When Caribana first premiered on Aug. 5, 1967, the city had never seen anything like it.
Newspaper reports described “hundreds of blacks” sashaying in the colourful procession down Yonge Street, their gyrating motions raising some eyebrows – but mostly enthusiasm – from the crowd of 50,000 who came out to the main festivities on Centre Island.
Forty-five years later, Caribana (now known as Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival) has exploded into a multi-day celebration of island culture that attracts more than a million people. And in that time, the carnival has shed much of its historical and cultural significance to become a street party where mas players let loose.
As the older generation passes the torch to the younger generation, some are nostalgic for the Caribana of yesteryear while others accept it as a natural evolution.
“It was never meant to be something that continued beyond 1967 ... it was a one-off gift from the Caribbean people for the centennial celebration of Canada,” says Jean Augustine, one of the founding members of Caribana.
She recalls dancing in the procession in a sleeveless dress of red, gold and green that ended a few inches above her knees – and caused quite a stir.
“You’ve got to remember this was Toronto the Good ... it was very staid and we, well, were not,” she says with a laugh.
Now the hemlines have inched higher and higher, while the tops have turned into variations of beaded bras and other state of undress.
“I smile when I think what would have happened if we had those costumes then,” she says.
Caribana traces its roots to Carnival, the last big splash before observant Christians settle down for a period of reflection and introspection during Lent. In the Caribbean islands, Carnival has an added historic significance as a masquerade in which freed slaves, or mas players, celebrated by dressing up as exaggerated versions of their former European masters.
That’s why Carnival costumes, especially in the early days of Caribana, were folkloric with grotesque features and often featured throwbacks to 19th-century aristocratic clothing, explains mas player Walter Elliott.
He came to Toronto in 1967 from Montreal to take part in the first Caribana parade.
“There used to be very specific themes for each band and the costumes all used to have meanings – like a sailor mas with a French beret to show these people who came on the ships from Europe,” Mr. Elliott says. “Nowadays, the young people don’t want too many clothes ... they want feathers and beads and lots of bling.”
Making these elaborate costumes requires artistry and technical skill, which Mr. Elliott says “many young people don’t seem to have the knack for.” He often goes back to Montreal to train younger generations of mas players how to make the elaborate costumes, bend the supporting wire frames and choose colour combinations.
His daughter Nneka Elliott’s earliest memory of celebrating Caribana in Toronto is as a nine-year-old child.
“I was wearing a purple and green outfit, and sitting on my dad’s shoulders at the parade,” she says. “My parents separated, so Caribana was always something I shared with just my dad.”
While Ms. Elliott says her father explained the historical significance of the carnival to her, “I don’t think that matters too much to young people [today]. It’s just a big party celebrating Caribbean culture.”
The themes of Carnival have become vaguer, making Ms. Elliott nostalgic and even more appreciative of those bands that attempt to have a clear message, even if it’s not traditional.
“Sometimes I look at the bands and say, ‘Yeah, I really see the underwater theme’ or, ‘That’s Serengeti,’” she says. “I wish we had more of that.”
Others, like Rita Cox, who started as a volunteer in the 1967 parade, say Caribana has taken a life of its own.
“Caribana has changed Toronto and vice versa,” she says. “When the city discovered it, it really showed everyone the meaning of multiculturalism for the first time. That’s something we take for granted now, but when it first started, there was no official policy of multiculturalism.”
Yvette Martin says the celebration has gone from poking fun at a certain culture to now being inclusive. She used to watch Caribana as a spectator with her parents, and as an event manager at the festival, she has signed up various non-Caribbean groups – such as a youth steelpan group of mostly white kids from Toronto’s Rosedale community – to participate.
“To me, the Caribbean carnival is an inclusion of all,” she says. “We have to honour the past, but we must also be passing something forward. Caribana will change ... I don’t know what it will be like in five or 10 years, but it will reflect the city, I think.”
Hundreds of extra police officers will be deployed during the Scotiabank Carribbean Carnival parade and festival. Roughly 450 officers will be added to patrol downtown during the long weekend with an additional 350 at the main parade on Saturday.
Caribana spokesman Stephen Weir said although the extra police presence was not something the festival requested, there are no objections to it.
For the first time, security staff will also search people sitting in the bleachers at the parade. Mr. Weir said the move wasn’t a reaction to gun violence at the festival last year or the recent shootings in Toronto, but is there to reassure the public that safety is a top priority for Caribana. He also added that the festival will rearrange its personal security teams schedule to beef up presence towards the end of the parade day when attendance is higher.
- Tamara Baluja