This Tuesday, Pride Toronto is having its annual general meeting, and it’s sure to be a fiery one. Last week, the organization decided by just two votes to refrain from inviting uniformed police to participate in this year’s parade. Tension over the issue hasn’t lessened since Black Lives Matter Toronto halted the event with a list of demands in 2016. Barring uniformed officers was only one of them, but it’s the one the whole city has fixated on.
After two parades with no cops, Pride Toronto announced last fall that it would allow the Toronto Police Service to apply to take part in 2019. Some members of Pride and Toronto’s LGBTQ population at large were furious at not having participated in the decision and immediately called for the organization’s board to resign.
This was the backdrop of last week’s vote, the tight margin of which executive director Olivia Nuamah told the Globe indicates “a real divide.” No kidding.
In Toronto and around the world, Pride has always been both a party and a political event. It’s a chance for LGBTQ people to enjoy the communities they’ve built, while demanding an end to the injustice and violence that makes such a celebration so fragile. And decades before this current struggle, there were worries that revelry was overshadowing the meatier stuff.
As far back as 1987, participants tried to limit the size of corporate signs in Toronto’s event. In 1996, a group of lesbians organized the Dyke March to protest what they saw as Pride’s focus on gay men. A similar sense of exclusion was cited by the founders of the Trans March, which kicked off in 2009. Those events are now run by the non-profit Pride Toronto, which angered parts of both communities by trying to trademark the names in 2015.
All of this was roiling before the whole police thing. By the way, Pride Toronto is about $700,000 in debt.
The whole situation looks very familiar: Caribana, anyone? The city’s annual celebration of Caribbean culture also had political roots, originating in the 1950s when the Canadian Negro Women’s Association held scholarship fundraisers called Calypso Carnivals.
Two years ago, Antigua-born poet Clifton Joseph outlined the festival’s trajectory since then. In 1967, a splashy parade was held to mark Canada’s centennial. Four years later, black students at the University of Toronto boycotted the event, criticizing organizers for neglecting deeper goals, such as immigrant integration and a black community centre.
Expenses increased and debts piled up amid internal struggles over direction. In 1996, the City of Toronto created an oversight group, the Festival Management Committee, which sold naming rights to Scotiabank in 2010. The owners of the Caribana trademark balked and sued for rights to the name. They won those but lost the parade, as the FMC’s participation contract bans floats and mas bands from taking part in competing events.
Today, the renamed Caribbean Carnival (this year, the name was bought by an app called Peeks) is a huge party, bringing in tens of millions of dollars. Politically, it seems fully declawed, even as many black and Caribbean Torontonians try to bring attention to issues such as foster care, immigration detention and, yes, interactions with police – including at the parade itself.
It’s all an ominous precedent to the current situation at Pride Toronto, but other options exist. From New York to Glasgow to Brisbane, police involvement in Pride is contentious, and last year, Auckland, New Zealand, saw an exodus of sponsors after disinviting uniformed officers.
Organizers turned to crowdfunding, raising about NZD$30,000 from individual donors. This year’s plan is to have a Pride Walk instead of a parade, with a smaller budget and fewer floats. "Given the intense conversations we have been having in our community, I think that it is right that we reconsider what these big events of our festival look like,” festival coordinator Joel Walsham told a local reporter.
Money will be a hot topic at Pride Toronto’s AGM. Ms. Nuamah has worried publicly about sponsorship, and a group of city councillors already attempted to pull funding over TPS involvement in 2017. The organization isn’t wrong to worry that the longer uniformed police are unwelcome, the harder it will be to throw a large, lavish festival.
That might already be impossible – dismal finances have already brought a vow to reduce the number of stages this year from 14 to three. If party invitations are being culled anyway, Pride Toronto should consider who its real friends are, and who’s just in it for the loot bags.