As part of the celebrations for Canada’s Centennial, the Caribbean community in Toronto, Canada, hosted Caribana, a Caribbean carnival for the first time in 1967.
Since then, it has become a significant summertime event that brings in up to two million visitors annually. Although many still refer to the event as Caribana, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival has been the festival’s official name since 2015.
Naturally, to those who identify as Caribbean or have roots there, Caribana is a special holiday celebration not to be missed.
The history of Caribana - the Caribbean Carnival in Toronto
The three-week celebration of the arts draws inspiration primarily from Trinidad’s annual pre-Lenten Carnival. The Toronto Caribbean Carnival or Caribana showcases the many artistic traditions of the Caribbean by combining a variety of indigenous songs and instrumental music, dances, masquerades, and oral traditions.
It also features a variety of regional cuisines, delicacies and local customs. Since the late 1980s, the festival has seen the participation of several Caribbean islands, groups from Central and South America, Africa, and other parts of Canada. This has imbued the festival — now considered the largest celebration of Caribbean culture in North America — with a multicultural element that’s distinctly Canadian.
The main event of Caribana is the Grand Parade, where the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ showcase the Caribbean culture through their lavish costumes along with the rest of their masquerade ‘bands’ or groups. This is where locals get to jump up and play 'mas" the expression for dancing in costume alongside the trucks that carry the bands and DJs who make the carnival what it is - a music inspired celebration.
Cultural characteristics of the Caribbean
The Caribbean’s tropical environment has surely contributed to its people’s culture and way of life. The physical environment, topography, and climate influence the people’s music, architecture, attitudes, and customs.
Diversity is likely the most crucial concept when discussing the Caribbean culture and lifestyle as different ethnic groups, currencies, political ideologies, and many other elements comprise it. The cultures of the different Caribbean nations are a fusion of enduring aspects of colonialism and extensive influences from the various ethnic groups in the area, including East Indians and Africans.
The two largest tribes of Amerindians were the Tano and the Island Caribs — when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World, members of those tribes were already living in the Caribbean.
The Lesser Antilles islands were home to the Island Caribs, who are famous for their brutal warfare and cannibalism. They may have been warlike, fighting and driving out other tribes. However, early European propaganda frequently denigrated them and ignored their numerous successes and talents.
The Tano, an Arawak people, were the native inhabitants of the Caribbean and Florida. They occupied the majority of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico in the late 15th century.
European settlers from various nations arrived at the end of the 15th century. Irish military detainees also came at the same time. Then came numerous enslaved West Africans, which caused the population to increase significantly. In fact, during the 1518 to 1870 period, a large portion of the Caribbean population came from the transatlantic slave trade. Later on, indentured labourers from Indonesia, China, and India arrived in the middle of the 19th century.
So, if you look at it, this is why Caribbean culture is multifaceted — with every one of these ethnic groups contributing to its cultural diversity.
Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation
With Caribana gaining a wider audience since its inception, the question of Caribbean cultural appropriation and appreciation has entered the picture.
But what is cultural appropriation, and how is it different from cultural appreciation?
In simple terms, cultural appropriation is when a cultural artifact or element of a non-dominant culture is used or presented out of context. It involves using those items in a way that supports oppression or perpetuates stereotypes while also disregarding their original significance or without giving credit to their creator or without getting permission from the originators.
Prominent examples of cultural appropriation typically involve music, dance and fashion, such as:
A model wearing a Native American headdress on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk or worn by Cher as a prop for her song.
White musicians claiming to have invented rock and roll, which actually has roots in the Black community.
Celebrities like Bo Derek, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner sporting cornrows (a braided hairstyle traditionally worn by Black women) that became fashionable because white women ‘endorsed’ them.
White musicians or artists hijacking jazz from its Black roots.
People wearing Japanese, Egyptian or any other national costume that is irrelevant to them.
Conversely, cultural appreciation entails the respectful adoption of elements from another culture to exchange ideas and broaden one’s perspective.
Examples include learning martial arts from a teacher who is knowledgeable about the discipline from a cultural standpoint or consuming Indian cuisine at an authentic Indian eatery.
When done properly, cultural appreciation can lead to greater tolerance and understanding between cultures as well as innovative cross-cultural exchanges and combinations.
Of course, Caribana is a celebration of the rich multicultural traditions of the Caribbean, so almost everyone is welcome to participate.
Then again, a question remains: Will marketing it to white people cause it to lose its significance to its original audience?
Why we love Caribana
Despite concerns over the increasing commercialization of Toronto's Caribbean carnival — mainly about marketing it to non-Caribbean, predominantly white audiences — it remains a well-loved festival for the following reasons:
Caribbean culture is fun-loving and warm-spirited.
Soca and calypso music are made to make people dance.
You can dance with the opposite sex in an ‘inappropriate’ way and still be totally appropriate.
It is body reaffirming as revellers of all shapes and sizes take part.
Taking part in the traditions helps you appreciate other cultures more.
You will increase your exposure to all shades of Black folks from all over the Caribbean.
You will get some exercise and maybe a sunburn in a fun way.
You will let go of whatever is stressing you.
You will learn new dance moves and practice old ones.
It can teach you not to be afraid of crowds and help you tackle your fears, like claustrophobia.
Bonus: You may find your boyfriend or girlfriend if you’re single and looking ;)
In short, Caribana is a wonderful place open to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, appearance, size, skin colour, etc.
Toronto's Caribbean carnival is a wonderful, beautiful microcosm of what the world could be — if people were more exposed to diverse experiences, they would naturally become more accepting and appreciative. I consider Toronto to be in a unique position to set the example for the rest of the world in terms of the value of diversity and multiculturalism.
Spread the spirit of One Love
Traditionally, Caribana has been viewed as a safe space for Brown and Black bodies. However, it also embraces everyone, regardless of who or what they are — a practice that reflects the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Caribbean culture is very tolerant and inclusive because of their own immigrant histories and intermixing of generations working to create new homes amongst foreign lands.
If introducing DEI initiatives in your workplace or organization is part of your objectives, and you're interested in building an inclusive culture where everyone is appreciated, schedule a call with Tough Convos or participate in one of our upcoming events.