Native land on which we live was a British colony. The British government approved the BNA on March 29, 1867 and the Dominion of Canada was born on July 1, 1867.
More than 100 years later, the other six provinces plus three territories became part of Canada (the last was Nunavut in 1999). In 1982, the BNA was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. In 1967, Canada celebrated its centennial with a year-long party which included the 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67.
As part of the celebration the Canadian government invited/encouraged various ethnic groups to showcase their culture. The contribution of the Caribbean community in Toronto was the Caribana festival.
In 1967 the Caribbean community in Toronto staged the first Caribana, with eight bands and approximately 1,000 participants, which drew about 50,000 spectators. The festival was organized by a group of people from various Caribbean countries but based on the Carnival of Trinidad & Tobago.
Reportedly, the first discussions for organizing a Caribbean festival took place in a downtown fire hall in 1966. Organizers felt that the common cultural event found in every Caribbean nation was the colourful exuberant tradition of carnival, with the larger than life celebrations in Trinidad & Tobago serving as a model.
The long weekend at the beginning of August which coincides with the commemoration of the abolition of chattel slavery was ideal for a celebration. In all the Caribbean countries that were colonized by Britain – as well as in Canada – the descendants of enslaved Africans celebrate August 1 or August Monday because slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834.
An official organizing body, the Caribbean Centennial Committee, was founded in 1967 (later renamed the Caribbean Cultural Committee-Caribana in 1969) and the plans for the first Caribana were made.
The first Caribana parade began at Varsity Stadium (Bloor Street) on Saturday, August 5, 1967 and proceeded east on Bloor Street, south on Yonge Street, then west on Queen Street to City Hall watched by about 50,000 spectators. By 1970, the parade had been moved to University Avenue and in 1991 it was moved to the CNE Grandstand and Lake Shore Boulevard.
The first Caribana was such a success (the Caribana attendees reportedly set a one-day record for ferry use on the last day of the 1967 celebration) that the authorities realized its money-making potential and encouraged the organizers to make it an annual event.
From its modest beginning in 1967, this festival has grown into the largest Caribbean festival in North America and the third largest carnival in the world, drawing over one million spectators, including 250,000 visitors, each year and contributing more than $400-million annually to the Canadian economy.
There have been some changes other than the numbers and location. The Caribbean organization which initiated the celebration has been side-lined and the festival has been renamed, branded by a corporate “sponsor”.
One thing that has remained the same over the years is that the Caribbean community provides the entertainment and Canadian (mostly White) companies and individuals become wealthier. The hotels, taxicab companies, restaurants, club owners, vendors, government (police, public transportation etc.,) all make money during the weeks of celebration of the Caribbean festival.
The Caribbean community has not benefited from the millions of dollars their talent has brought into this country via the Caribbean festival that began in 1967 as Caribana.
After 45 years of work providing entertainment that has made Toronto the place to be for hundreds of thousands of visitors annually during the August 1 weekend, our community is no further ahead financially.
The celebration became somewhat removed from its history of resistance and became a visual display of “feathers, floats and flesh” as one White male writer labelled it in an August 1, 2010 article entitled “Caribana Delivers Feathers, Floats, and Flesh”. Unfortunately, that is what many people who come to watch the annual celebration see and think they know about Caribbean culture.
The history of the beginning of the Carnival after which the Caribana celebration was modelled has almost been lost in the revelry and the recent rush to claim this “goose that lays the golden eggs”.
At the recent “Kwame Ture Memorial Lecture Series 2012” in Trinidad & Tobago during a panel discussion themed “Reclaiming The Carnival: History of Resilience and Resistance” at the National Library in Port-of-Spain, the Poet Laureate of Trinidad & Tobago, Pearl Eintou Springer, spoke of a similar concern: “The people don’t have any knowledge of the importance of Carnival and of its roots historically, and its role as an instrument of social expression and social cohesion, and its possibility for transformation and regeneration. The people don’t have knowledge of a people’s ability to survive.
“There is critical need for the knowledge of the African to be spread in the communities. The knowledge is not only about Carnival. It is not only about critical resistance and retention. It is about a people’s ability to survive after all the challenges…after suffering the worst holocaust. The same people who cursed it and lambasted before are the same people who are embracing it. The Carnival is being taken away from us. The African is being robbed of this Carnival. It is being taken away from us. The Carnival is now being taken away because they (the business sector) are now seeing it as economically relevant. It is now good for them.”
This year, there has been some acknowledgement of Caribana’s connection to August 1 Emancipation Day. However, I was surprised at the information (or lack of) contained in the literature of one of the new sponsors named at the July 17 launch of the festival.
The documented history of the Demerara Distillers Rum which is a new sponsor contains no acknowledgement of the contribution of enslaved Africans’ unpaid labour to the success of the company.
Although the company acknowledges: “Rum has its origin rooted in the years of the sugar plantations. The story of Demerara Rum began in 1670 at a time when every sugar estate in Guyana had its own distillery each producing its own unique rum through the introduction of the art of distillation. It was here that the foundation of Demerara Rums was laid down. Over the centuries rum production was consolidated under the ownership of the Demerara Distillers Ltd. (DDL).”
The fact that the company’s operation began in 1670 means that the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans contributed to the success of the company, regardless of its present ownership. Sugar and rum could not have been produced in the Caribbean without the coerced, unpaid labour of enslaved Africans and that needs to be acknowledged.
Sugar, and its by-product, rum, which made the fortunes of many poverty-stricken White men who went to the “colonies”, contributed to the wealth of Britain and other European nations as illustrated in the BBC production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=injqATWMRkM.
The video is about slavery in Jamaica which was very similar to slavery in Guyana and everywhere that the British exploited and brutalized the Africans they enslaved.
On August 4, when the visitors to the 45th celebration of Caribbean culture gather to watch the spectacle on Lake Shore Boulevard and those playing “mas” in their spectacular costumes, most will not know the history of the celebration. It is important that we know the history and share it with our friends and family who travel from various places to celebrate.