"To assemble hundreds of thousands of Caribbeanites and give them nothing more than the bacchanalian side of the culture -- in a festival that brings in SO much money, very little of which accrues to blacks and West Indians -- indicates a truncated vision and skewed sense of cultural politics." - Clifton Joseph, 1989
The Caribana festival renamed Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival in 2011, but still affectionately called "Caribana" by the people, has undergone some structural changes within the last four years. Since the takeover by Scotiabank, one of the most noticeable transformation of the parade is the cultural stripping of the meaning and purpose of Caribbean carnivals.
Earl Lovelace's popular Caribbean novel The Dragon Can't Dance tells the story of a man who spends an entire year recreating his dream costume for carnival. The story takes place in Trinidad. The working class black community in the novel uses carnival as a backdrop to reflect the challenges in their lives and the wider struggles of Caribbean people with the legacies of colonialism and economic exploitation. In this way, the carnival provides the cultural forms and structures that give these oppressed people a measure of identity and establish their personhood. The novel also speaks to the tension between the people and the police who uphold the colonial social order.
It is within the context of this fictional piece that my attention was drawn to the ways in which Caribana has become a commodity of the state that has used its power to erode the cultural meaning and value of the festival.
Carnival, a cultural expression in the Americas is not just confined exclusively to lavishing costumes, dancing and street performances, which has been etched into our social consciousness. Carnival has its roots in the struggle of marginalized Africans to shape their cultural identity.
The Caribbean diaspora wherever they have settled in the world have successfully replicated this festival that has without a doubt helped to maintain the cultural bond between disaporic communities and the region of origin. The Notting Hill Carnival in Britain and New York's Labour Day Parade are just two of the many festivals making up this transnational link.
The struggle for the freedom to assert cultural expression and the right to self-determination are still evident today as Caribbean people in the Global North continue to resist the systems of power. Unsurprisingly, the attempt to deny collective assertion has reared its ugly head within these carnivals that are celebrated in Europe and North America. The ongoing debate of the over-policing of black people remains a major issue in the organizing of carnival. The inadequate level of state funding given to these celebrations is an ongoing problem. In England, there have been repeated calls by the local authority and the police to remove the Notting Hill Carnival from the streets and restrict the parade within a sports stadium.
In the case of Caribana in Toronto, educator and social activist Ajamu Nangwaya's 2010 article "Caribana, Exploitation and Disrespect of a Cultural Resource" thoroughly explains the huge amount of revenue that this annual festival generates for the City of Toronto compared to other Canadian festivals. The non-beneficiaries of this festival are the members of the black community who have been instrumental in the festival's creation and development.
Scotiabank's new changes have now added another affront to the parade as they water down the cultural significance of carnival to suit corporate sponsors and to supposedly better fit within Canada's mythical multiculturalism. The parade has been taken off the streets of Toronto. It is now confined mainly to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds. A fee is now required to view the costumes and "to jump up" with the masqueraders, which is definitely contrary to carnival's participatory approach.
This recent confinement of Caribana is vastly different from the Pride and St. Patrick Day parades where participants and onlookers freely roam and revel in the streets of Toronto. Both events particularly, the Pride parade takes the form of carnival where the street is used to subversively contest the dominant cultural values of respectability and heterosexuality.
The street celebration of carnivals symbolizes, to a large extent, freedom of expression. In his article "Globalization and Trinidad Carnival", scholar Keith Nurse points out that even though temporary, carnivals are a "subversive form of street theatre that challenged the Eurocentric sociocultural and political order." Additionally, the late cultural theorist Rex Nettleford connects overseas carnivals to a symbolic "quest for 'psychic, if not physical return' to an imagined ancestral past."
More significantly, after the emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1834, carnival took on more uniquely African characteristics. And while The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834, Emancipation Day is commonly observed in British Caribbean nations during the first week of August. Thus, activities celebrated during this time of the year often centres around African-oriented cultural traditions of the Caribbean and the forced migration of Africans to the Americas.
Despite the multicultural elements that is generally pushed by the media, the subversive nature of carnival links the Caribana parade with the freedom of enslaved Africans. Purposefully, the observation of Simcoe Day is directly associated with Emancipation Day, which is in honour of John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's first lieutenant governor and a strong proponent of the abolishment of slavery in Canada. However, the recent confinement of the parade to the CNE grounds and the continued moral panic surrounding Caribana has become the mythical freedom and the cultural unity that has been peddled to Torontonians and the world.
In the words of the famous reggae singer Bob Marley, the Caribbean community must "emancipate themselves from mental slavery" and reject this sanitized and contrived version of carnival. As an assertion of their freedom, the community must also say no to the over-commercialization of the festival that largely benefit corporations and governments' coffers. The economic interest and cultural self-determination of the community is marginalized in this process.