Hundreds of volunteer hours, tens of thousands of dollars in personal spending, astounding creativity and pure heart and soul are about to take centre stage in the 45th annual presentation of the Caribbean Canadian gift that keeps on giving.
When a group of Caribbean immigrants decided in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s first centenary by presenting a gift of Caribbean culture to mark the occasion, they didn’t anticipate the amazing phenomenon that was immediately released into the larger Canadian culture.
The annual carnival festival, which was formerly referred to as Caribana, is a beautiful, joyous, exuberant celebration of Caribbean culture that is the largest of its kind in North America. The festival, with its offering of the sweet sounds of the Caribbean – the steel pan and calypsoes – and the grand costumes of the centerpiece parade, are at the same time a beautiful show of Caribbean culture in Canada and a cash cow bringing each year an estimated $450-million to this city’s businesses and the country’s economy.
But for all its high fun and beauty there is much more to this Caribbean cultural event. It is not just a big party.
Coming as it does each year at the beginning of August, the synergy with other important historical dates cannot be overlooked as it connects to the real meaning of carnival.
In fact, there is some concern among those who understand and know the history of carnival that its meaning is being lost to members of the younger generation who are being groomed to carry on the tradition.
In a Share report last week, award winning Trinidad & Tobago bandleader and designer Brian MacFarlane bemoaned the loss of the true meaning and flavour of carnival in his home country.
Said MacFarlane: “What we really have now is ‘The Greatest Street Party’…It’s now more about discarding the mas’ and showing more and more flesh… People are having a great time and that’s fine. However, the history that’s associated with our carnival is being lost.”
MacFarlane was speaking about the origins and reason that carnival emerged. In the 18th century, the French brought their culture, customs and carnival, in the form of elaborate masquerade balls, to Trinidad & Tobago. Also there, were people captured in Africa and transported into slave labour. The enslaved, banned from such celebrations, carried on their own secret celebrations while adding their own take on the French masquerades. Hence the reference to “playing mas”.
With the full abolition of slavery in 1838, Africans brought carnival to the streets. And here is where that synergy is important for us in Toronto. Carnival in the Caribbean, as in other parts of the world where similar celebrations are held, takes place just before the beginning of the Christian Lenten season of fasting and repentance. But each year in Toronto, carnival coincides with Emancipation Day on August 1. That was the date in 1834 when the act to abolish slavery in the British Empire was signed.
Add to that the fact that the first Monday in August, this year August 6 – coincidentally, Jamaica’s Independence Anniversary – is Simcoe Day in Ontario, and the dimensions of our celebration really resonate.
As Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario), John Graves Simcoe – for whom the day is named – signed the Act Against Slavery in 1793 to stop further importation of slaves into Upper Canada.
These are the things that young people should know and understand about the tradition they are inheriting. Are the producers of Toronto’s great show doing enough to teach them the history of the carnival?
We want them to know this so that while they are having fun – and there is no question that carnival is fun – they also view it with the respect it deserves regarding the survival of a people.
When some of our young people are seen behaving like hooligans at the event we have to say it is because they don’t know who they are and don’t know that carnival is not just a party but a celebration of the emancipation of their forebears from slavery. Young people need to be made aware of that for their own sakes and for the sake of the future of this carnival.