Caribana, North America’s largest street festival, wraps up this weekend with the spectacular parade along Lakeshore Boulevard. A celebration of Caribbean culture, but not just for those in the West Indian community, the parade brings more than a million revelers from all over the world to join the sensational Carnival of food, dance, and music. Read on to learn how Caribana came about, and what’s in store for this weekend.
Carnival is an annual bacchanalia of music, folklore and culture held throughout much of the West Indies and South America. The imagery Carnival is best known for is the mas tradition (for masquerade), where dancers wearing flamboyant and sometimes sculptural costumes participate in a high-energy, musical street panorama featuring calypso, reggae, soca, steel pan, African drumming, and sound system (DJ).
Residents of Trinidad and Tobago originated the Carnival tradition in the late 1700s as a biting mimicry of the British and French society balls, which the African slaves were obviously banned from seeing.
Toronto’s Caribana festival was officially created by Trinidadian Errol Payne and a group of expatriate pan-Caribbean professionals in 1967 and modeled after Caribbean Carnival events. 1967 was Canada’s Centennial year, which featured country-wide celebrations of history and diversity, so it was an appropriate time to establish this tribute to the contribution of Caribbean culture to our country’s cultural mosaic.
Originally, the parade began at Varsity Stadium and proceeded eastward and south down Yonge Street, but the growing crowds forced its relocation to the wider University Avenue in 1970. When Caribana outgrew downtown, the parade ended up at its current route along Lake Shore Boulevard, with satellite events at Olympic Island (now at Ontario Place).
Caribana events run for more than a week, culminating in the famous parade in the first weekend of August, coinciding with the Simcoe Day statutory holiday. The significance of the holiday has some gravity: Upper Canada Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe was the first to limit and then abolish slavery in the British Empire with a 1793 Act that saw slavery disappear by 1810 (the rest of the Empire followed with the Emancipation Act in 1834 after fifty years of debate, though this Act did not abolish servitude).
Enormous and colourful masquerade costumes are carefully crafted by special artisans at “mas camps” and are often so big and heavy that they are mounted to the dancer on a frame with wheels. Each costume takes many months and involves many craftspeople, but it’s the extravagant costumes for today’s King and Queen judging competition at Allan A. Lamport Stadium (7 p.m.; $27) that are carefully kept secret lest a competitor crib the designs.
An theme is chosen early on by the mas bands, and the actual designs begin while Toronto is still recovering from New Year’s celebrations in a frozen state. Organizers say that Caribana is the most competitive Carnival outside of Trinidad and Tobago, and with music, construction and costumes all tolled, the cost to run a mas band for Caribana is about $50,000, despite the grand prize only being $5,000. But for the mas band designers and participants, it’s hardly about the money.
The Main Events
Starting at 10 a.m. at the Princes’ Gate on the CNE grounds, the mammoth parade will snake along 3.6 kilometres of Lake Shore Boulevard until it reaches the Boulevard Club. The street party is Toronto’s most flamboyant next to Pride, and features revelers on foot and floats mounted to flat-bed trucks. The mas bands performing during the parade are actually in competition with each other for judging, which happens at a specific spot along the route.
Located walking-distance from the start of the parade, the Caribana Village at Ontario Place replaces the two-day party on Olympic Island from previous years. Instead, the Village (which is open now until August 6) will feature concerts by artists like Machel Montano (Saturday) and Sean Paul (Sunday), and mouth-watering cuisine from to Purple Sweeties and fried plantains to spicy jerk chicken.
Pan Alive, a showcase and competition featuring members of the Ontario Steelband Association, takes place tomorrow at Allan A. Lamport stadium starting at 7 p.m. (adults $20; children $10) Tomorrow will also see the swanky Caribana Ball starting at 7 p.m. at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel ($140).
Until August 6, the Distillery District is hosting COLOURblind—a 60-piece art exhibition under the theme of “Masks” showcasing local artists like Sonia Farquharson and Izzy Ohiro (Blue Dot Gallery).
Boosting The Economy
As Toronto’s largest single event tourist draw, the City estimates $300 million is pumped into local economy during Caribana. Caribana is also the only event that has increased American out-of-country tourism since September 11, and this year should bring an anticipated 10% increase in visitors from the United States, clocking-in at 300,000 Yanks crossing our border. The City contributes $430,000 to the cost (a 9% increase over last year) and the Province matches that amount. The feds chip-in $100,000 and corporate sponsors add an additional $235,000.
The best way for locals to get to Caribana is always the TTC. Extra streetcars and buses will be added to routes leading into Exhibition Place and along the Lake Shore West routes. Pick up a day pass for $8.50 that allows a group of six people (maximum two adults) to use the TTC on an unlimited basis all day.
• 29 Dufferin buses (Dufferin Station to Exhibition)
• 509 Harbourfront streetcars (Union Station to Exhibition)
• 511 Bathurst streetcars (Bathurst Station to Exhibition)
• Bathurst Station express buses to Exhibition
• Keele Station express buses to Parkside Drive/Lake Shore Boulevard
• Dundas West Station express buses to Queen Street/Roncesvalles Avenue
• Lansdowne Station express buses to Springhurst Avenue/Dunn Avenue (via Jameson Avenue)
For those driving (and partaking in the late night Yonge Street tailgate party displays), Lake Shore Boulevard from Strachan to Parkside will be closed starting Saturday at 1:30 a.m. until Sunday at 6 a.m.
Top photo by pixelsnap; middle left photo by Spirited_Away; middle right and bottom photo by sandela, all from the Torontoist Flickr pool.