Anyone Can Participate in Caribana, and Maybe That’s a Problem

"I feel like people will ride or die for Caribana, but won’t ride or die for the Caribbean community"

Woman dressed in a purple and yellow bejewelled Carnival costume, dances while surrounded by other participants

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Habil Mitiku remembers the first time she attended Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival. Traveling from Ottawa to attend with Trinidadian friends in 2016, she chose not to play mas that year—instead, she walked the parade route in her street clothes—but, standing amidst the revellers, she was mesmerized. Gorgeous women streamed around her, their elaborate costumes a blur of vibrant colours and intricate designs, glinting in the sun. It was shocking at first, especially for 21-year-old Mitiku, who was used to wearing loose-fitting, dark clothing. “I was in the middle of the parade and everyone was just walking,” she says, “but I was staring at everything and taking it in.”

Soca and calypso reverberated from huge speakers, urging the revellers on. “It was so immersive; it was just an amazing experience,” Mitiku says. Seeing women of all shapes and sizes take part was also reaffirming for her. “Weirdly enough, I feel like I really found myself that weekend.”

Although Mitiku is of African descent—her family is from Ethiopia—she felt welcomed by the event and the community behind it. And she’s not the only one. For Emma Vukman, whose family is from Croatia, participating in Carnival has been an extremely positive experience. She lived in a West Indian neighbourhood in Toronto as a child and has played mas several times with friends from the Caribbean. She has always felt at home surrounded by the culture. “I keep coming back because it is so much fun,” she says. “I love to dance, I love Caribbean music and everyone is welcoming and has a great time.”

And according to festival organizers, that’s just the point.

“It’s welcome to everybody, there’s no exclusion in our carnival,” says Chris Alexander, the chief administrative officer for Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival. In this role since 2010, Alexander—who was born in Grenada—oversees much of the event’s operation, and has seen it grow in size and diversity over the last several years. “Everybody’s on the road: every race, every culture, every gender, everybody’s there so there’s no exclusion.”

If that sounds good, that’s because it’s meant to. Since its inception in 1967, Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival, or Caribana, as it’s still affectionately known, has been touted as an emblem of multiculturalism. More to the point, it has become an integral part of the city’s identity—and finances. But this positive positioning comes at a cost, say some members of Toronto’s Caribbean community, who worry the festival is detrimental to the community it’s meant for.

This festival has long been an important space for the city’s Caribbean communities

What’s now called the Toronto Caribbean Carnival began as an act of goodwill. In 1967, the West Indian community was asked to make a contribution to celebrate Canada’s centennial year of independence. The result was Caribana, a festival that was meant to celebrate and solidify the Caribbean community’s place in the country.

Now in its 51st year, the meaning of the festival has changed. “There’s a new narrative around Carnival,” says Lisa Tomlinson, a cultural critic who grew up in Toronto and now works as a professor at the Institute of Caribbean and Reggae Studies at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. “In its initial stages, 10 to 15 to 20 years ago, the narrative of Caribana was more targeted,” she says. “The face of Caribana [was] Caribbean people. Even though [the festival] was referred to as multicultural in the past, it really wasn’t, because the participants were people of Caribbean descent.”

That’s the Caribana that Celine Gibbons-Taylor, a proud Bajan-Canadian and academic who studies how Black women’s bodies are perceived at the festival, fell in love with. “It’s wonderful,” she says of the festival. “It’s the only [public] space I have entered where I feel the freest, where I feel the most human, especially coming from an ancestry where my existence has been dehumanized.”

Sharine Taylor agrees. “For me, [Caribana] is always rooted in some way shape or form to liberation… I like how it’s a space that encourages people to free up themselves, get on that on the road and be festive and among friends and have a good time,” she says.

But with increasing commercialization, that narrative—and the face of Caribana—has been altered. Taylor is a Toronto-based, Afro-Caribbean journalist who runs Carnival Cousins, a lifestyle blog that celebrates Carnival, with her cousin. She has attended Caribbean festivals around the world, including in Jamaica and Barbados, and has seen first-hand how the meaning of the event changes depending on location, something that’s particularly obvious in Toronto.

Sharine Taylor dressed in Carnival costume

(Photo: Sharine Taylor)

The festival is increasingly being marketed to white audiences

“Caribana has sort of been co-opted into this political thing where prime ministers and mayors come for photo ops. When that happens— and it does happen and it’s been happening—I think it invites a different kind of crowd,” Taylor says.

The changing name of the festival is a perfect example. The Caribbean Cultural Committee had been running the festival since its inception, but in 2006, the City of Toronto withdrew its support because of financial mismanagement. This sparked a period of upheaval, and left Toronto’s Caribbean community feeling like they were being cut out of their own cultural product. In 2008, Scotiabank signed on as a sponsor and the festival—under a new committee—was renamed Scotiabank Caribana. In 2011, the name was changed again, this time to the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto. Then, Scotiabank withdrew its sponsorship in 2015 and it became Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival last year, after live-streaming app Peeks Social stepped in as sponsor.

While these name changes might seem insignificant, Tomlinson says they’re actually quite telling. Since control of the festival shifted to corporate sponsors, the event has become more mainstream—and in this context, that means palatable to white audiences. “[Caribbean Carnival] brings out a different connotation,” Tomlinson says. “When it was called Caribana, you thought about Caribbean people,” she says. The use of Carnival implies connections to Brazil’s famous festival. It also plays up “the idea of partying, revelling and flesh,” connotations that Tomlinson says are appealing to those outside the community.

Of course, not everyone agrees. “Change is not an easy thing and people are nostalgic,” Alexander says of pushback to the festival’s commercialization. “Yes, it is more commercialized,” he continues. “Obviously a festival like this that brings in so much, needs to have some sort of commercialization, so that businesses can get involved or sponsors can get involved. Because it cost a lot of money to put on a festival like this, so there needs to be some sort of funding.”

But emphasizing commercialism and inclusivity has a dark side for the Caribbean community.

As the festival gets more corporate, Caribbean culture gets more sanitized

There is a longstanding idea that something isn’t “cool” until it’s accepted (and adapted) by Western—and let’s be honest, this often means white—culture. It would be easy to see the rising popularity of Caribana as a form of cultural exchange, but Tomlinson says it’s more than that. Think about Toronto’s vernacular—young non-Caribbean Torontonians likely say “wasteman” or “yute,” words that are entrenched in Toronto’s vernacular and have recently been popularized by Drake, but which originated with patois-speaking Jamaican immigrants who started arriving in the GTA in the ’60s.

“I’m all for cultural borrowing and so forth,” Tomlinson says. But, she acknowledges, there’s also something weird about hearing these words spoken by non-Caribbean people. “Because when I went to school, it was not cool to speak Jamaican. You were put in special education classes if you had an accent,” she says. “So, when it becomes so popularized now, through packaging and commodification, then you’re kind of like, ‘Hey, now you feel a way, now all of a sudden it’s cool to speak like this?’”

This mentality is upheld by the organization itself. Alexander says the festival doesn’t try force history on its participants. “The Carnival is about fun, it’s about coming and having fun and enjoying yourself, ” he says. “We’re not pushing it down anybody’s throat, so if you want to play you don’t got to know [the history] then.” For those who do want more information, he says, the organization holds additional events throughout the year.

Focusing solely on “fun” trivializes the experiences of Caribbean people

Don’t get us wrong—the festival is fun. But Caribana’s roots are about more than “chipping down de road.” Trinidad’s Carnival, the festival Caribana most closely resembles, arose out of oppression. The concept was introduced to Trinidad in 1785 by French settlers, and slaves—who were banned from partaking in those masked balls—would host their own events, as both an affirmation of their power and as a means to mock their owners.

“I get the allure [for non-Caribbeans],” Taylor says. “It’s so sexy and it’s so cool to be on the road showing off your body. I see why somebody would want to participate. But folks that were enslaved, they weren’t doing it because it’s cool,” she says. “It was never fun, but it’s been made fun, and there are entire economies built off it.”

And it’s not just about history. Today, participating in the festival can be life-changing for people of Caribbean descent—especially for second-generation members of the diaspora. “It’s  a space that affords Caribbean people home and belonging,” Gibbons-Taylor says. “Some of us have not been back home for decades; [the festival] might be the one space where they link up with people and feel a sense of home.”

That’s why she finds surface-level characterizations of the event as “just fun” so disheartening—it takes away from the depth of meaning. “Of course it’s fun! I have a great time. But it’s [also] like a spiritual kind of awakening, it’s a connection to ancestors, it’s a lot of things that happen, whether consciously or subconsciously, when I enter those spaces.”

Celine Gibbons-Taylor participating at Caribana

(Photo: Celine Gibbons-Taylor)

Caribana is supposed to be a safe space for Black and brown bodies

There’s also another issue that comes up when non-Caribbean people attend Caribana. Often, they misinterpret just what the skin-baring costumes and “sexualized” dancing actually mean.

The festival, and particularly the parade, are a place for Afro- and Indo-Caribbean people to take up space “in a resistant and unapologetic way,” Taylor says. They are some of few social spaces where Black and brown bodies can move freely without fear of exoticization or hyper-sexualization, something that was historically common thanks to colonization—and that continues today.

Tomlinson explains it like this: Caribbean cultural spaces allow women of colour to “wine up” on dance partners and it’s celebrated and seen as art. But outside of those cultural spaces, she says, “you’re just seen as a whore, so to speak.” This is something people from outside the Caribbean community may not understand—and speaks to a larger issue about how Black and brown women’s bodies are perceived in our society. “You can come out a white woman and gyrate and no one’s going to judge you. You can even come topless, and what you’re doing is liberated and radical,” she says. But the same doesn’t go for WOC.

In some ways, the introduction of non-Caribbean bodies into a Caribbean space exacerbate those complicated and unfair sexual and body politics, something Gibbons-Taylor sees but can’t make sense of. White bodies can pass in and out of any space without implication, but even within a space designated for her body, Gibbons-Taylor emphasizes that it’s more radical for her to partake than it would be for a white woman within the space. “Because my body is read in a particular way when I dance in my costume down the road, whether I want my body to be read in that way or not,” she says. “But for a non-Black woman, I don’t know that that’s something that they have to grapple with in the ways that I would.”

Instead, the festival is complicit in commodifying Black and brown bodies

This isn’t anything new. For years, Caribbean cultural products have been commodified for the benefit of non-Caribbean people. This is arguably most identifiable in music, where an entirely new generation of artists (including, yes, Drake but also Justin Bieber, Sia and Fifth Harmony) have profited off the sounds and influence of Caribbean music, particularly dancehall—often without crediting or acknowledging its roots. But when it happens at what’s ostensibly a community event, like Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival, it’s particularly galling. Especially since there’s so much money involved.

Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival is very lucrative for the city. The festival, which runs for three weeks every summer and culminates in the Grand Parade on the August long weekend, is currently the largest cultural event in Canada and one of Toronto’s major tourist attractions. According to a 2015 study by Toronto Artscape, the Grand Parade alone brings over one million spectators a year, with 58% of participants residing outside of Toronto. And those spectators seem to be hooked. According to the 2014 economic impact study, out of 1.2 million attendees, 72% are repeat visitors. And the impact extends beyond the parade itself. That same year, the Festival Management Committee estimated the total economic impact of the event was $338 million—and it’s only gone up.

But how much of that money actually goes back to the community? According to Tomlinson, not much. When non-Caribbean people play mas, it benefits the community on a micro level—buying a costume puts money directly into the hands of a Caribbean business or artisan—but that’s small change compared to what gets spent on “the hotels, the TTC and the larger corporations,” she says.

And it’s not just about money

This need for compensation extends beyond economics. Engagement with Caribana and Caribbean events doesn’t translate to physical support, or even greater acceptance for the community. Hotels profit from the festival, but “after Caribana, if you walk into some of these hotels, you’re profiled,” Tomlinson says. “Some of them don’t even hire Black people, or South Asians, or people with accents to work at their front desk.”

But,” she continues, “during Caribana everybody is quote un-quote ‘all of we as one,’… everybody’s one.”

She’s not buying it. “We’re not all of we as one. Canada and Toronto really embark on their multiculturalism by using Caribana, but after [it’s over], we see how Black youth are treated within the community.”

With the recent spike in gun violence in Toronto, there’s been an increased emphasis on particular neighbourhoods—and communities—in the city. Recently, Mayor John Tory said he wanted to increase police presence in “priority” areas and Community Safety and Corrections Minister Michael Tibollo wore a bulletproof vest when visiting Jane and Finch—an area predominantly occupied by people of colour.

For Gibbons-Taylor, this kind of behaviour highlights the continued appropriation of the “best” parts of the culture, as well as the racism of Canada’s multiculturalism. “I feel like people will ride or die for Caribana, but won’t ride or die for the Caribbean community,” she says. She points to Afrofest, another event in the city which has faced noise complaints and was downsized in 2016 amid protests. “It seems like a lot of non-African or non-Black folks go to this space, but only Black folks were the ones who were like, ‘Nah, you can’t do that,'” she says. “It was like, where was you all? You all just want to come and eat the food and buy the little trinkets, but you don’t want to stand with us.”

What non-Caribbean people should do

Vukman, the Croatian-Canadian who grew up in a West Indian neighbourhood and loves Caribana, has never received backlash for participating in the festival—and she shouldn’t. The solution here isn’t excluding anyone. It’s for non-Caribbean people to be aware of the ways in which they’re taking up space—and ensure they’re not making the experience worse for the people who actually “own” this festival. Most importantly, they should make sure their love of Caribbean culture extends beyond three weeks in the summer.

For example, Tomlinson believes we should be looking at where the money made from Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival goes afterward. “The beneficiaries [should be] the Caribbean community, and rightfully so. The money should be channeling within our community,” she says. This means putting funding towards community centres, educational scholarships and social services—anything that generates jobs. What better way to show your love of the Caribbean community than to use your privilege to call for the same thing?


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