By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE, Publisher/Editor
In a recent conversation, Denise Herrera-Jackson, the CEO of the Festival Management Committee (FMC), the organization which has run the Caribana festival for the past five years, told me that the FMC’s aim is to wean the festival off of the City of Toronto’s funding. She said her organization is working to attract sponsors for the festival which will make it less dependent on the city.
While it is a great idea to work on attracting more sponsors – and there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to do so since any other event of Caribana’s size and draw would be an advertiser’s dream – the comment just serves to underscore the fact that they, and just about everyone else who has ever been involved with Caribana, still see the city’s financial contribution as a grant, as funding, as a gift. It is not and should not be perceived as such. It must be seen as an investment in a festival which brings in a massive return – to the city, the province, the federal government and to all the hotels, restaurants and other businesses which benefit from the more that $450-million the festival injects into the economy each year.
Funding is for community organizations such as those helping new immigrants settle into the country; groups working to house and otherwise assist the poor; groups working with youth, especially youth from disadvantaged areas of the city or seniors; groups which provide services that governments, unable to provide themselves, funding to help meet the social and even cultural needs, especially of the disadvantaged. Or those huge feel-good events – such as Luminato – which make a big show but generate little by way of economic impact.
But, not a festival such as Caribana.
To continue to see the infusion of money from the various levels of government as a grant – and not as an investment – is to entirely misunderstand the real value of Caribana.
When governments hand out funding or grants, they are the benefactors – extending a helping hand to needy organizations so they can continue to perform their functions. On the other hand, the Caribana festival is the benefactor here, helping the city’s businesses to improve their bottom line, making the difference between a failed year and a successful one. It has been said that for the Caribana weekend some of the hotels in Toronto triple their regular room rates. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that if Caribana was cancelled for one year, there would be hell to pay down at city hall. And the city knows this. Councillor Joe Mihevc, the city’s liaison to the festival, knows this. That is why they would never risk the chance of the festival not taking place.
That is the real reason they took the festival away from the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), which has been restructured and renamed the Caribana Arts Group (CAG), and that is why they are so set on keeping it out of their hands. They wouldn’t take a chance on having this little group of Black and Caribbean people hold the city hostage with this golden goose. All this talk about financial reports was just an excuse to snatch control of Caribana away from the community.
So, let’s stop thinking of the city’s (or the province’s, or the federal government’s for that matter) money as a grant and see it as a very poor investment in this festival, of which they all should be utterly ashamed.
It is this lack of financial support over the years which has helped to generate a lot of the mayhem in the old CCC. If the CCC was properly financed where it could hire competent and well-paid staff, including good accounting staff, things might have been a lot different. Instead, members of the unpaid board found themselves working (volunteering) in the office doing jobs for which they were not trained and tripping over each other with no proper direction.
Yes, it was a mess, but one in which the so-called funders and beneficiaries played a not insignificant role.
Premier Dalton McGuinty proudly announced at a recent media conference that the province will provide some $12-million to help the South Asian community host the Bollywood awards in Toronto in June. That is wonderful news. These awards will draw the attention of the world – especially the Indian Diaspora – to our city. However, while this could eventually result in some economic gain for our city and province, it is a one-time event. The awards, which began in London, England in 2002, draws about 500 people from the Indian film industry and only about 40,000 visitors. A statement from the Premier’s office at the time said that the awards will translate into millions of dollars for the Ontario economy.
In 2005, two years before the Luminato festival began, the Dalton McGuinty government committed $1-million in funding to help set it up. In 2008, the government committed more money to the province’s cultural industry and from those monies, Luminato received another $15-million which was set aside for “future projects”. Imagine that. I guess Caribana is not viewed by the McGuinty government as a cultural event. I wonder what the hell they think it is.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Governments give tons of money to whom they deem worthy but starve those for whom they have little respect – namely us… Namely you, the bandleaders, the calypsonians, the steelbands, the thousands of masqueraders and the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who come here each year and who contribute significantly to that $450-million.
But they respect the money that your work, your efforts, your cultural expression generate. So, you must respect it more.
We have to stop begging the governments for “grants” to stage Caribana. We have to stop thinking of weaning ourselves off of government “funding”. Instead, we need to up our ask. We need to demand that they treat this festival, this money cow, with the respect it deserves and invest substantially in it.
The bandleaders are key here. The city took the festival away from the CCC because it felt it could and that was because it felt it could deal directly with the bandleaders and that, as long as the bandleaders got paid, they would produce their bands – and the parade.
It is important to understand that the city is only interested in the spectacular carnival parade which is what draws the crowds, especially the African-Americans. They don’t care about the calypsonians and the steelbands. They don’t see them as an integral part of this festival as those of us from the Caribbean do.
For us, carnival is all three and not one without the other. The city only tolerates the steelbands and the calypsonians because, at this point, they feel they have to. But that might not last. This is not their culture. They don’t understand it; they don’t feel it. All they know is that the costumed parade is what brings in the visitors and the money and that is all they are interested in.
The same way the city was able to take the festival away from the CCC, it may not be long before it also disbands the FMC – which it created – and turn the parade over to some other organization, claiming it to be a money-saving move.
What if the city decides, for example, that they could save money by turning over the running of the festival to the folks who already do such a great job running the gay pride or the Santa Claus parades? It could happen. And, who is going to stop them, now that they have set the precedent by taking the festival away from its founders, developers and rightful owners?
So, here’s an idea. We either fight to wrest this festival back for our community with the FMC and the CAG working together or we agree to stage it for the city for a fee.
First, the bandleaders must be paid a lot more money for producing their bands for the parade. The pittance they now get pales in comparison to the monies other festivals get for doing so much less.
Then, the people who pay good money to play mas must be considered actors (join the actors’ union, if necessary, or form your own – the Toronto Carnival Performers Union) and instead of having to pay for your costumes (some of you pay thousands of dollars), you must be paid to perform. All the many thousands of you! After all, you do provide amazing entertainment on Carnival Saturday. The city must also pay a handsome fee to the CAG, the founders and owners of this festival for the right to stage it and to the FMC to run it professionally.
Then, the city – with help from the other levels of government and the tourism industry – must pick up the cost of the rental of the CNE; the entire cost of the police for the day; garbage collection, the cost of the barriers which are now being used to keep us away from our own festival and all the other costs that the CCC then and the FMC now have had to pay for the past 43 years. (And you thought the money the city gave to the festival really went to the organizers, didn’t you? No, most of it goes back to paying the city – groan here if you feel it too – to cover the cost of all these services, leaving the organizers with a pittance to run the festival. That’s why the organizers – even the FMC – are always under so much pressure that they have to go cap in hand to sponsors to try and raise a little more money. It is a very wicked deal they are being given.)
We have to get serious with this. It is either ours that we will continue to produce for the benefit of all of us with a sound investment from those who benefit the most or they pay us to perform for them.
These must be the choices going forward.