By Lincoln DePradine
Organizers of the 2017 Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival, through their newly hired operations’ manager Gerard Weekes, had promised a no-holds-barred approach to fix the problems that have besieged the festival’s annual street parade.
Weekes expressed determination to eliminate the usual “huge gaps in the parade’’; to ensure all masquerade bands get on the road and are judged; and, at the same time, provide an opportunity for everyone to have a good time in a safe environment. In order for all of that to happen, Weekes insisted on an 8.30 a.m. start of the parade. “We have to start early,” Weekes said.
“If you want to party the night before and figure you can’t get up on time, then don’t sleep or get a quick nap,” added Weekes, who came to operations’ manager position with the Festival Management Committee (FMC) highly recommended. He’s been a masquerader, designer, choreographer, event manager, band leader, carnival administrator, and president of the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival Bands’ Association.
Other changes instituted this year were a reversal in the direction of the parade route, and the judging of bands in an area called “The Spectrum’’ on Princess Boulevard.
According to the rules laid down by the FMC for 2017, bands disrupting or impeding the parade flow faced penalties ranging from monetary fines, bans and relegation to the back of the parade route the following year.
The visuals of this year’s carnival bands were as impactful as ever; bold, colourful and beautiful. No amount of intermittent showers, and cool August winds, were able to dampen the spirit and enjoyment of the estimated 10,000 masqueraders and about one million spectators, who were able to witness the mas’ while standing on the streets or sitting in the stands at Exhibition Place.
The carnival, founded 50 years ago as Caribana, always has been fertile ground for politicians courting support from people from the Caribbean and Black communities of Ontario. This year, it was no different, especially with a looming provincial election.
Toronto Mayor John Tory was present at the opening ceremonies for Saturday’s parade. So, too, were Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her education minister Mitzie Hunter; as well as Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvath.
Some from the community – members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – also engaged in a little politicking themselves. They passed out small “Black Lives Matter” signs to participants.
But, for all the noble intentions of Weekes and his well-meaning plans, Saturday was an excruciating and a frustrating experience for many – spectators, masqueraders and bands. There were complaints of confusion about the route-change; spectators were angry at long lines and interminably extended waits to purchase tickets, even at 5 p.m.; steelbands were shepherded onto different routes; and at 6 p.m., at least one mas’ band still had not been judged.
Clearly, it seems that the FMC will have to return to the drawing board to find the fix for carnival; something that carnival organizers everywhere, including in the Caribbean, are trying to find.
What’s required by everyone appears to be compromise on all sides and a solution that will take into account the needs of the masquerader who has purchased his or her costume to play mas’; an understanding that without spectators, there is no carnival, and there is a symbiotic relationship between masquerader and spectator; and a recognition of the police mandate to maintain a safe and secured environment.
Additionally, we all must show more respect for carnival – that indescribable cultural being – that was born out of the need to “free up’’ ourselves, and remains resistant to attempts at packaging, strict control and rules that pertain to other types of festivals. In other words, we may be destined to fail if we continue trying to make carnival something it never was meant to be.