Caribana Has Room to Improve
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Caribana Has Room to Improve

The festival has changed, but it's still one way I can still connect to my roots.

I still remember the sound of vibrant Caribbean steel drums waking me up in the evening. It signalled that time of the year again: an opportunity for my family and I to participate in a celebration of our culture. It was another year of festivities that gathered millions from different countries to embrace our roots. One parade brought us all together: Caribana.

The Toronto Caribbean Carnival, better known as Caribana, is an annual summer festival that has been held since 1967. The parade features a wide range of indigenous songs, instrumental music, dances, colourful costumes, and traditional food. And folks from all regions come out at the festival, including participation from groups of South and Central America and Africa.

Caribana was always more than a party for me. As a young Black-Canadian woman, I’ve struggled to connect with my Haïtian heritage—I was born in Canada, and I’ve had trouble understanding my family’s experiences outside of North America. Hearing stories about back home from my parents and relatives wasn’t enough. I wanted to indulge in the culture—and the parade was my way in. Once I got a taste of what I was in for, I was hooked. We went back every year and it became our tradition.

But as I got older, I stopped attending.

What was meant as a reunion and celebration of our roots received major backlash for its “aggressive” dancing and violence that would carry through the festivities’ after-parties. For me, this stripped away the festival’s cultural meaning, emphasizing all the wrong things about it.

Moreover, even with these negative reports about the festival, the City still found a way to make profit off it. Spectators were asked to pay a $20 fee to access the inside of the parade. Those looking to attend for free were locked away behind barriers. In 2008, Caribana received corporate sponsorship from Scotiabank; along with the supporting funds came a name change to the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Festival. One year later, the situation worsened when the City erected six- to eight-foot fences along the parade route. Attendees were baffled—we were held back from our own culture.

Behind the fence at Caribana. Photo by Jennifer Joseph.

Behind the fence at Caribana. Photo by Jennifer Joseph.

That year, I stopped attending the festival altogether. The barriers pushed me further away from the connection to my roots that I sought.

But in 2015, I decided to give Caribana another shot. I ended my six-year strike and headed to the parade grounds—but nothing felt familiar. I was a stranger in my own city and within my own culture. The memories I built with my family disappeared. It wasn’t the same. While I expected the tall fences, I tried to brush them off, telling myself that nothing could get in my way of the parade. But I couldn’t overlook them. I felt I was no longer a spectator at this point—I was a caged animal blocked off from the other part of my identity.

I questioned where the justice was in all of this as I stood in between a family with young kids and seniors. There was no love linking the spectators to the participants—their energy had faded. With a crowd that felt excluded, there could only be one resolution. As some spectators tackled the fences to find an opening, I felt empathy for them. I understood what they were doing was wrong but I couldn’t look away. A dozen people jumped through the hole that was created, finding freedom on the other side of the fence. Seeing their joy and ability to go above in beyond to be included with what they affiliated as their culture brought me happiness from the other side of the fence.

Caribana takes place again this weekend. The fences have now dropped back to four feet. Scotiabank is no longer a sponsor. Changes are slowly being made.

With last year’s disappointment, it may be hard to come up from a fall. But I feel obliged to show face and support my brothers and sisters. We are all ready for “di road”—barriers notwithstanding.