50 years later, the beat goes on for the city's Caribbean festival
Funding woes and infighting haven’t stopped the festival from showcasing Caribbean culture for half a century
- This story was originally published in May 2017.
When you ask Whitfield Belasco whether he was there at the beginning of Toronto's Caribbean festival, his answer is, "We were the beginning."
"I came up to Toronto to start the parade. We made costumes. We took part in the parade. I was the centre of my band," said Belasco.
The Trinidadian-Canadian has led a Mas band, as they're called, since 1967 — longer than any other band leader in the city.
He was making masquerade costumes for the Trinidad Carnival when his brother recruited Belasco to help organize Toronto's first Caribbean festival.
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Artists like Belasco and younger band leaders are credited with keeping the tradition and spirit of the Caribbean celebration alive in the city.
"They are so good, other countries in the Caribbean are coming to our designers for inspiration," said Chris Alexander, chief administrative officer of the Festival Management Committee (FMC), which has been running the carnival for the last 10 years.
But 50 years on, Toronto's festival continues to be plagued by a lack of funding and a decades-long fight for control.
Origins of Caribbean Carnival
Carnival in the Caribbean has a history steeped in colonialism. Emancipated slaves celebrated their culture through dance, music and masquerade outfits that mocked their former masters.
About 1,000 revellers in costume swaying to the music of steel pans paraded in the streets for the first Caribbean carnival in Toronto.
"In the earlier days, a band 50, 200, 300 was fantastic and they were together, friendship," said Belasco. "It was fun at the beginning. Everybody enjoyed it but now it's more of a business. It is a business."
It's estimated that about 1.2 million people attend Toronto's Caribbean Carnival every year, with an economic impact of $338 million in terms of GDP in 2014, according to Stephen Weir, spokesperson for the FMC.
The first 40 years
In 1967, Belasco's brother and other prominent members of the Toronto Caribbean community formed the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC). The CCC organized Toronto's West Indian contribution at Expo '67 in Montreal, which included Carnival costumes donated by the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
The committee showcased those same costumes at Toronto's Caribana that same year.
As the festival grew, so did the in-fighting among Toronto's Caribbean diaspora. Financial accountability and transparency became challenges that overshadowed the CCC.
In 2006, the city withheld funding to the group on the grounds that incomplete audits in 2004 and 2005 showed public funds were not being properly managed.
That year, the city created an arms-length organization, the FMC, and appointed people to run the festival. It was supposed to expire at the end of 2006. But the FMC still runs Toronto's carnival to this day.
"De-funding is one thing, taking the festival and handing it over to a new group is a whole other thing," said Monica Pollard, the chair of the Caribana Arts Group, formerly CCC.
"That's one of the biggest examples of appropriation bordering on downright theft from a community of their cultural property," said Denham Jolly, long-time Jamaican-Canadian businessman, publisher, and author of In the Black: My Life.
He said the city should never have taken control and appointed a body to run what he called the Caribbean community's "gift" to the city 50 years ago.
"They don't want to see something that's made up out of city hall that's stolen, that doesn't have authenticity of what's a sacred trust that our elders gave to us in 1967."
Pollard said her group has cleaned up its house and wants custody of what rightfully belongs to the Caribbean Arts Group.
CAG also wants to resurrect the vision of the founders by creating scholarships for kids, acquiring a Caribbean cultural centre, and providing programming for youths and seniors.
"We are a community organization. They (FMC) are a privately run business. They don't have anything to do with community," said Pollard.
"We are the community," said Chris Alexander, the FMC's chief administrative officer.
"Most of the people who are part of the festival today were part of the [Caribbean Cultural Committee]," he said. "I hate the fact that we see ourselves as different from the group before us because we are all Caribbean people ... we stand on the shoulders of the people before us."
Caribana vs. Toronto Caribbean Carnival
Even though most people still call the festival "Caribana," CAG owns the trademark on the name. Because of a 2010 licensing deal, FMC had to change the name of the festival to Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
"We wanted it to be called Caribana this year. We wanted that badly. But we can't." said Alexander.
The two sides were in negotiations until this spring to come up with a deal to run this year's festival together.
But talks fell apart.
"Anything that Caribana put on the table was not acceptable to FMC," said Pollard.
She said her group will mark the 50th anniversary but declined to give details, saying there will be an announcement shortly.
"We remain resolute ... that no one can celebrate Caribana but Caribana," she said.
"It is not about the name. It's about a culture, a people. It is about what we brought to this country," said Alexander. "Let's not waste time over squabbles."
Perpetual money problems
No matter which side of the debate people fall on, or which group runs the festival, everyone agrees that for the amount of money the carnival generates, there's no corresponding recognition of that from the different levels of government.
"We are under-funded, bottom line," said Alexander. "It needs to change. The city of Toronto does a very good job in our funding. We are not funded well, we think, from the province or from the federal government, which they are funding in diminishing terms."
Civil rights activist Denham Jolly said if the festival had been better supported monetarily, there may not be this rift in the community:
"It's Afro-centric so it's not about the Royal Ballet or the ROM or whatever so it wasn't funded. The government never funded it properly."
Band leader Whitfield Belasco said the community doesn't have strong representation at city hall to advocate for the festival. But he also believes no one wants to see the party end:
"They don't want to see the golden goose dry up. With all the talk, the city wants Caribana."