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Caribana founders not giving up on reclaiming festival

Caribana founders not giving up on reclaiming festival

Posted by Shanelle Weir on August 13, 2014

More than a million people were treated to a vibrant display of colour and sound at Toronto carnival’s grand parade on the August long weekend, which has been described as the “premier” Caribbean festival outside of Trinidad.

Eight years after losing control of the event, the group that ran the festival for nearly four decades wants it back.

“The fact that we’ve lost control is so sad because people in our community fight about this,” said Knia Singh, who chairs the Caribana Arts Group. “Let’s get it back and when we get it back let’s fix it from within,” said Singh of the festival, which is now called the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto.

The event was created in 1967 by the Caribbean Cultural Committee — which changed its name in 2005 to the Caribana Arts Group — as a centennial celebration.

By 2009, the festival was pouring more than $438 million into the local economy, according to a Ryerson study.

But by then the founding organization had already lost control, after being dogged for years by infighting, mismanagement and debt.

In 2006, the committee was told it couldn’t get a city grant because of an incomplete audit in 2004 and a second audit a year later that showed the misappropriation of $9,000. The Festival Management Committee, created as an arm’s-length organization by the city, took over and is still running the event. The bank signed on as a sponsor in 2006.

This doesn’t sit well with board members of the Caribana Arts Group.

“I see it as a bank festival, I don’t see it as a Caribbean festival,” says Henry Gomez, who joined the organization in the late ’80s. “It’s almost like a corporate party to which others are invited.

“But here is a festival we built over 45 years into one of the most successful branding stories in the last 50 years, one that is known internationally. Those things should be clearly and unequivocally tied to the black community.”

In 1966, a group of people in Toronto’s downtown Caribbean community decided to host an event to celebrate the country’s centennial. They included the late George Lowe, a land surveyor for the city; town planner Peter Marcelline; Dr. Alban Liverpool; lawyer Charles Roach; and dentist Maurice Bygrave. This group of friends formed what they called the Caribbean Cultural Committee.

With less than $50,000 raised through donations, the organization held the first Caribana event a year later. It was a cultural exhibition of art, music and poetry, complete with a parade. The world-renowned Esso Tripoli Orchestra, a steel-pan band sent by the Trinidadian government to Montreal’s Expo 67, kicked off the festival with a performance at Maple Leaf Gardens.

About 1,000 people took part in a parade from Varsity Stadium to the ferry docks.

“We were very proud of what we achieved in that first year,” says Bygrave, who was born in Jamaica in 1940 and came to Canada in 1954. “We shared our culture with Canadians and the festival garnered international attention.”

Year after year, the committee members used their own money to keep the festival afloat.

Bygrave says the dream back then was to see it generate scholarships for young people, build cultural centres and libraries, and a dedicated venue for Caribana. The founder wanted to see the island associations benefit and to see opportunities for children to learn the Trinidadian steel pan drums and to hear songs played on the radio by the Calypso monarch, the winner of the annual Calypso contest.

Bygrave calls the events of 2006 “unfortunate.”

“Some of it was our fault,” he says of the Caribbean Cultural Committee. “There was infighting. It’s hard to make a volunteer organization work.”

But “I don’t think the interests of our community are being served,” he says, adding that the Caribbean Cultural Committee would have been better positioned had it had the support that the Festival Management Committee enjoys.

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