What began as a centennial year project grew into an annual summer tradition.
Festival fever was in the air in 1967. Canada was in a celebratory mood during its centennial year and while most of the action was at Expo in Montreal, the federal government encouraged ethnic groups across the nation to showcase their contributions to a country starting to embrace its multicultural makeup. One such group was Toronto’s Caribbean community, who determined it was time to infuse the city with the colour and spirit of carnival. With less than a year of preparation, and long before there were any squabbles over management, financing, and name proprietorship, the first edition of Caribana was quickly embraced as a highlight of Toronto’s summer.
The first discussions for a West Indian–themed festival occurred in a downtown fire hall in late 1966. Organizers felt the one cultural expression found on every Caribbean island was the colourful tradition of carnival, with the pre-Lenten celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago serving as a model to follow. The August long weekend was ideal for a celebration due to its close approximation of tropical heat and low risk of rain. Centre Island was chosen as the focal point for activities, though this would affect how much profit the festival could make due to municipal regulations which restricted admission fees on park property to 50 cents or less. The festival’s name, Caribana, was devised to convey notions of Canada, the Caribbean, and all-around fun. Packed volunteer meetings dealt with issues like muting the raunchier aspects of carnival so as to not offend Toronto’s prudish tastes (answer: discourage explicit dancing and public drunkenness). By the end of July 1967, an official organizing body (the Caribbean Centennial Committee, later the Caribbean Cultural Committee) was in place and volunteers geared up to prepare events ranging from balls to a book exhibit spotlighting the works of Austin Clarke.
The first Caribana parade was scheduled to begin at Varsity Stadium at 9 a.m. sharp on Saturday, August 5, 1967. But as organizer Dr. J. Alban Liverpool told the Telegram, “West Indian time is different than North American time.” Ten floats and over 1,000 participants didn’t leave the stadium until 11:30 a.m. Mounted police assigned to guide the parade were occasionally shocked to find nobody behind them, as participants moved in circles instead of a straight line (several years passed before police accepted that they couldn’t pace the Caribana parade with the military precision of the Santa Claus Parade). The inaugural route went east on Bloor Street, south on Yonge Street, then west on Queen Street to the still-new City Hall. The designated route was a symbolic one for festival organizers, who wanted to demonstrate that a minority group with little political clout belonged on major city arteries, while the backdrop of City Hall would show that the community was an integral part of the new Canada. Several participants noted that although the parade attracted 50,000 spectators, the cold reserve Torontonians were known for led to one of the quietest carnival celebrations they had ever seen.
While a concert in Nathan Phillips Square followed the official greeting from Mayor William Dennison, many ferried over to Centre Island after the parade to take in the main festivities. During the opening weekend, Caribana officials estimated over 35,000 people checked out the festival’s music, food, and exhibitions. Among the praise that poured in was a glowing editorial in the Telegram:
Here’s a toast in a planter’s punch, or in pop if you prefer, to the West Indian Centennial Committee for the swingiest, gayest, jauntiest party in this old town all this week at Centre Island. “We appreciate Canada,” said Eric Lindsay, business manager of the Caribana Committee, and the West Indians of Toronto are singing it in the hauntingly beautiful rhythms of their islands and expressing it in their dances and in the radiant colours of their native costumes—a festival for which they have expended $40,000, no small feat for the smallest ethnic group in the city. “Thank you,” Toronto says for this delightful treat, and may Centre Island continue to pulse with the warm hearts of this city to enjoy it.
Even when disaster loomed, things went right for the first Caribana. Little seemed promising for the Trinidad and Tobago show brought in from Expo 67 on August 9. The troupe had no rest from their routine of four sold-out shows a day in Montreal. Rain half-an-hour before the main performances didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of an audience, huddled under umbrellas, who yelled “More! More!” to the warm-up steel band. When the lights short-circuited, the band played three more songs without missing a beat. A Caribana official mopping the stage received roaring applause when the lights came back on. The rest of the evening went off without a hitch.
By popular demand, Caribana was extended one day to end on August 13. The move was a wise one, as closing day crowds helped set a one-day record for ferry use. The day also included a surprise visit from Sir Clifford Campbell, the Governor General of Jamaica, who was on his way back to the Caribbean from Expo 67. As the festival wound down, Mayor Dennison indicated to festival organizers that he would support making Caribana an annual event.
Despite the difficulties which have threatened to derail the festival over the years, the core celebratory spirit that infused Caribana in 1967 should be on display during this year’s Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival, along with outfits that would shock the quiet, repressed, upstanding Torontonians who lined the route of that first parade. Perhaps one of the key goals the festival has aimed for throughout its history was best summed up by one of its early officials, businessman Trevor Clarke: “Integration is something that can only be effected when people can give as well as take. Culture could be the beginning of this. Unless I can project myself into your culture and you into mine, we are not equal. Caribana ’67 is showing people that it is more pleasant not to disregard us.”
Additional material from Caribana The Greatest Celebration by Cecil Foster (Toronto: One World, 1995); the August 8, 1967, August 10, 1967, and August 14, 1967 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 5, 1967, August 8, 1967, August 9, 1967, and August 11, 1967 editions of the Telegram.
This article originally ran on July 27, 2011.