Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability

Culture is defined as the collective manifestation of arts and human intelligence. It is something we all create, together, in order to represent our community's existence. Our culture is how we present ourselves to others. How we celebrate our unique belongingness. How we communicate what we view to be traditional, important, and significant.

In Toronto, our annual Carnival celebration (formerly and affectionately known as Caribana) is the most visible display of Caribbean culture across the country. In fact, it used to be the largest street festival amongst ANY culture in North America.

Used to be. This year looked kinda scanty.

Naturally, there are individuals who take the various elements of their individual cultures very, very seriously. The foods they eat, the way they dress, how they conduct themselves, and the languages they speak. They hold on to these elements proudly, as it is these factors that solidify their purpose, and dictate how they interpret the world around them. And likewise, how the world views them.

The culture of Caribbean Carnival is an international force. At any give time of year, a Carnival enthusiast can travel and find a passionate group of like-minded souls celebrating Caribbean culture exactly they way they like it. This cultural recognition is magnetic and sustains a thriving ongoing industry based on its beauty, elements, and events.

Caribbean Carnival is something that came into my world quite naturally, and has only grown in terms of my passion and interest in this phenomenon. It has become a welcome addition to my life's routine, despite the fact that there are numerous people in my circle that think the act of Carnival is a legit waste of time and personal resources.

My literary activities, communication practices, musical commitments, my Jamaican heritage, and deep appreciation for reggae music still haven't prevented me from falling in love with Carnival culture. I still anticipate the time of year when Toronto Carnival rolls around. I always look forward to visiting at least one out-of-town Carnival a year (Miami and Jamaica are favourites). I still plan to one day visit Trinidad to experience the heart and soul of all things Carnival, and related fete and masquerade bliss. It's almost an addiction, and I have realized that it's not something I can simply "get over" or "grow out of," contrary to popular belief.

The pseudo-academic in me (along with an inquisitive mind, and cultural frustration) is now taking a different glance at the Caribbean Carnival, in an attempt to understand its power and maintain its influence.

This is not coming from a place of finger-pointing, or placing blame. In fact, I won't even target individual mas bands for any less-than-pleasant Toronto Carnival experiences. I will not encourage the belittling of novice costume designers or band leaders. I won't support the accusations towards particular figure heads, or engage in verbal bacchanal about what so-and-so should have done, should have said, or who they might have hired. I can't endorse the blatant in-fighting, badmind, and mean-spirited internal competitions. It's too much. It hurts my soul. My Caribbean soul.

What I will do (as an obsessive over-thinker and writer) is attempt to somehow operationalize this process to the best of my ability. I want to see if this exercise will help me, or help others who genuinely have a passion and curiousity for this event and the culture that surrounds it. I hope this is helpful, in a constructive and progressive way.

I have heard on more than one occasion that this appears to be the beginning of "the end" of Toronto Carnival. That it doesn't feel that same. It's falling apart. "I'd rather go to Crop Over in Barbados," or "I'll be in Jamaica for Independence Day instead" are common statements about our late summer long weekend. "I'm done with playing mas in Toronto," is a phrase that is overheard far too often now. I'm not sure if this is because of different priorities, leadership challenges, or because our precious Carnival has never really established a firm or financially sound system on a long-term basis.

(Raise your hand if you're still waiting for payment, a refund, prize money, compensation, acknowledgement, a response to an email, or if you're curious about who actually won the Band of the Year title this year, last year, or in 2016, etc. and why. Touch your neighbour if you have a few really great ideas about the logistics of this Carnival, but have had difficulty finding a listening ear to communicate it to. Hold up a gunfinger if you miss hearing reggae and/or live bands on the road, and wonder where they went...)

Other than the Carnival insiders and enthusiasts, how many people in Toronto really know WHY we can't call Caribana "Caribana" anymore, why Scotiabank is no longer the title sponsor, or who Peeks is and what their role is in the changes that have occurred over the years?

There are so many questions, that it exhausts even the best of us. Carnival experts in Brazil, the UK, and Trinidad have established specialized University programs, research processes, conferences (big up to the folks at Leeds Beckett University in the UK), thriving financial enterprises, and secure socio-economic structures that continuously support and sustain the various processes associated with Carnival production.

It's not impossible.

There are so many artists, dancers, musicians, craft makers, culinary professionals, and other Caribbean cultural ambassadors who have been able to develop financially lucrative careers and businesses in the name of Carnival, around the world. We don't always give them the credit they deserve, but the system is huge...and everyone plays a very specific part in it. We need to learn from these established examples.

I really want to see this tradition live on in Toronto/Canada. I want to see it grow, and flourish. I want to see our community flourish within it. It is my fear that as the newer generation comes of age, that they will care more about Drake and them (...big up Drake, same way. I'm a true fan...) and less about the traditions of their parents, grandparents, etc. The Caribbean will be a far-reaching part of their daily cultural experience, and may inevitably just disappear. And then what?

Caribbean Carnival pedagogy is rare, but necessary. Our culture needs to sustain folks at the forefront of research and analysis to explore how we can make a positive difference in the Canadian iteration of this celebration: continuous and consistent progressive leadership to preserve the pure elements of Carnival that inspire, motivate, and bring so many people joy.

No strings attached.

In the midst of my Carnival musings and tabanca for days past, I created a visual representation of this system's accountability factor, which also led me to ask a few questions that I don't have any concrete answers to. Here is the diagram: "Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability"

And here are the questions:

Who are we, as connoisseurs and producers of Toronto Carnival in particular, accountable to?

Who is inevitably most responsible for the way Toronto Carnival operates overall, and how it is perceived locally and internationally, going forward?

In Toronto, what is the most important end-result from this complicated and work-intensive annual structure?

Who benefits, financially and socially, from this elaborate Toronto celebration...and why?

How do we elect our Toronto Carnival leaders, and are we accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf?

What does transparent leadership look like in our Toronto Carnival community, and who best exemplifies this (past or present)?

How do we make changes and improvements to Toronto Carnival that we can all vote on, agree upon, discuss diplomatically, and contribute to regardless of "links," affiliations, allegiances, nationality, or finances?

I will continue to anticipate an inclusive celebration, based on cultural hope and progress. In the name of that University-Avenue-Old-School-Caribana feeling. The feeling that we embraced in our youth, as a family affair, and a feeling that we deserve to continue to revel in...from near, or far.

This diagram, and these questions are coming strictly from a place of Caribbean cultural passion, and the belief that my beloved Caribbean people...deserve the best of everything we do and represent. We deserve a high standard of excellence in Carnival, and in everyday livity.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing;''s "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.


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