Is Toronto Exploiting Caribana?

Caribbean folks will flock to the festival for parties, barbecues and parades, sure to have lots of fun and spend lots of money. But will Toronto’s economy get the biggest party favor?

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An enormous amount of creativity, energy and organization goes into Caribana, which this year features the Calypso Music Series, Junior Carnival, Caribana 2009 Art Exhibition, Caribana Gala, King and Queen Show, Pan Alive, and most important, Toronto Caribana Parade. Strutting your stuff to the music—the bouncy rhythm of calypso, soca, reggae, jazz, gospel—any music with a touch of the African beat—underlies every aspect of the festival, and the heartbeat is the masquerade band. Its success depends on the imaginativeness of its theme; on how several hundred people can be transformed into a representation of society through fantasy or parody.

Winning depends heavily on the beauty and presentation of the costumes, with many of them requiring enormous amounts of steel, wire, fabric, sequins, feathers and beads. The big prize, both monetarily and symbolically, is winning the King and Queen of the Band competition. This is a contest between the males and females that head each band, and has as much to do with the music as the costumes. On the Thursday night before Caribana Day, all the kings and queens of the bands meet to battle like peacocks, primping and preening for the audience.

No one had more to do with establishing Caribana than Charles Roach, the Trinidadian musician, lawyer and civil rights advocate. In the ‘60s, he became the moving spirit behind the Caribbean Cultural Committee, a group of black social pioneers who set out to break down racial barriers and advance the cause of blacks in Canada. They decided that a carnival should be the centerpiece of their cultural demonstration, and that it should be modeled after the rapturous events in the week before the Christian festival of Lent in Trinidad and Tobago.

Though Roach still has enormous enthusiasm for Caribana, he is troubled by some of the ways in which it has developed; chiefly concerning the City of Toronto reaping what he believes is an unfair amount of the financial rewards from the festival. Last year, parade week brought in $130 million—most of it going to the hospitality business, such as brewers, bottlers, hotels, transportation, airlines and restaurants.

“We can’t and wouldn’t want to put on our parade in a stadium and make people pay for it,” he said, “but we—our festival, on which we spend thousands to make as wonderful as possible—is why Toronto draws more visitors then that at any other time of year. We haven’t established the infrastructure yet to earn our fair share, but we’re working on it.”