If the Freemasons really are a secret society bent on world domination, as some conspiracy-minded people suggest, then the Shriners—an offshoot organization that high-level Masons can elect to join—would have to be their most brilliant misdirection ploy. It’s hard to imagine the Masons getting up to much global dominance when their highest-ranking members spend so much time learning to drive tiny cars in formation, and when they single-handedly support a market in stabilizing gear for their goofy hats.
The Shriners (that is, Shriners International) are a fraternal organization known for their impressive charitable work, through which they fund twenty-two hospitals for children throughout the US, and in Montreal and Mexico City. But they’re perhaps even better known for the distinctive red velvet fezzes they wear to ceremonial functions, and for their love of driving miniature cars in parades.
(Nobody knows why Shriners drive little cars. It could be another of the many mysteries occluding the true nature of their ancient order. Or it could be that driving little cars down major urban thoroughfares is just mega sweet.)
Yesterday, University Avenue played host to a Shriner parade—but not just any Shriner parade. This particular one was in honour of the organization’s annual Imperial Council Session, which attracts Shriners from all over the organization’s jurisdiction, and takes place in a different city each year.
Transporting bulky equipment from far and wide isn’t easy, and so most of the fez-wearing marchers busy tuning up their xylophones and revving up their tiny engines in Queen’s Park before the parade were from places like Kingston, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay—though many Shriners had traveled from further away (the Philippines had sent a contingent). The Credit Valley chapter was driving what looked like converted riding mowers, painted black, with airbrushed flames on the sides. Another chapter had brought a squadron of green go-karts, with motors that had to be revved up with strings—again, like lawnmowers. The oldest members were having difficulty throwing their backs into the revving. It was a little hard to watch.
The Shriners at the parade were generally past middle-age, and most of them were white. It would be fair to say that this age level and racial makeup is pretty consistent throughout most of the organization (and certainly on its executive board). Despite this, Shriners adapt most of their iconography from a sort of Aladdin-level idea of Middle Eastern culture. The fez is one example, but there are others. Like, for instance, the Oshawa Shrine Club’s parade float, which consisted of about fifteen Shriners in Lawrence of Arabia–style robes and headdresses, playing minor-key music on recorders while one of them periodically banged a gong. A big banner on the side of the float said: “Oshawa Oriental Band.”
The Oriental Band was not the only instance of cultural appropriation on parade. One float was a giant viking boat. Another float was hillbilly themed. Getting nervous about these types of things is almost a reflex for urbanites (no doubt there are some Middle Easterners, Scandinavians and, um, Appalachian-Americans out there who’d take issue with such one-sided representation), but the Shriners carry off their performance with a kind of innocence. It’s hard to get mad at guys who blow off steam by, say, riding pocket motorcycles in figure-eights while wearing tall fezzes with long tassels, which the “Oshawa and District Mini-Bike Unit” did all the way down the parade route. A pair of teenage girls watching the parade spent close to an hour squealing and waving, like the Shriners were a bunch of adorable, wrinkly puppies, and Queen’s Park South was a shop window.
One Shriner, whose embroidered shirt said “Paul,” had become separated from the Kingston contingent he’d arrived with, and was waiting by the side of the parade route, hoping to catch a glimpse of his unit. He explained to us that Shriners buy most of their ceremonial clothing and accessories from the catalogues of a few companies that specialize in Masonic regalia. As for the fezzes: “They’re actually quite expensive, you know,” he said. “Because they’re not mass-produced in China.”
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.