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A Look At Caribana 2005: Memories Made and Memories Revisited

By Joni Bishop

Colorful costumes and colorful times in Canada

"Without question, carnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment. It had a ritualistic significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the celebration of freedom from slavery...Adopted by the Trinidad people it become a deeply meaningful anniversary of deliverance from the most hateful form of human bondage."

-Professor Errol Hill in The Trinidad Carnival, 1972.

I returned to Toronto this summer and attended Caribana with some of my closest friends. Here is my story of North America's largest street festival celebrating Caribbean culture.

 

Caribana is a two-week festival in Toronto Canada, and draws thousands of tourists from all parts of the United States, England, and the Caribbean.  As Caribana is in it's 38 year, it has steadily grown to over 1 million people gathering to witness this colorful and vibrant celebration of West Indian culture on Toronto's Lakeshore Blvd along Lake Ontario.

 

To become familiarized with the history or significance of Caribana we must start at the beginning.  Caribana is in essence a Carnival.  Carnivals began as a way to celebrate Lent or the harvest of a crop, and also served as a celebration for the emancipation of slavery (1834 in the Caribbean). 

 

Trinidad, the birthplace of Carnival, began with two key elements - the torch and drums.  The drums were very influential as they were the African way to not only dance, but to communicate. Often the French and British plantation owners forbade drumming - for obvious reasons - banning any communication they couldn't understand.  Originally, Carnival was a celebration of the underclass and faced scrutiny by the middle and upper class of Trinidad for fear that this celebration would provoke a riot. As it grew the government had no choice but to support and over the years it grew to be the largest in the world.  Today, Carnival is emulated all around the world - England, Brooklyn, Rio, Toronto - to name a few. 

  Author Joni Bishop and a participant

Caribana was organized in 1967 by a group of 10 West Indian migrants in Toronto.  Their dream was to create a monument of goodwill, a confirmation of Caribbean culture, and a statement of belonging to their adopted land, Canada. 

 

Today, Caribana brings in over $300 million each year and is the countries premier tourist attraction, yet only receives $25,000-$50,000 in funding from the Canadian government.  This is a source of extreme controversy for West Indian immigrants.

 

Caribana is an annual ritual for many West Indians who now live in the North, especially for the Guyanese and Trini's. Caribana is truly a celebration of culture and struggle proudly faced in the wake of adversity throughout our history in the West.

 

For myself, as a Guyanese who was born in Toronto, grew up in Guyana, and now living in America, Caribana has very special significance. 

 

I attended Caribana since I was 9 years old. Like every West Indian child, I remember waking up the day of the parade and practicing my jump up moves in the mirror while my mom got ready, and waiting for my uncle to pick us up in (what I remember to be) his ultra cool red sports car. 

 

You are filled with excitement and energy from the moment your eyes open to walking into the parade area.  The music saturates your eardrums with the infectious beats of soca, steel drums, and dancehall reggae. Then delicious aromas of Guyanese, Trini, and Jamaican foods fill the air, and roasted corn was a must.  And, despite the swarms of people that surrounded you - you knew where everyone came from, what island they were representing.  As you may know, we West Indian's are very proud of our heritage, and take every opportunity to display our flag - anywhere on our body!  This day was certainly no exception. 

An Orange Crush of Beauty

I remember the colorful, gigantic floats with adorned men and women leading as I sat on the bleachers with my mom and her friends cheering on the floats, and screaming in excitement as each Guyanese float strolled by.

 

20 years later, at 29 years old, I returned to Caribana with my entourage of closest friends.  As we planned the trip up to Toronto, mapping out the routes and stops along the 8-hour journey into Toronto the energy I experienced as a youngster filled me up.

 

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