Toronto’s annual Carnival celebrations took place a couple of weeks ago, leaving me with a real “Carnival tabanca” (Trini slang used to describe the longing for Carnival). I have been reminiscing a lot about my time ‘on de road’ and also thinking about the current state of the festival, and what the future holds for this Toronto tradition; next year will be Caribana’s 50th anniversary.
Toronto’s first ever Caribana parade was held on Saturday, August 5, 1967. The event was born from a government desire to showcase Canada’s multiculturalism (as part of the nation’s centennial anniversary celebrations), and a desire from Toronto’s Caribbean community to share island culture and highlight its presence in the city. The Caribana parade was modelled after Trinidad’s Carnival, which has a complex and dark history rooted in the experience of African slaves on the island’s sugar cane plantations.
The original Caribana parade meandered through the streets of downtown Toronto before it was relocated to Lake Shore Boulevard and the CNE grounds in 1991 (which is where all of my memories of the event take place).
There’s a short but informative article including historical news clippings and photos on Torontoist, covering the origins of Caribana: Historicist: Come Out to Caribana ’67
As a child I attended Caribana with my family and our relatives a few times; I have fond memories of barbecued food, watching the beautiful floats and costumes, listening to the newest soca songs and looking out for my older cousins in the parade (in those days the barricades were only waist-high along some sections–people respected the boundaries as spectators).
I felt proud when I saw the Trinidad flag among the masqueraders. Though I grew up in Canada and felt very much a Canadian, Trinidad was (and remains) a significant part of my identity — my parents always made sure that the food, music, culture and history were a part of my life here, and Caribana was a source of pride and also an anchor for our West Indian culture and heritage.
Years passed and though we didn’t always attend the parade, we’d often watch it on TV. In 2007, I finally donned my own mas (short for “masquerade”) costume and my parents came out to watch me “play mas” for the first time. I felt a sense of joy and elation on the road, a natural high that other mas players will immediately understand, but can be hard to describe to the uninitiated. It feels incredible to “touch de road,” to feel the sun on your skin, to feel beautiful and free, dancing down the street to the incredibly rhythmic and upbeat music that is soca. You look around at your fellow masqueraders and feel a strong sense of community –it is so easy to make friends in the mas, and everyone is brimming with happiness (and often enough, rum).
I’ve now played mas in Toronto many times, and have quite the collection of feathered headpieces in my closet. I hope to participate in this festival into my old age like a number of men and women I’ve seen, and keep this beautiful Toronto and Caribbean tradition alive. But, I suppose this all depends on how the parade evolves.
Caribana has changed a lot since I was a child — far beyond the name change to “Toronto Caribbean Carnival.” Sadly, I think the quality, safety and beauty of the parade has declined quite drastically. These days, the parade dissolves once the carnival bands hit Lake Shore, swarmed by rude, rowdy and often disrespectful spectators known as “stormers” among mas players. What was once a family-friendly event is now chaos. Sometimes you look around and the mas players are wildly outnumbered, feathered headpieces peppered among spectators who have pushed their way onto the route. People don’t seem to understand that it’s mas players who make the parade; I have witnessed gross displays of entitlement and aggression from stormers who behave as though they deserve to be on the road with the bands.
How can we improve Caribana? I have a few thoughts.
1. More educational messaging from mainstream media
It’s great that Caribana attracts mainstream media coverage — but the history of the parade and its origins in the Caribbean are often lost in it. There is also little to no discussion of how to be an appropriate festival-goer, such as reminders to respect the mas players and help preserve the beauty of the event by NOT breaking down fences or swarming the route. This is after all, a parade, not a street party (as it is sometimes portrayed). Here’s a disappointing blogTO article that suggests it’s “brave” to “to sneak into the parade route.” UGH. THIS IS DISRESPECTFUL.
2. More education within the West Indian community
Over the years, I have seen many young West Indians (without costumes) walking the parade route with their flags tucked in their pockets, acting as though they belong among the mas players. There are many ways to participate in the parade — as a volunteer or marshal, for example — if wearing a costume is not of interest or within the budget.
It’s sad to see people being parasites of their own culture, destroying the hard work of the band organizers, section leaders, designers, artists, DJs, musicians and mas players who make the parade into the spectacle that it is, who share this cultural tradition with the broader Toronto community. The West Indian community needs to remind its young people to respect the mas.
3. More security and police presence
While it may seem as though more security and a stronger police presence would put a damper on Caribana festivities, I think it would make for a better event. I believe the additional police presence could help quell the bad behaviour (including sexual assault and harassment of female masqueraders, gun and physical violence) that has plagued the parade over the years. It’s not an ideal solution, but it could help send the message that Caribana is not, in fact, a free-for-all buffet of women for men who feel they deserve a dance partner, and that violence will not be tolerated. #nobehaviour
4. A low cost band
Perhaps people would be willing to make their own costumes or reuse old ones, and for a low fee, could join a “band” with a music truck at the end of the parade. This could curb stormers I suppose, though I can’t see people paying for something they’ve been taking for free all these years…I didn’t get to enjoy Machel Montano on the road last year because stormers crowded me out and were destroying the costumes of fellow masqueraders to get near his truck.
5. A new route
No one bothers you as you wind through the streets of downtown Port-of-Spain because people respect the mas (and band security will boot you out). I loved Trinidad Carnival and quite frankly, feel it’s much safer there than here (last year me and my friends were forced to run for our lives as a fence came crashing down and people fled a stabbing incident). I wonder if a new route or event location would improve the parade? I think it’s beautiful to go along Lake Shore, and the stretch offers plenty of space for spectators, but the Pride parade goes along Yonge and seems able to proceed without 10-foot fences keeping people back. Could this route be the solution, spreading out the volume of people, and making stormers stand out and therefore easier to remove from a narrower lane? Will Caribbean vendors still have the opportunity to share our foods and drinks?
I plan to participate in Caribana’s 50th anniversary year in 2017, and I hope that next year will be a time for change and positive renewal of this very special Toronto event. Toronto’s Carnival brings so many people together — my wish is that this will continue, but with improved safety and greater respect by spectators for all of the work and effort it takes to bring the parade to life.