The Love or the Money: An Oral History of Toronto's Caribana
We compiled interviews with everyone involved in the festival all the way back to 1966.
Photo via Flickr user Peter
Toronto has an odd relationship with Caribbean carnival music and culture. Take Toronto native Anslem Douglas, who recorded the song “Doggie” in 1998. The track was covered by the Baha Men two years later as “Who Let The Dogs Out” and went on to win a Grammy Award in 2001 and become a nauseating part of every sports fan’s musical intermission. Then there’s Caribana. Or rather, the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto, which is its current legal name. While the festival is arguably the largest carnival-styled festival of its kind in North America, pumping over $438 million into “The Six” annually according to a 2013 Ipsos Reid economic impact study, its become increasingly evident over the last decade that Caribana has been in need of rejuvenation. The Black/Caribbean community has not been benefitting from this economic largesse in any real way—it’s the airline industry and Toronto’s hospitality industry whose pockets have gotten fat.
Caribana’s carcass began rotting in 1991 when it was moved from University Avenue in the heart of the city down to a 4.5 km route along Lakeshore Boulevard. The remains of the festival started to become more malodorous when the City of Toronto developed the Festival Management Committee (FMC) in 2006, an arms-length council put in place to oversee the festival’s finances. This would be the modern day moral equivalent of a city of Toronto political group overseeing the operations of an EDM festival. By many accounts, when the city’s bureaucrats put their mitts all over the festival, it became a watered down, pale version of its former Carnival self. By 2013, after 30 years of Torontonians and international tourists attending the popular free admission outdoor parade portion of the festival, adults were now asked to fork out $20 tickets to enter Exhibition Grounds to view the bands.
To understand how Caribana lost its way, you have to look at its history. Caribana was created in 1967 by the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) a group of community members that included the late criminal lawyer Charles Roach as a way to celebrate Canada’s centenary. This meant showcasing carnival music, culture, and art; including costume making and playing steel pan. While modern day Caribana festivities are now seen as prime opportunities to debauch, throw bottle service parties, and ogle at scantily clad women on city streets, that was not the point of the festivals creation. If you take a look at the original Caribana constitution of 1967, you’ll see noble items including using proceeds of the festival to generate scholarships for youth and building a Caribbean community cultural centre in Toronto.
The festival’s problems began in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the founding CCC organization had lost financial control after being dogged for years by allegations about the mismanagement of funds. By 2006, the City of Toronto refused to provide grant monies to Caribana until they could get their accounting in order. The city then created the Festival Management Committee—a third party that was supposed to be a temporary organization set up to run the event the year that Scotiabank signed on as a title sponsor.
Fast forward to today and the FMC still oversee the event. And the festival formerly known as Caribana is now the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto. The naming sponsor bank is infamous for being the institution who popularized the term Banking While Black (BWB) in 2014, when Frantz St. Fleur was arrested for daring to deposit a $9000 cheque in a Toronto Scotiabank branch. Not that this year’s edition of the festival is without controversy either.
First there was Saldenah Gate. Louis Saldenah, the decorated and extremely popular bandleader who boasts the largest band in the parade at 4400 members, and who keeps the carnival somewhat relevant, was allegedly being asked to not partake in the parade this year by the Toronto Mas Band Association (TMBA). He wanted his band to raise the stakes of the festival by doing a tribute to the King of Soca called The Chronicles of Machel Montano. TMBA rules state that you cannot have any outside section or entity in the parade, or that you have to be a Canadian citizen or a landed immigrant to have a section in the band. Although the TBMA tried to drape a wet blanket over the festivities, after much consternation and haggling, Saldenah was in. But this year will also be the first with no Canadian Calypso Monarch finals, effectively wiping out what meagre opportunities already exist for Canadian calypso artists to strut their stuff and participate in any marquee events. Coupled with decreased attendance and an overall indifference on the part of many long-time festival attendees—many of whom still refuse to call the festival Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto—it feels like Caribana has become a property without direction.
Photo via Flickr user Loozrboy
Now, nine years after losing control of the event, the group called Caribana Arts Group (CAG) that ran the festival for nearly four decades say they want it back. Last spring CAG successfully settled and won their $800,000 lawsuit against Scotiabank for illegal use of the Caribana trademark and name. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For those that used to enjoy the festival in its heyday in the 90s right up until 2006, attending it now sometimes feels like having surgery without anaesthesia. Some carnival participants have even become content shilling bootleg “Free Vybz Kartel” tees and selling overpriced bottles of Ting on the parade route, which has become their last salvation.
Does Caribana need to be destroyed before it can be reborn? We asked Caribana and carnival experts of past and present some tough questions: Who’s responsible for creating this bloated multi-national bank sponsored festival that has lost its way? Why do some Toronto citizens seem more excited about the prospects of attending other carnival alternative events happening on the long Civic Holiday weekend like Jambana (http://jambana.com/) or OVO festival? Where did it all go wrong?
Dr. Maurice Bygrave: Caribana co-founder.
Henry “King Cosmos” Gomez: Former chair of the Caribbean Cultural Committee and Canadian Calypso Monarch (1995).
Louis Saldenah: Award-winning bandleader, 17 time Band of the Year winner.
John “Jayson” Perez: First and only Canadian calypso artist to win a Juno Award in 1990 for Soldiers We All Are album.
Dr. Jay de Soca Prince: Canada’s number one Soca DJ.
Knia Singh: Chair of the Caribana Arts Group.
Trish Besos: Carnival enthusiast, visual artist, makeup, body painting.
Joe Mihevic: City of Toronto Councillor, Liaison to the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto.
Kerry-Ann Wright: Masquerader, model, founder of Build-a-mas.
The Early Years (1966-1985)
Bygrave: Caribana actually started in 1966, that was when we met and it took a year to plan the event. Most of us that met to begin Caribana were either colleagues or social acquaintances, so it was easy for us to agree or agree to disagree to get things done. We produced Caribana to commemorate Expo 67, Canada’s 100th birthday celebration, and we started the festival to show the different Caribbean islands and their camaraderie. We had people from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, St. Vincent working on it. The uniqueness from each island stimulated many discussions around building Caribana into this cultural force that would support our community and enhance the wider city of Toronto. Initially we made sure that most of the islands were involved. We had Mighty Sparrow from Trinidad, Byron Lee from Jamaica, Swinging Stars from Dominica. With limited resources we were prepared to see the event through. Even if our ability to fundraise for the event failed, we were committed. That’s the spirit we had back in those days.
Photos courtesy of The Telegram, August 11, 1967
Gomez: My first Caribana was 1969 when I arrived in Toronto. I arrived just after the parade, and it was a week of events over at Centre Island. There were vendors, booths from different islands, and taking the Toronto Island ferry across was magical. People still swam in Lake Ontario back then, and the water was cold as hell! The parade on University Avenue is also what I remember most. There was something magical about coming up from the subway and hearing the pulsating rhythms. The bands use to assemble at Queen’s Park, and when the bands finished playing they used to jam. When we move into the 1980s I have fond memories of using my inline skates and going down the parade route, from start to finish.
Saldenah: I came to Canada in 1970 and started participating in Caribana in 1977. I was just carrying on the tradition of my father, Harold ‘Sally’ Saldenah, who was one of Trinidad & Tobago's most popular Carnival bandleaders. The first year I participated, my masquerade band Shangri-La won Band of the Year. I’ve since won 17 Band of the Year titles and came second on 13 other occasions. I’ve spent over 34 years in the parade, so I’ve seen a lot.
Caribana Grows Up (1985-1993)
Perez: There was a lot of momentum for Calypso music in the 80s. You had Caribana taking place in downtown Toronto (University Avenue) and then you had people lobbying for the music to be a part of the Canadian fabric. You never really believed that calypso would be accepted in the Juno’s, but we applied anyway. In 1990 the Juno Awards ceremony was held in Vancouver, and I was living in Ajax. We were changing the TV channels looking for a good show, and we saw my name and we were like “they don’t put your name on the TV unless you win.” Calypso started picking up in Canada. Trinidad was the mecca and we were like outsiders, though the Calypsonians from home are the same people that lived here. I thought my Juno Award would have opened up something big and it would remain big. I used to get a lot of work, it was flourishing. Calypsonians used to make a lot of money, even more than the soca singers.
Saldenah: When we were on University Avenue the bands were pretty small. My band started out with 98 people and then grew to 400 and we outgrew University. In 1991 when we went down to the Lakeshore my band was 7-800 people. And now the band is 4000.
Singh: When the festival moved from University Avenue down to Lakeshore in 1991, I lost interest. There were no fences on University Avenue. You could jump in and out of the bands. The second they brought it down to Lakeshore it was now detached, and stripped away from the city, it didn’t feel like it was a part of the city anymore, if felt more like something that you go to, then your secluded, then the fences come up. We’re supposed to be connecting with each other, not separating from each other with fences. Every year you have people cutting through fences, climbing over fences, and you have people getting hurt in their attempts to become a part of the festival.
Prince: In terms of the parade itself, I’d have to say that the past was better. It was a more family-friendly environment, which I feel made the event more appealing to those outside of the Caribbean community.
Funding Issues & New Beginnings (1993 to 2006)
Gomez: I remember when Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevic was saying that Caribana is not a black thing, that Caribana belongs to everybody. That was the warning signs that the Caribbean community was being divorced from the ownership of the festival. We have a festival created by the black community that does better than any other outdoor festival in this country, including the Calgary Stampede. When we look at the funding that goes into the festival, compared to other cultural festivals, it’s a damn shame. Municipal, provincial, federal governments, they get a free ride every year. The studies say it creates $438 million in economic activity, and when you look at what goes back into the festival, it’s peanuts.
Saldenah: There’s a perception that the city and Scotiabank run the festival and that’s not true. Scotiabank is basically one of the sponsors. Scotiabank don’t have any input into the festival. I’ve never sat with them in meetings where they said you can’t do this and you can’t do that. At the end of the day the festival is owned by the people, Caribbean people participate. I think it’s a misperception because the Scotiabank and the government fund the festival.
Bygrave: I think one of the pitfalls is that initially in the early days we did not have a business model. We had a concept that this was a fun thing and as long as we have fun that was it. Had we had a proper business model a lot of the things that happened would not have taken place. Being a volunteer run organization it was difficult because nobody owns it. How can you control it? I don’t think the CCC was any different from many other organizations that have had mismanagement problems. Had we been able to do better damage control, things would have been better. That’s what corporations of today mired in scandal do, they are able to get front page news to end up on the back pages. Caribana on the other hand remains on the front page constantly.
Photo via Flickr user KatieThebeau
Prince: I don’t think that the community feels a sense of ownership over the festival. Most people see Toronto Carnival simply as a time of year to go to a party or three with a parade in the middle. Most people do not have an understanding of the work and process of even just making mas, which is just one facet of the festival. There is a small number of people (comparatively speaking) who are now fed up of the last few years and have formed associations to represent the best interest of the masqueraders themselves. These festival participants are trying to gain that feeling of control within the festival. Time will tell how effective these associations will be in bringing about change with the parade in particular.
Wright: We're lucky to have such culturally passionate people in the city to help fight for the rights of masqueraders and the preservation of our carnival celebration. The TMA (Toronto Masqueraders Association) have really shed a light on a lot of things carnival related that so many people weren't privy to before. This is definitely helping to increase how the culture is respected throughout the city.
Singh: The community is what made Caribana powerful and effective and something that we all enjoyed. But now since the FMC’s involvement and Scotiabank’s sponsorship, it has sterilized the community involvement and has made it a corporate event. And it is now the antithesis of what Caribana and carnival is supposed to be. We’ve turned something that connected the community and involved the broader community into this political game of the have and have not’s. We have politicians trying to dictate who’s in control of it. It’s not like the city is doing us a favor, the festival is doing the city a favor.
Photos via Flickr user refreshment_66
Perez: The Festival Management Committee know nothing about carnival. What does (FMC Founding Chair) Joe Halstead know about Carnival? But they give it to them to run it? Carnival used to be something that everybody was happy to take part in. But now it’s not. It’s too commercialized. It’s not Caribana anymore. It’s the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival, whatever that is. These people are not into it for love, they are trying to see how much money they can get. The TMBA (Toronto Mas Bands Association) bands should never let it be that way, they are the ones who are in control of the whole festival.
Gomez: We were shocked when we discovered that Scotiabank had tried to gain control of the Caribana trademark under the guise of it being a sponsor for the festival perhaps feeling they should have rights to the trademark as well. We went to court with the FMC over this trademark issue because they had infringed the copyright. It was a violation and we won that. CAG are the sole owners of that trademark. That leaves me feeling good in many ways because we could not settle for a corporate entity having its name ahead of Caribana, because in our view, the Caribana trademark is an international brand. Some people might argue that we have the name, but the bank still sponsors the festival and the FMC still runs the festival, that’s a fact.
Mihevic: There’s just absolutely no truth to it. On the city’s part we act as a major funder who put in hundreds of thousands of dollars into that festival and we provide the supports and that’s all we do. I do not, nor does any other councillor sit on the FMC, no do we give any direction. We don’t have that power and we don’t want that power to give any direction to any aspect of the festival. We do not sit on the committees of the TMBA (Toronto Mas Band Association), OCPA (Organization of Calypso Performing Artists), or OSA (Ontario Steelpan Association). We sit on none of these associations. So it is so far from the truth. What happens is that the FMC sets up the festival with the bandleaders, calypso and steelpan performers and then they come to us and say this is what we want to do, how can we do it in a safe and effective way, and can you pay for it? And we say yes we can pay for it, we can pay this much for it, and you can use Nathan Phillips Square and you need to fill out these permits, and we help them with the permits and all that sorts of stuff.
Photo via Flickr user Peter
Gomez: The festival is no longer seen as a festival that belongs to our African Canadian community. One that we created, that we made international, one that helped to give Toronto an identity in the summer time. It was a time of the year when adults, kids, over generations had a feeling of pride. It was not Scotiabank Caribbean or whatever you want to call it. Just the word Caribana generated a sort of pride and energy that made us feel connected. Now people don’t feel connected.This is part of a pattern that people of African ancestry have experienced over the years. Similar to American music’s like the blues, jazz. They were ridiculed, called devils music, then co-opted and owned. There is a parallel to be made with Caribana.
Saldenah: The community should benefit a lot more. The three levels of government need to give more. And we are not begging, just remember that. We are bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the table. If the three levels gave us $10-15 million, the festival would not be losing money every year. One thing we should have is a big community center for our Caribbean people. A big building downtown on Bay Street. Over 40 years later we have brought billions of dollars into the economy and we haven’t gained anything. Sometimes it’s very frustrating to know that you’re putting on such a good show, and we need more help and we’re not getting it and it’s really disappointing. We work year round on this. We move into the warehouse in May to produce 4000 costumes, with 85-100 people working on the costumes. All of our summers are taken away from us, so it’s a big sacrifice we make. It’s more or less a labour of love. We have big expenses. Before we sell the costumes we have to pay for the warehouse $35,000 for about three months and that money has to be paid upfront because it’s a short term lease. Including upfront expenses with music, DJ’s, it’s about $75,000. So it’s a risk factor but we have a good product out there and it’s cultural pride.
Prince: I really wish there was an easy fix. Take a look at Pride parade. They hold their events in an area (in Toronto) which would directly benefit the LGBT community. The unfortunate reality is that the Caribbean community doesn't have an area where holding such a large parade is conducive. So all these other institutions make tons of money and nothing trickles down to the Caribbean community. Perhaps there could be Caribbean-Canadian based charities that those big institutions would have to donate money to?
New Name, New Direction (2007- Today)
Wright: I must say I do prefer when the carnival was called Caribana. Since the switchover things just haven’t been the same.... the parade definitely doesn’t feel like it’s owned by the community anymore. The vibes have diminished. At the end of the day, I’ve always managed to make my own fun because of the people I’m around and what I choose to take away from the event, but things have changed and there’s something missing now.
Bygrave: People still call it Caribana, it’s deeply ingrained in the subconscious. It’s very hard for changes to be made when such a festival has such a long history behind it. We have all these organizations, Jamaican Canadian Association, Trinidad & Tobago association, Barbados, we have all these associations, and they all should’ve been involved in Caribana. And they should have been benefitting. And then we wouldn’t have to be depending solely on public funds. I’m from Jamaica, and many Jamaicans have felt that Caribana is not for us, we’re going to go to Jambana.
Perez: In Trinidad, Carnival is free on the road, and you can enter the carnival anytime. There are stands if you want to go and sit down, bleachers. Mas is all over the country. Now we have to pay a $20 admission fee? It’s a total mess right now. The masquerade, calypso and steel band people need to get come together and run the whole season. They are the ones with the product to sell. But you don’t own it.
Photos via Flickr user Loozrboy
Singh: A paid admission fee is a total disrespect to the community. It’s a total money grab on behalf of the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival. The people who took this over and claimed that they were saving it, all they’ve done is do everything they can do to destroy it. They should find other ways to make money, pay your administrators less if that’s the issue. At Caribana we all volunteered and still volunteer. It speaks to the corporatization. You would never in the past have to think about paying to go to a Caribana parade.
Gomez: It’s a sore point for me. I’m not totally against paying. But that revenue is not coming back to the community. There is too much focus on the events, the parade, the festival, the parties, and nobody dedicated to the broader or much more difficult to achieve objective of raising money for community initiatives, like a community centre. Maybe it’s something having to do with Caribbean people, we love to party. Not to be stereotypical or cliché but maybe it has something to do with that, and the nobler vision sometimes gets lost.
Photo via Flickr user Loozrboy
Mihevic: I don’t think frankly they [the federal government] get it, the diversity that Toronto is. They act with very little regard for the festival. However on the day of the media launch and on the day of the parade you see them sometimes coming and wanting to be first in the parade and strutting their party colors and so on. It’s a bit shameless to be quite honest.
Saldenah: I foresaw the problem because of the mismanagement years ago. When it’s mismanaged it’s difficult to get the funding from the three levels of government. The Caribbean Cultural Committee who ran the festival for so many years could not account for the money that they were getting. And that created a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. And that’s why we haven’t advanced as we should have despite the parade being almost 50 years old.
Singh: Its systemic racism, why aren’t the three levels of government funding it properly? But it’s also the lack of unity within our community. Once the community is divided and the three levels see that they are not dealing with a formidable force, then they are able to skirt the issue.
Today’s Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto
Besos: The past couple of years was messy for me, finding the route, lots of non-masqueraders crashing the parade. That made it frustrating for those in costume. 2014 was trouble free, I got to the route fine, the crashing of the parade wasn't as bad, it was ok. I think I still miss the old route though!
Perez: The feeling is not the same, the interest is not the same. There’s much less bands on the street and everybody sees that. Right now everything is about the backyard party, not the festival. Do a BBQ with your guests from out of town. The only thing that will grow is the steel band aspect because you have a lot of young people playing pan now. With a group like Pan Fantasy you see kids participating, and this is what we hope to do with the kids we have in our organization Pass the Torch.
Gomez: The Caribana Arts Group, owners of the Caribana name have been producing the Caribana Flags and Colours children’s carnival at Jane and Finch supported by Yorkgate Mall for the last few years. That whole Scotiabank situation is not tenable for that much longer. I have no concrete evidence on which to base that. What I can tell you based on my own anecdotal evidence year after year on the Lakeshore, it tells me that there is more chaos and the number of spectators is dwindling.
Wright: I think as a result of the decreasing vibe of the parade, people have been more keen on travelling to other countries to experience other carnivals to compensate for what they've felt lacking here in Toronto.
Prince: In Toronto, soca music has a place on the radio and in fetes 365 days a year. Toronto supports soca music all year round, without a doubt. The question of respect of Carnival culture in Toronto is a totally different matter. The issue of ‘stormers’ in the parade is reaching an all-time high and needs to be addressed. The term stormers refer to those to enter the costumed bands who are coming down the parade route. They feel as if it's their right to be in the parade as opposed to watching and enjoying the beautiful mas from the sidelines.
Photos via Flickr user H. Michael Miley
Besos: For me the most important thing is security for the masqueraders, it's very annoying and unfair when the crowd crashes the parade. The route seems to be working out, so I can't say much about that. And I believe there was an admission fee last year to get into the parade? For the first time ever? I was not impressed with that one bit.
Bygrave: Over the last 10 or so years, what we’re seeing in other locations is organizers putting this event into a stadium or arena since there’s more money to be made. Like a bull fight in an arena. I don’t like the idea of this event taking place in a stadium and building fences so that people can’t even see the attraction. I don’t think the community is behind Scotiabank Carnival, and if it were, the funding structure would change. Politicians respond to large numbers. We’re divided. Right now at the rate things are going, generations won’t know about the history of the festival and what it was supposed to represent.
Saldenah: Right now we have problems with the parade not being controlled. For some reason the police don’t want to get involved. They got involved in 1991, and the parade was great, no spectators came into the band. When they come in we are losing the pageantry of the carnival here in Toronto. If it’s not fixed I think the parade is going to die. People have to remember that it is a carnival parade. It’s not a free for all. It’s like the Christmas parade or Macy’s parade, people want to sit back and enjoy the costumes going by and sit back and have fun. There’s a lot of spectators coming into the bands now and it’s really getting out of control now. 80-85 percent of my band are women, and the average age is between 20 and 35, and a lot of these women are complaining that they are getting groped, grabbed.
Photos via Flickr user refreshment_66
Wright: I think the overall promotion/coverage of the carnival & image of the parade and events leading up to have improved. It's clear attempts are made in improving the overall organization and how the parade is run, but I think more measures need to be taken in terms of keeping stormers off of the parade route so that masqueraders can enjoy their mas experience to its fullest. A lot of time, effort and money go into creating and presenting the mas for it to be trampled and destroyed by people who didn't contribute a thought more to it than getting on the route and “catching a wine.”
Singh: There are issues still going on, even if the trademark issue has been settled. The government money that goes towards the festival should be going to the Caribana Arts Group, not the FMC. The FMC was supposed to have been put in place for one year in 2006 to assist with the financial management. They were supposed to dissolve at the end of that year, and that never happened, so they are really existing under a false premise. There is still a live legal issue, but the problem is to fight these legal battles costs a lot of money. We already won a David and Goliath situation with Scotiabank by getting a settlement against one of the world’s biggest banks. It doesn’t stop there. As first generation Canadians, we have to teach our youth about the history of the culture, what Carnival really means.
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