Clifton Joseph’s bittersweet look back at Caribana

Toronto’s carnival made good on some of its early promise to deliver social initiatives, but 50 years on it has never lived up to its euphoric possibilities to tangibly benefit the Black and Caribbean communities

Fifty years after they flew in coconut trees from the islands and replanted them on Olympic Island, it’s easy to forget the influence of Toronto’s first Caribana festival in 1967: its “mile-long carnival procession of a thousand people in gaily-coloured costumes gyrating to the music of five calypso bands” and its politics of Black liberation, social focus, independent financing and deep community connection and participation.

Before Caribana, the premiere event in Black Toronto was the annual Emancipation Day Parade, held every November in the west end. The parade was a military-style event started by the descendants of fugitive American slaves who escaped to Canada and settled in the rural communities of southern Ontario. In the 1950s, its main organizer was the Canadian Negro Women’s Association, the group credited with starting the first Black History celebrations, and who, from 1952 until 1964, also produced yearly “Caribbean carnivals,” primarily as fundraisers for the scholarships they provided to Caribbean students and programs they ran for immigrants. One of the group’s leaders, Verda Cook, was also a founding director of Caribana.

When the federal government encouraged the country’s multicultural communities to mount events in tribute to Canada’s centennial celebrations, a Caribbean Centennial Committee was created that included “Pan-Caribbean academics, students and professionals.” On July 2, 1967, the group outlined the festival that would “represent the cultures of the 10 main Caribbean islands, in addition to Bermuda and Guyana.”  They planned a “parade of bands,” (from Varsity Stadium along Bloor, down Yonge and west on Queen to City Hall), calypso and steel bands, films, ferry cruises, fashion shows, kids’ and adult carnivals, drama and musical performances, fruit and vegetable markets showcasing Caribbean produce and a water-skiing festival.