September 22, 2020

LESSONS IN CARIBANA

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Dave Martins

I was living in Toronto, playing music full time with the Tradewinds band, when the annual Caribbean festival in Toronto known as Caribana was born in 1967. Today there are carnivals in a many cities outside the region, but Caribana was the first to make a major splash; it was a hit from the start.

There were, however, some early problems. The people behind the birth of it – mostly Trinidadians – were essentially replicating the established Trinidad Carnival and were bent on making Caribana more or less a copy of what worked in Port-of-Spain. The problem with this formula was that the Trinidad version was a cultural fact; it was part of the Trinidadian way of life supported from beneath by ordinary citizens buying costumes, attending shows, going to fetes, etc. In Toronto, with no carnival culture, the organizers relied on Government funding to make the carnival happen, from above, and in the first five years of its life, Caribana was attracting municipal and provincial funding, and federal funds seemed likely.

In the very early going, however, the establishment in Toronto became uncomfortable with the often haphazard parade – the public consumption of liquor on the streets was another concern – and with the Caribana Committee’s casual approach to accounting for the government funds. I was not on the Caribana Committee, but I knew the principals well, and I was recruited by one of the “white” establishment to relay their concern. “You know these guys,” a prominent lawyer on the Chamber of Commerce told me. “Try to make them understand we don’t want to take over Caribana – we don’t know anything about carnival – but we know how to run parades. We’ve been doing it for years. We get the parade running right, and government funds will follow.”

It sounded like common sense to me, but not to my friends on the Caribana Committee. To them, it signalled that the “white people” wanted to take over Caribana and the “only-run-the-parade” offer was a ruse to get their foot in the door. In effect, the Caribana group said, “Thanks, but no thanks” and kept their hands exclusively on the tiller. My establishment contact shrugged, but the parade route was moved away from prestigious Yonge Street to the “more spacious”Avenue Road;  the concerns about haphazard organization remained, and the accounting controversy was still there bubbling.

In the latter 1980s, with Caribana becoming a major economic boost to Toronto, another problem arose with an internal division among costume makers and presenters leading to even more controversy about “where the money going” and with the emergence of two Caribana groups, each vying for prominence and, of course, funding.

In the last 10 years or so, however, while the festival grew by leaps and bounds, the operating controversy hardened with, on the one hand, private sector loving the enormous financial bonanza from Caribana, but with government, on the other hand, not being satisfied that its funds were being properly used. The business community was dismayed by the erratic organization, and there were alarms over two shooting incidents. Amid rumours that the provincial and municipal governments were threatening to withhold funding, the parade route was shifted further west (to Dufferin Street) and then, around 2007, further west still to Lakeshore Road.

In 2011, the dam broke. Almost all of the government funding has dried up, and the festival is now officially being sponsored by the Bank of Nova Scotia and being presented now as the Scotia Bank Caribbean Carnival – the word “Caribana” has apparently been relegated to the archives. The argument over this development is at full blaze with many (me included) aghast at the idea of a cultural event now being presented as the progeny of a bank. Lessons abound in Caribana:

Personal aggrandizement will often get in the way of social movements, and mankind (and to a lesser extent, womankind) will rather see something founder than agree to slacken the reins.

Cultures see things differently, and efforts to realign those views, or bring them into comity, are almost always doomed to failure. What Caribbean people treasure and revere in the carnival experience is almost completely lost on the Canadian psyche, and the Canadian displays of systems and adherence to discipline are not high priorities for us.

Cultural events have two functions: an entertainment one and an economic one, but whenever the economic one gets to be very significant, that function becomes the more dominant, and the future of the event is affected accordingly. Already, with the festival renamed, the whisper is that the shift of the event will be towards more international presences in the parade, instead of exclusively Caribbean, in the interest of even more crowds.

Finally, an obvious irony is that the early intransigence of the Caribbean founders has probably helped generate the very “take over” they were so concerned about.

 

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