March 12th, 2014 by Iler Campbell

Caribana™, Toronto’s famous celebration of Caribbean culture, started in 1967 as a one-off event in honour of Canada’s centennial — “a West Indian salute to the people of Metropolitan Toronto,” in the words of founding chairman Samuel Cole. The week-long festival proved so popular that Toronto Mayor William Dennison urged organizers to make Caribana™ an annual event.

In the decades that followed, Caribana™ has become the largest festival in Canada. That first parade attracted some 50,000 people. By 1990, Caribana™ had grown to host over a million revellers a year, with people travelling from around the world to attend and contributions to the economy reaching hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet the festival was chronically underfunded. Organizers at times resorted to such extreme measures as mortgaging their homes to prop up the festival and were routinely forced to cover expenses with their personal credit cards before promised public funding arrived. Despite insufficient infrastructure and ‎year round funding, Caribana™ always generated income for the city and the province while the community and the organizers made the impossible happen with limited resources.

All this makes Caribana’s™ incredible success all the more remarkable — a testament to the strength of Toronto’s Caribbean community.

In 2006, the City of Toronto took funding for the festival away from the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), the community group that had created, organized, and operated Caribana™ from its inception, due to CCC’s inability to produce unqualified audits for 2004 and 2005. CCC and the City agreed to let a newly created organization, the Festival Management Committee (FMC), manage the festival for one year. FMC was to dissolve after this. In the meantime CCC restructured as the Caribana™ Arts Group (CAG) and formed a new constitution to better aid in the governance of the festival. The following year, however, the City once again awarded funding to FMC.

FMC continues to run the festival and since 2011 has renamed it. CAG continues to run its own festivals, however it no longer runs the major components of the festival once known as Caribana™. CAG is seeking to return control of the festival to the community which built it.

The FMC has no direct accountability to the community. CAG, like CCC before it, is  a grassroots community organization. Anyone can pay a small fee to join and participate in the running of its activities. Directors of the corporation are elected by the membership at large and earn no pay.

FMC has attempted to “professionalize” Caribana™. It seems that FMC came to run the festival due to a mistaken belief that Caribana’s™ struggles were the result of inexperienced volunteer board members who didn’t know how to run an event of its size.

In fact, FMC’s paid directors have also struggled to financially manage the festival. In 2011, with the festival under the management of the FMC, and using a new name, the federal government pulled all of its $400,000 in funding, Heritage Canada cut funding from $100,000 to $40,000 and, the province’s Celebrate Ontario, from which FMC had expected $300,000 stated that the festival “did not qualify.” With their budget reduced to $1.8 million from an expected $2.6 million, organizers were forced to scale-back plans and make 30% pay cuts for staff.

Those budget cuts all followed a study of the 2009 carnival that estimated that its contribution to the economy was in excess of $396 million. For comparison, an estimate pegged the 2009 Calgary Stampede’s contribution to Calgary’s economy at $172.4 million. In 2011 the Stampede received a provincial grant of $9.3 million, $5 million in federal funding to promote tourism and $55 million in federal and provincial money for infrastructure improvements. The City of Calgary provides a 100-year lease and support for the Stampede’s credit facilities.

In 1968, when the CCC was founded, organizers put the interests of the Caribbean community at the heart of their organizational mandate. The idea being that the group which brought such gifts to the city should also benefit from them. Their modest dream of opening a Caribbean-Canadian community centre remains unrealized.

CAG continues to run events under the Caribana™ name and embodying its spirit. These include the Caribana™ Flags and Colours Youth Festival (previously known as the Caribana™ Kiddies Carnival) which it has hosted for over a decade at Yorkgate Mall, seasonal brunches, Caribana™ on Ice, and other communal activities.

Iler Campbell has been assisting CAG in its efforts to return the festival to the community. We have initiated three trade mark infringement claims, two of which have so far settled. One established a licence agreement with the owners of; the other resulted in the transfer of to the ownership of CAG. The last piece of litigation is ongoing and in part seeks significant damages for trade mark infringement from Scotiabank and the FMC. It has been a pleasure to work with CAG representatives and to get to know the Caribbean Canadian community better.

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