Celebrating Caribbean cultures and freedom: Toronto Caribbean Carnival
By: Vivian Nguyen
Published on: September 12 2022
Nearly one million people living in Canada are of Caribbean descent. Between 1996 and 2001, the population of Caribbean Canadians rose by 11 per cent, with most living in major urban cities like Toronto and Montréal. Refer to this link to learn more about the immigration history of Caribbean communities in Canada.
While every Caribbean country has its own culture and traditions, each shares a common history and similar celebrations. One way that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Canada celebrate their cultures is through “playing mas” at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
What is the Toronto Caribbean Carnival?
First established in 1967, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival is the largest festival of Caribbean culture in North America. It is inspired by Trinidad—the mother of all [Caribbean] festivals—and its annual pre-Lenten Carnival. Lent is the 40-days period before Easter—a holiday that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ—in the Christian calendar. The festival typically begins on the first Saturday of August to commemorate the Slavery Abolition Act. Therefore, Carnival is deeply rooted in Catholicism and colonialism.
The festival of freedom
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival consists of dancing, delicious food, parades, and more. The parade is organized into masquerade “bands,” each representing a different theme led by a “king” and “queen.” Each band is judged on its costumes, energy, and creativity.
Before diving into the costumes, food, and music at Carnival, here is a short list of some terms you need to know:
- Mas – short for masquerade
- Mas Band(s) – organized groups of parade participants who paid a designer to create their costumes.
- Calypso “tents” – shows
- “Fetes” – parties
- “Talk tents” – performers: storytellers, comedians, and other oral traditions
Mas players are parade participants in costume or, “playing mas.” These costumes involve bright vibrant colours, jewels, feathers, and flare. The most extravagant costumes are the ones with many embellishments and large feathers. Mas bands feature costumes created by Caribbean designers, each with a theme. To play mas, it is important to do research on the band’s history and represented theme.
As mentioned earlier, each Caribbean nation has its own traditions and cultures. This leads to different interpretations of the Carnival costume. For example, in the Dominican Republic, mas players usually wear attires that represent their African or Indigenous Taíno heritages.
Although some may argue that many Carnival costumes are “too revealing,” others find empowerment in them. Fashion psychologist and writer, Shakaila Forbes-Bell wrote, “My body was decorated as if it were a prize to be celebrated and being among other women who [dressed similarly] heighten[ed] that freeing feeling.”
Masqueraders are given a wristband to get free food. However, there are also food vendors at the event. According to a CP24 article, food means family to the festival’s street vendors. “It’s good for community,” says one of the interviewed vendors.
One of the most popular Caribbean dishes served at the festival is pelau— “a one-pot dish [from the West Indies] made of rice, meat and pigeon peas.” Other Caribbean dishes include (but are not limited to):
- Jambalaya – A mouth-watering Creole and Cajun rice dish with French, African, and Spanish influences. (It typically includes meat and vegetables mixed with rice.)
- Gumbo – A savoury soup-stew served over rice. It has African, American Indian, and European elements. The name comes from a Bantu word for the okra plant, a common ingredient in the dish. (The stew is usually shrimp, crab, or oyster based but the ingredients can be changed to taste and preference.)
- Spiced plantains are staples in Central and South American, Caribbean, African, and Southeast Asian cuisines.
- Doubles – A street food snack from Trinidad and Tobago with Indian roots. The filling is made of spiced chickpea curry or, channa, pickled green mango, and a tart tamarind sauce sandwiched in a fried flatbread called, bara. (Expect spices and hot peppers, too!)
You can also find corn on the cob and Jamaican patties!
When you pass by Carnival, you will most likely hear calypso—a style of music with origins in Trinidad and Tobago—and its evolved form, soca, a fusion of soul and calypso music with disco elements. In the Dominican Republic, bachata and merengue take the place of calypso music.
In addition to these genres, you can expect reggae (from Jamaica), tassa drumming (from Trinidadian East Indian traditions), cadence (from Haiti and Dominica), zuk (from Saint Lucia), Latin salsa, and steel pan drums. North American rap and R&B, as well as chutney music—Indian folk music mixed with calypso and soca—have also made it to the Carnival scene.
A brief history of enslavement in Canada
In Canada, slavery predates the arrival of Europeans among Indigenous communities. However, according to an article by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Europeans brought a different kind of slavery to North America. Unlike Indigenous people, Europeans saw enslaved people as property—to be owned, bought, and sold—not humans.
After the British conquest of New France in 1763, what is now known as “Canada” was called “British North America.” During this time, Black enslaved people were brought over to replace Indigenous enslaved people.
By the late 1700s, attitudes towards slavery started to change among the free population of British North America. The slave trade was abolished on March 25, 1807, and slavery itself was abolished throughout the British empire on Aug 1, 1834, thanks to the Slavery Abolition Act, 1833.
Hereafter, the British colonies—which included Canada—became a ‘safe haven’ for escaped enslaved peoples in the United States. Many of which escaped through the Underground Railroad, a secret network of people who wanted to abolish slavery at the time. The Underground Railroad was the largest anti-slavery movement in North America.
Additionally, the Slavery Abolition Act fostered a crucial cultural event: Emancipation Day. Celebrations were, and continue to be, held through parades, church services, speeches, and dances. Emancipation Day also offered a platform for acknowledging and challenging racism in Canada. Racism inhibits the rights and freedoms of Black Canadians.
Although the name was dropped in 2011, many still refer to Carnival as “Caribana.” The festival changed its official name to the “Toronto Caribbean Carnival” in 2015.
This year’s Toronto Caribbean Carnival happened from Thursday, July 28 to Monday, August 1. Most of the parade was free but tickets for nightlife events varied between $30 to $75. While the dates for 2023 are not yet confirmed, we can expect Caribana to take place during the first weekend of August (around August 5) to honour the Slavery Abolition Act, 1833.
Stay updated about future events and dates at caribanatoronto.com.
Lastly, because the event is filled with celebration and love, anyone can participate in the parade. Even non-Caribbean folks are welcomed to join!
The golden rule to remember is respect; stay educated on the festival’s history and respect its significance to the Black Caribbean community. Follow this rule and have fun!