Toronto

50th anniversary of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival kicks off

A half century after the first 'Caribana' made an indelible mark on the city, revellers officially kicked-off the 50th anniversary of the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival in Nathan Phillips Square Tuesday.

Annual celebration of Caribbean culture runs from July 17 to August 7

The 50th Toronto Caribbean Carnival kicked-off with a showcase in Nathan Phillips Square on Tuesday. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

A half century after the first 'Caribana' made an indelible mark on the city, revellers officially kicked-off the 50th anniversary of the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival in Nathan Phillips Square on Tuesday.

The launch was a cultural showcase and teaser event for the festival, slated to begin on July 17. Three groups with deep ties to the festival were featured: Toronto Mas Bands Association, Organization of Calypso Performing Artistes and the Ontario Steelpan Association.

The annual carnival, formerly called Caribana until a trademark dispute forced a name change, is a raucous celebration of all things Caribbean. Music, dancing, colourful regalia and unmistakable island eats draw huge crowds to the city.

Though it has struggled with funding hurdles and infighting among stakeholders, it continues to be a huge draw to people of all backgrounds. 

"Every other festival ... the way they take to the streets, that's what Caribana brought to this city in large measure," said Lennox Farrell, former chair of the carnival's organizing committee.

The very first Caribana parade marching down Yonge Street in 1967. The Carnival King Peacock costume was brought to Canada from Trinidad. (CBC News )

The first festival was held partly as a centennial event in 1967, with financial and logistical support from the governments of Caribbean nations. About 1,000 people showed up, and they were treated to something they'd never seen on Toronto's streets.

"When I arrived here in the late '60s, a parade on Yonge Street or on University was people marching four-fours, eyes right and bugling," Farrell said during an interview with CBC's Metro Morning on Tuesday.

"What Caribana did, was it took the streets and made it theatre. It made it drama. It made it inclusive. It made it much of what Toronto is today."

In more recent years, Toronto's Caribbean Festival has consistently drawn more than a million to the city. According to the Festival Management Committee, that amounts to an economic impact of about $338 million in terms of GDP in 2014. 

The distinctive outfits are one of the carnival's signature elements. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

Over its 50 years, the festival has become a landmark event for Toronto's Caribbean and wider black community.

Still, he said, the carnival is taken for granted by some who see only the dollar value and not the true spirit of the celebration.

"It's welcomed and retained for the revenue it brings. Caribana was not and is still not welcomed for who she is. She's Canadian-born, but she's not Canadian," Farrell said, explaining that it evolved from the cultural and political milieu of the Caribbean islands. 

The next generation

One of the other challenges has been passing on one of the key traditions of the festival — the making of costumes and floats — to a new generation. 

At 33, Akil Heywood is leading the Atlantic Mas for the second-year running. He's the youngest band leader in the parade and has tried to recruit friends and other youth to join him in building the float and making the costumes. 

Akil Heywood, 33, is the band leader for Atlantic Mas Toronto. (CBC)

It's critical to pass those skills on to those people who have previously only seen the parade as a weeks-long party, he said.

He's still acquiring those skills himself. Walter Elliott, an elder and master craftsman, is responsible for building the queen and king mas, the rolling frames that will house the most elaborate costumes. 

"These pioneers are really important … They've got a secret that, hopefully, they can pass down to me," Heywood said.

The festival will run until Aug. 7 with events planned throughout the city.