'We erred,' says Toronto mas band after First Nations chief calls costumes 'disrespectful'
'No different than the people at Coachella doing it,' says Ryerson associate professor
A Toronto-based masquerade band is apologizing after its costumes for the Toronto Caribbean Carnival portraying Indigenous people prompted accusations of cultural appropriation. But the band stopped short of saying the offending costumes would be axed.
Carnival Nationz revealed the intricate costume designs at its Scarborough headquarters on April 29, billing it as "paying homage to the 150th birthday of Canada and 50th anniversary of Caribana in true Caribbean and Nationz style."
But two of the segments in the mas band — titled "Oh Kanata" and "One Nationz" — are drawing ire for headgear styled after sacred Indigenous headdresses.
"My initial reaction was, I took a deep breath in and just sat there in disbelief," Denise Stonefish, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, told CBC Toronto.
"It told me that we still have a lot of work to do in terms of how people view Indigenous Peoples, and not only from the way that our Indigenous women are treated, but also the lack of respect for our sacred items such as the headdress."
The masquerade band uses several facets of Canada's identity, including the Rockies, Horseshoe Falls and even Drake's recent project More Life, for its theme "Oh Canada."
Instagram photos show the "One Nationz" costume with a flared pink and teal feathered headdress, while the "Oh Kanata" costume features an elaborate red, yellow and orange feathered headdress as well as prominent face paint.
Apology does not specify whether costumes will be canned
In a statement on Facebook, Carnival Nationz said the two lines of costumes were meant to "pay homage to Canada's First Nations."
The mas band said it consulted with a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation — and included an image of her Indian status card in the Facebook post — and is expected to be in talks with a "chief and council of a First Nation band."
"We apologize to anyone who we offended and hurt by our presentation," the statement read.
"Our intention was not to be disrespectful to the First Nations people but to be inclusive of them and to celebrate their true contribution to Canada."
We don't have a lot to really celebrate in terms of 150 years of Confederation.- Denise Stonefish, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians
The statement did not say whether the two lines of costumes would be dropped, as Stonefish and other Indigenous people have called for.
Stonefish said it is particularly "disrespectful," given the nod to Canada's 150th anniversary.
"Canada's 150th birthday is not exactly the happy story for Indigenous Peoples, considering what we have had to endure over the last 150 years," she said.
"We don't have a lot to really celebrate in terms of 150 years of Confederation."
Vow to 'make it right'
Festival spokesperson Stephen Weir said costume designs are at the discretion of the mas band and the individual segments within it. The Toronto Mas Bands Association, which oversees the participating bands, is in discussion with members of the First Nations community, Weir said.
"Our goal is to celebrate, to wow people, to have a really good time," he said. "It's not to hurt people's feelings," he said.
"We're going to make it right."
'No different than the people at Coachella doing it'
Many online have drawn parallels to traditional "Indian mas" in Trinidad, but that is "out of line," according to Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, an associate professor at Ryerson University, who spoke to CBC Toronto from Trinidad.
At the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, there are mas characters that depict Indigenous peoples, but the Carnival Nationz costumes are not reflective of that tradition, she said.
"If you had seen a presentation of Indian mas at Trinidad Carnival, you would not be making this argument right now," Hernandez-Ramdwar said.
"It has nothing to do with bikinis and beads and putting on a headdress. That is no different than the people at Coachella doing it."
Hernandez-Ramdwar, whose research focuses on Caribbean studies, said traditional Indian mas characters include "Black Indians," "Blue Indians," "Wild Indians," "Red Indians" and the "Fancy Indian."
"It is a very specific kind of mas," she said. "It has a specific kind of costuming, it has specific dances that go with it. There's even some languages that people have created over the years," she said.
"It's a street theatre is what it is. And this has absolutely nothing to do with that."
The "Fancy Indian," she said, is rooted in Hollywood's representation of Indigenous Peoples with its elaborate feathered headdresses and is arguably appropriation.
But Hernandez-Ramdwar said it is important to note the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
"If you are so out of touch with the context of where you are living and producing this mas, then that is highly problematic," she said.
"At the very least, you should have some sense that Canada's Indigenous people are not celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada. For a lot of Indigenous people, there is nothing to celebrate."
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival is marking 50 years in August.