Historicist: The Caravan is on its Way
Torontonians travel the world—without leaving the city borders.
“Toronto was once a mausoleum where nothing moved on Sunday but clergymen’s lips,” wrote the Toronto Star‘s Trent Frayne in 1974. However, in the years since the Second World War, Frayne observed, immigrants from many different countries had relocated to Toronto and “all of a sudden, the town’s drab monotone was overlaid by a merge of colour and tone and style and language that produced a whole new ambience.” Frayne’s article was published on the weekend before Canada Day, and was prompted by the opening of the annual Metro International Caravan, Toronto’s popular, week-long festival which showcased the food, music, and other cultural traditions of Toronto’s immigrant population.
While the precise programming varied from year to year, the basic structure of Caravan generally stayed the same: During the final week of June, cultural organizations from across Toronto set up temporary pavilions in banquet halls, church basements, and community centres all around the city. Visitors purchased a Caravan “passport,” which entitled them to visit any and all of the participating pavilions. (The passports were stamped upon admission.) Each pavilion usually took the name of a city from the affiliated nation or geographic region; visitors would be greeted by an honorary “mayor” or “princess,” a volunteer from the host organization chosen to serve as a cultural ambassador. Venues usually featured traditional decor, historical exhibits, crafts, or other displays selected by the hosting cultural association. The main attractions, though, were the traditional food and drink available for sale, and the live entertainment, usually in the form of traditional folk musicians and dancers. During its peak years, Caravan offered special buses to better connect visitors between distant pavilions. As the Toronto Star put it one year, “you can tour the world next week without leaving Metro.”
The origins of Caravan go back to 1964, when former Toronto Telegram reporter Leon Kossar, a second-generation Canadian of Ukrainian descent, co-founded the Community Folk Art Council. That year, the council produced a folk music event called “Nationbuilders” for the CNE, described in the Globe and Mail as “a panoramic view of the cultural contributions of the numerous ethnic groups that help make up Canada’s population.” Nationbuilders was repeated in subsequent years, including a special 1967 version for Canada’s centennial.
(Above: Leon Kossar. Toronto Star, April 30, 1978.)
In 1968, the City gave the Community Folk Art Council a reported budget of $14,000 to present “Canadiana Week,” a week-long programme of music representing various Toronto cultural groups at Nathan Phillips Square, as the lead-up to the city’s celebration of Dominion Day. Torontonians were entertained by, amongst many other performers, French, Greek, and Japanese choirs, a German light opera company, and dance groups from Croatia, Hungary, “and a band of high-leaping Cossacks.” In the Globe and Mail, Kossar promised “a complete cross-section of the city’s ethnic groups to provide as much spectacle and hoopla as possible every minute of every day.” In the same article, Kossar said that “if everything goes well, next year we may extend the celebrations to a city-wide, summer-long festival.”
When the Community Folk Art Council reconvened after Canadiana Week to discuss programming ideas for 1969, Leon Kossar’s wife, Zena, suggested incorporating the traditional foods of the represented immigrant groups. The result was Caravan, an annual summer festival which proved to be far more successful than anyone could have expected.
Any cultural group that wished to participate in Caravan was permitted to do so, provided that they met certain conditions. “Only nonprofit groups are accepted,” noted a 1980 Washington Post article, “and each must guarantee sufficient staff to attend to the crowds, plus meet the codes of city fire, health and traffic departments. Maintaining a pavilion is costly, because each is required to provide arts displays, decorations, music, a show, and food…While some pavilions lose money, successful ones have been known to clear $10,000 from the nine-day effort.”
Thirty groups participated at the first Metro International Caravan in 1969. For $2, Torontonians could gain access to such “cities” as Riga on College Street, Trinidad on Davenport, Hong Kong on Cecil Street, and Ohrid-Sofia, the shared Macedonian/Bulgarian pavilion on Sackville Street. The Toronto Telegram reported that an estimated 45,000 attended Caravan on its opening night alone, with lineups past midnight at several locations, including at the Vienna and Madrid pavilions on Beverley Street, and the Amsterdam and Shannon pavilions at Scarborough Centennial Arena.
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have attended the six-day festival, which concluded with a massive concert outside City Hall. “Bay Street was transformed into a dance floor as Torontonians danced to the infectious calypso rhythms of a West Indian steel band,” reported the Toronto Telegram. Another stage was set up in Nathan Phillips Square itself where, according to the Globe and Mail, “in front of the bandstand, to the left of the Archer, several hundred middle-aged people were square dancing.” Younger people, “under the lights in the pool, splashing about in reels of a dozen, [danced] as close to the music’s time as they could manage in the shin-deep water. When the folk music paused, the hundred teenagers, all of them soaking wet, formed a circle and sang ‘O Canada,’ their hands held up in the V for Victory sign.”
John Fisher, credited in the Globe and Mail as the chairman of Caravan, noted that such an event would never have happened in Toronto in earlier years. “I don’t know whether the enthusiasm of Torontonians dates from Expo 67 or not, but this city has changed, and changed for the better.” Mayor William Dennison proclaimed it “undoubtedly the greatest celebration in Canadian history.” Readers wrote to the Toronto newspapers with effusive praise for Caravan, with one going so far as to suggest that it should last for the duration of the summer.
Prior to the second Caravan the next year, Leon Kossar told the Globe that the organizers were expecting 250,000 people to attend; by the end of the 1970 festival, no fewer than 400,000 people had visited the pavilions. Newspaper columnists visited some of the venues on opening night and offered their recommendations to readers. Amongst other sites, both the Telegram and the Globe and Mail enthusiastically recommended the Toronto pavilion at 210 Beverley Street, then home to the Canadian Indian Centre of Toronto (now the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, located on Spadina Road), where moose and beaver meat were on the menu.
The success of Caravan appears to have been a pleasant surprise for all of Toronto. “Some of Toronto’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestants may go for months without ever crossing the border of their territory, which runs approximately down Spadina Avenue,” wrote the Globe and Mail‘s Edmond Boyd in 1969. “Normally they have no interest in venturing into the other Toronto where the so-called ethnic communities live…[but] this WASP found it a privilege to be admitted to these other, little-known societies.”
“We have,” wrote Hartley Steward for Toronto Life in 1971, “been treated to the rare sight of practically all the city’s ethnic groups opening their magnificently varied communities to the rest of Toronto in a fashion sometimes as intimate as a dinner party, sometimes as grand as a fancy ball. And it has seen good old Upper Canada College Toronto, timidly at first and finally with European abandon, break through the language and cultural barriers to sing, dance, dine, and drink with the other half of the city.” The same article noted that Caravan “works to such an extent that…there are those who are predicting it will eventually be one of the major carnivals in North America—right up there with Mardi Gras.”
(Above: Preparations at the Tokyo pavilion in 1978. Globe and Mail, June 21, 1978.)
The momentum grew. By the mid-1970s, Caravan regularly featured more than 50 pavilions and was drawing close to two million visits each year. “We know Caravan is successful because it’s being copied,” Leon Kossar told the Star in 1972. “Both Winnipeg and Kingston, Ont., have had their own folk festivals. And interest has been shown by cities in the U.S. like Washington, D.C., Miami, Denver, and New York Busloads of people are coming in from Detroit and Buffalo.”
Retrospectives of Caravan frequently note that the festival was the subject of articles in various American outlets, including Time and National Geographic. In 1974, the New York Times used Caravan as a lens through which to describe Toronto’s changing demographics, and the Washington Post produced an article on Caravan in 1980.
While much of the local mainstream press coverage of Caravan came from Toronto’s white, Anglo-Saxon journalists, it is clear that Caravan was also a popular event with many members of the city’s immigrant communities, and not just those who volunteered at the pavilions. Many articles describe scenes at Caravan where members of different cultural groups mingled and enjoyed each other’s food and music. During the 1970 Caravan, the Globe wrote that “many of the visitors were in family groups, some dressed in national costumes themselves thought not connected with any pavilion. ‘This helps get rid of those stereotypes you sometimes get from other countries,’ a German said over the din of the Austrian oom-pah-pah band. ‘I’m going to go to Manila because the food was great there last year,’ he admitted.”
Also in 1970, the Star‘s Michael Gorden wrote that “more than 150 years of bitter European history were forgotten last night when Poles and Austrians waltzed together at the Viennese pavilion of Metro International Caravan.” Joseph Roll, acting as “mayor” of the Polish Zakopane pavilion, danced with the Austrian “princess,” and spoke in fond terms of his new Austrian friends, proclaiming that “the Austrians are soft, gentle people, and they love music like we do.” When asked about the historical tensions between the two countries, Franz Schmidt, one of the organizers of the Vienna pavilion, said “That’s history…We may still have our political differences (Austria is an allied nation, Poland a member of the Communist bloc), but relations between the two countries are good. Anyway, in Canada we are all Canadians.”
(Above: Helen Benedek dances with Walter Schmidka at the Vienna pavilion. Toronto Star, June 30, 1970. Photo by Frank Lennon.)
“Many of the immigrants who came here after the Second World War had lost everything, including for a time, their sense of belonging,” Zena Kossar told the Globe and Mail in 1985. “For the older people, especially, I like to think Caravan gives them a way to recapture the world they knew when they were young.”
“Caravan is an urban welcome mat for new immigrants and a chance for neighbours to get to know each other,” wrote the Washington Post in its 1980 Caravan feature. “It is also an informal political network; thus, local politicians make the rounds to bid for the ethnic vote.” Ontario premiers and Toronto’s mayors were regular attendees; David Crombie was a particularly vocal champion of Caravan. Both Pierre Trudeau and Robert Stanfield visited Caravan on the campaign trail in 1972. In 1987, Ontario Premier David Peterson spent an evening at Caravan, visiting New Delhi, Valletta, Al Khaima, and Skopje. According to the Star‘s Damien Cox, while at New Delhi, Peterson “watched three young girls performing traditional Punjabi dances before being asked to participate in a demonstration of how to wear the traditional Sikh turban.”
(Above: David Peterson wears an orange turban with help from Harbhajan Singh Kahlon. In fairness to both Damien Cox and the headline writer, Peterson himself came up with “David Peter-Singh.” Toronto Star, June 25, 1987.)
Caravan appears to have remained a popular attraction through the 1980s, although the local newspaper coverage began to taper off by the early 1990s. Many of the Globe and Star Caravan features from this era include interviews with Leon and Zena Kossar, who had remained the driving forces behind Caravan, and are tinged with nostalgia for the festival’s heyday in the late 1970s. By this time, many of the Caravan-related articles also included criticism from the festival’s detractors. Although different cultural groups participated from year to year, some hinted that Caravan had grown stale, and was essentially the same every year. In one 1994 Star article, reporter Dale Anne Freed quoted Lillian Petroff of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, who suggested that Caravan “commercializes and trivializes ethnicity,” and creates “the perception of ethnic groups as merely people who don costumes and dance.”
As early as 1977, the Globe and Mail‘s Dick Beddoes suggested that Caravan did not entice him, as living close to downtown meant that he could sample international cuisine any day of the year. “Caravan isn’t for inner-city Torontonians, who are blessed with an abundance of cosmopolitan cafes offering superior international fodder at cheaper prices,” Beddoes wrote. “Caravan is for Scarborites and Etobicroakians whose borough is one vast gastronomic wasteland of fast-fry hamburger joints from the Humber River to Etobicoke Creek.”
A 2002 report from the City’s Economic Development and Parks Committee indicates that the number of pavilions dropped to 31 in 1997, and then to “13 full-time and two part-time pavilions” in 2001, with attendance dropping accordingly. Leon Kossar died in 2001, and Zena Kossar retired from her Caravan duties soon afterwards. Despite attempts by others to keep Caravan going, the final blow appears to have been the summer of 2003, when the SARS crisis precipitated a dramatic drop in Toronto’s summer tourism figures, plunging the festival into considerable debt. But “by 2004,” writes Arlene Chan in The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle, “Caravan had outlived its purpose. As Toronto mayor David Crombie remarked: ‘What really happened to Caravan, was that the city became Caravan.’ Diversity was everywhere, every day.” Although there were subsequent attempts to revive Caravan, it disappeared from the Toronto summer schedule a short while later.
“Caravan is,” wrote Trent Frayne in his 1974 Star article, “a concentrate of all nationalities that make Metro hum, people doing their native thing in the community halls and churches of their neighbourhoods…Through annual celebrations like Caravan, there is dancing in the streets and Toronto, once the synonym for conservatism in all its forms—drinking, architecture, clothes, religion, shops, and dining—has gradually emerged from this drab cauldron to something very close to a city of infinite charm.”
Additional material from: Paul A. Bramadat, Shows, Selves, and Solidarity: Ethnic Identity and Cultural Spectacles in Canada, commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Ethnocultural, Racial, Religious, and Linguistic Diversity and Identity Seminar, Halifax, Nova Scotia (November 1–2, 2001); Arlene Chan, The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle (Dundurn, 2011: Toronto); Glenn Cochrane, Glenn Cochrane’s Toronto: Tales of the City (ECW Press, 2005: Toronto); The Globe and Mail (August 29, September 9, 1964; March 18, August 19, 1967; June 29, July 1, 1968; May 30, June 25, June 26, July 2, July 3, July 5, 1969; June 17, June 20, June 25, July 2, 1970; July 3, 1972; June 20, June 26, July 2, 1974; July 5, 1975; June 20, 1977; June 10, June 21, 1978; June 16, 1982; June 27, 1985; May 29, 1987; May 3, 1991; June 2, 2000; August 7, 2001; October 21, 2010); The New York Times (June 29, 1974); Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada (Summer 1993; Fall 1997); Alexander Ross, Toronto Guidebook, Revised Edition (Greey de Pencier, 1979: Toronto); The Toronto Star (August 31, 1963; September 5, 1964; July 5, August 24, 1968; May 29, June 19, June 27, June 28, June 30, 1969; June 27, June 30, 1970; June 23, 1971; June 13, June 17, June 24, July 3, 1972; June 23, 1973; June 20, June 22, 1974; April 30, June 10, 1978; June 12, August 19, August 25, 1979; May 23, June 23, 1981; June 21, 1982; July 7, 1984; May 21, 1985; June 7, June 25, 1987; June 19, 1988; June 16, 1989; June 9, June 17, 1993; June 16, 1994; June 11, June 14, 1998; June 22, 2000; August 8, 2001; June 28, June 29, 2005); The Toronto Telegram (June 21, June 27, July 2, 1969; June 25, 1970; June 25, June 26, 1971); Toronto Life (June 1970; June 1971); Anne Vermeyden, The Popularization of Belly Dance in Toronto, Canada (1950–1990): Hybridization and Uneven Exchange, Ph.D. Thesis (History, University of Guelph, 2017); The Washington Post (June 1, 1980).
Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.