After hearing that this year’s Toronto Caribbean Carnival Grand Parade was set to have shorter fences than previous years, I cringed a little. Not because I didn't want them to come down; but because it drudged up the issues that comes with sharing a space originally meant to celebrate culture that has shifted under the weight of corporatization and misunderstanding.
As the largest Caribbean parade in North America, there’s expected to be over a million people attending, so keeping everyone involved safe is imperative. Still, festival spokesperson Stephen Weir has gone on record as saying that everybody hated the 14-foot-tall barricades that went up in an attempt to discourage the yearly tradition of spectators jumping directly into the parade. It’s something that’s only gotten worse over the years, with some people bringing boxcutters and pliers as a way to deal with fencing they were too tall to climb over. In response, new 4-foot-tall fences will be going up this year while festival organizers are also reported to be implementing private security to travel along with the parade route. It’s become difficult for us to share something so integral to our culture with those outside of it, particularly when it’s been treated carelessly in so many ways.
Photo via Flickr
For an event that brings $450 million dollars into Toronto, attempts to truly understand the parade itself have fallen short. Even the existence of the entire costume judging process has been largely absent from the way the festival is branded and covered by the media, falling on members of the community to educate the public to essentially no avail. Long-time parade goer Terri Francis shared his own frustrations about that very thing: “That burden isn't placed on any other group/festival to be overtly inclusive. I'm not saying that outsiders are not invited, but if you're going to participate, participate with an open mind and understand the culture in totality.” Just like carnivals in the West Indies, these carefully crafted costumes are judged for execution and commitment to a particular theme, in addition to the energy and dancing of the masqueraders. This is an element of the festivities largely unknown to the general public, which is where the idea comes from of it being a street party to be walked through instead of a procession to be respectfully watched.
These literal and figurative barriers weren’t always there; tall fences only became a mainstay in 2009 and masqueraders have been feeling boxed in ever since. This is in stark contrast to Trinidad’s pre-Lent Carnival, Barbados’ Crop Over in early August and plenty of other celebrations around the islands. In these spaces, the culture, craftsmanship, and purpose of carnival is well understood and respected—and that’s where the disconnect is in Toronto. Only minimal barriers like ropes are required to keep a safe space between spectators and revellers and, often, band security or the police stand guard to protect the masqueraders. Writer Bee Quammie had such an experience after going to St. Vincent for Vincy Mas a few years ago. “There are multiple parades on the street in downtown Kingstown with no fencing but no disrespect of the parade route, masqueraders, or spectators. It felt like more of a free and authentic experience—more community, less corporation.”
Photo via Flickr
It’s important to think about the roots of Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival in order to understand the ways it’s moved from a community-based festival to one that is shared with the entire city. From it’s earliest incarnation as a one-time thing for Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967, it became a mainstay for members of the city’s growing Caribbean community. It’s grown exponentially and changed in major ways like a shift from University Ave to Lakeshore Blvd. in 1991. There was also the addition of Scotiabank as the title sponsor and following name change in 2006. To us, though, it has always been and probably always will be Caribana. That growth has also come with the realization that the festival is something we share with the entire city and not just members of the Caribbean diaspora.
Corporate sponsorship of the festival isn’t a new thing by any means; many brands recognized within the Caribbean community like Western Union or Grace Foods are regularly a part of the festivities. But the title sponsorship of Scotiabank specifically has always been met with mixed reviews. It signified the beginning of a sharp decline for many, and the announcement of $20 entrance fees for spectators in 2011 was the final straw “It seemed like an investment for Scotiabank,” says DJ and regular participant Keri Felix, “so obviously they're looking for a return on their investment. Things became more about money than culture, like charging people to watch the parade.”
Photo via Flickr
For many members of the Caribbean diaspora it’s not necessarily about exclusion but more so about where the power of the festival lies. Most cultural events lose their lustre in corporate hands and even though financial issues have plagued previous regulatory committees in the past, Scotiabank pulling out of the event might be the start of a new beginning. Writer Sharine Taylor, who’s been going to the parade since her teens, adds to this feeling. “At the Anti-Racism Directorate meeting this month, one of the attendees spoke about reclaiming the festival,” she shares. “I'm hoping that the earlier issues that initially caused the change of hands have been fixed so we can move towards having it back in our hands.” With the Grand Parade’s 50th anniversary coming up next year, it just might be the best moment.
Sajae Elder is a writer from Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.