White people are more afraid of Carnival than coronavirus
Bandleaders and organizers discuss how the annual festival can empower itself and take a stand against anti-Black racism
By Radheyan Simonpillai
Jul 29, 2020
Omotayo Damilola is dressed in SugaCayne Mas's Bloodline costume. (Photos by Samuel Engelking)
White people are more afraid of Carnival than coronavirus.
They’re more willing to crowd Trinity Bellwoods Park during a pandemic than join the crowds at Lake Shore Boulevard during the colourful festivities celebrating Caribbean culture. They’re eager to escape to the cottage to get away from the city during Carnival weekend.
We hear how they’re avoiding the parade because people get shot, apparently. And it’s not just people that dip when Carnival is in town. Corporate sponsors go MIA too.
Year after year, Toronto Caribbean Carnival copes with anti-Black racism, and so do the festivities that surround it.
In 2018, City of Vaughan bylaw officers stormed in like BBQ Becky to quickly shut down the annual soca fete Carnival Kingdom. They were responding to noise complaints from residents expressing shock that “Caribana Weekend is taking place at Improve Canada.”
Yup, they thought the entire Carnival was in their backyard.
COVID-19 has forced the Toronto Caribbean Carnival online this year. A virtual road replaces the Grande Parade, with DJs and artists from across the globe streaming performances to your screens. Event promoters, like SOS Fest Inc. who host Carnival Kingdom, are sitting this year out. But bandleaders and organizers are taking the opportunity to tell NOW that during this widespread racial reckoning ignited by George Floyd’s tragic murder, Carnival culture matters more than ever.
“At its heart it was a protest,” says mas band SugaCayne’s co-bandleader Candice Dixon, referring back to Carnival’s history in Trinidad as a celebration of freedom after emancipation from slavery.
“That’s what I think is being lost and could be a stronger message right now,” adds her husband and co-bandleader Dwayne Dixon. “The feathers, beads, exposed skin and revelry is all great – but we’re doing it for a reason.”
SugaCayne is a rookie mas band meant to hit the road for the first time this year. Two years ago, the Dixons were section leaders with another new band, Venom, making innovative costumes using 3D printing. Because the road has gone virtual this year, many bands are rolling over their designs until next year. But SugaCayne is putting their designs – as well as their research and inspirations – on display online. Their reason: these things are relevant now and worth discussing.
SugaCayne’s Bloodline costume takes its colours from political activist and leader Marcus Garvey’s flag. The costume pays homage to him by incorporating excerpts from his Negro World newspaper. It’s also forging a connection to Africa.
“We, as the children of the lost tribe, the children of the enslaved, have this broken connection to Africa,” says Candice Dixon, as she describes the purpose behind her intricately beaded costumes. “We always have one or two costumes dedicated to the motherland. This is why we do Carnival to begin with. It’s about freedom, emancipation and celebration.”
Toronto Carnival in protest
Toronto Carnival was born at a time of political unrest. Caribana, as it was once called, was intended as a gift to Canada from the Caribbean community for the country’s centennial in 1967. At the same time, African-Americans were fighting for their civil rights – Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated a year later – and countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana were just gaining independence from the British. “There was a climate,” says Candice Dixon about that period. “There was a lot happening for Black people all over the world.”
The Dixons want to see Toronto’s Carnival set the fete aside this year and home in on its history and purpose to channel the spirit it was born from for the current climate.
Atlantic Mas bandleader Akil Heywood latched onto that protest spirit of Carnival when he organized a rally on July 4. Demonstrators calling for police reform marched to soca, reggae and calypso, which Heywood reminds me is very political music.
“We as a people have a history of speaking out against racism,” says Heywood.
He brings up the 1969 Sir George Williams affair, when West Indian students protested discrimination at the Montreal University that is now part of Concordia by occupying the computer lab. The protest turned violent when riot police took action.
“But we also have a history of not speaking out enough.”
Both Heywood and Celena Seusahai – a young band leader working alongside her father, Dexter, at Tribal – spoke to NOW about an older generation that isn’t keen on protests or ruffling any feathers politically. “You can say they’re very conservative,” says Seusahai, pointing out the generational gap that sets her, Heywood, Dream Carnival’s Brittany Dardaine and the Dixons apart. “We might have a more open mindset; hearing different views, ideas and inclusivities.”
But Heywood also says the older generation can be resilient to a fault.
“Culturally, our parents have been trained to take it just to get by,” Heywood explains, attributing their fear of speaking out to an internalization of systemic racism. “They don’t want to get in trouble or cause it. They’ll accept a lot of things that are prejudiced and racist because they don’t want to [negatively] affect theirs kids’ lives here in this country.”
Heywood also recognizes that everyone has their own way of resisting racism. For some, just being present as a POC, whether it’s at the job or in public spaces or at a Carnival celebration, can be a form of protest.
Vaughan vs. SOS Fest
On June 29, Vaughan’s mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua and members from council announced that they would be giving the keys to the city to Honourable Jean Augustine, Canada’s first female African-Canadian member of parliament and cabinet minister.
In response to NOW’s request for an interview with the mayor, an email from the City of Vaughan lists that recognition, the announcement that the city will be hiring a Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and other statements the city made in committing to recognizing and fighting anti-Black racism.
In that same email, the city provided their statement of defence against the lawsuit brought by SOS Fest Inc., which accuses them of being motivated by prejudice when unfairly shutting down the 2018 event.
“This matter is in litigation,” reads the email. “The City of Vaughan intends to vigorously defend the allegations made against the corporation and its representatives.”
Carnival Kingdom is an outdoor concert where soca artists like Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin and Destra Garcia move the crowd. These fetes have been going on in the GTA – whether at the Docks, Wild Water Kingdom, Woodbine Mall or that one time in a field in King City – for two decades.
Only once have I ever heard of such a marquee event being shut down. In 2018, SOS Fest set up all their Carnival weekend events at Improve Canada in Vaughan’s warehouse and retail area. Kes The Band headlined the Friday night party Re-Jourvert-Nate, and was meant to return to the stage Sunday for the daytime Big People Fete. Machel Montano, Destra and Voice were supposed to perform at Saturday’s Carnival Kingdom.
The City of Vaughan says it received 80 complaints about noise overnight on Friday. On Saturday, right before Carnival Kingdom was supposed to begin – with vendors and performers paid and crowds already arriving – bylaw officers shut the event down.
The city cites overcapacity, excessive noise and continuing past a 2 am curfew on Friday as the reasons for revoking the remaining permits. SOS Fest’s co-owner Naveen Sharma tells NOW the city’s accusations are inaccurate.
According to Sharma, a father of three who’s been in the nightlife and event business for two decades, they did not exceed capacity, noise levels or the time limit. He adds that the people who complained about noise past 2 am couldn’t verify its source. There was, in fact, another large soca fete nearby, but SOS Fest’s Re-Jouvert-Nate was the one that was easy to find on Google for those looking to complain.
“There was a lot of remedying we could have done together,” says Sharma about the unfortunate way that day was handled. He lists all the ways a timely phone call and open communication could have resolved the issues, clarified confusion and avoided unnecessary disappointment.
Through freedom of information requests, Sharma has obtained City of Vaughan staff emails that indicate a plan to shut the Carnival Kingdom down before 11 am that day. But according to Sharma, the City of Vaughan didn’t even attempt to contact him or his partner until roughly 6:30 pm. Bylaw officers called from a private number, at a chaotic time when Sharma and his partner are getting hundreds of calls. The SOS team was managing vendors, AV crews and talent because the biggest event of their year was about to kick off. They only noticed the private call days later when they finally checked their voice mails.
“They had fire trucks ready to block our entrances at that time,” says Sharma, hypothesizing that the city had a strategy around that last-minute surprise. “That’s why they looked to call then.”
He adds that by the time the city shut them down, all the artists and vendors were paid. And so were the police officers and EMS he had on contract for the evening.
“I had to pay police to shut me down.”
Sharma believes the city resorted to extreme measures because councillors were bowing to pressure from voters and subsequently applying pressure on bylaw officers. As a result, nobody gave the Caribbean event the benefit of the doubt.
Without naming names, Sharma reads a strongly worded email from a resident. The email, directed to a city councillor, threatens the loss of votes for allowing “Caribana” to move to Vaughan. That email also contained a link to a third party website that contained inaccurate information about the SOS event in its listings. Sharma says the city used the inaccurate information from that third party website for its citations.
The councillor forwarded the complaint email to bylaw staff, adding her own disappointment and more: “(W)hat action will be taken to ensure that this DOES NOT happen tonight or ever!!!”
The City of Vaughan’s statement of defence identifies that councillor as Sandra Yeung Racco. In a Toronto Star article, Yeung Racco denied having any influence on the bylaw office’s decision, even though she was included in subsequent email exchanges.
Sharma reads another email sent a couple days after the shutdown from someone who identifies as a business person and York Region resident of Caribbean descent: “You prevented inappropriate behaviour to our community and keeping us safe from non citizen (sic) of York region who condones lude (sic) behaviour by coming here and causing misdemeanors acts (sic).”
Judging by what they wrote, Sharma likens the sender to the person of colour seen wearing a MAGA hat behind Trump at rallies. Bylaw staff passed around that email as if it were the validation they needed for shutting down the Caribbean event.
Finally, Sharma reads an email sent from bylaw staff when they knew they would have to shut down Carnival Kingdom: “So much for a quiet weekend. I think (redacted) and I might be in uniform and full body armour late tonight.”
Sharma takes a second to unpack those words before offering his opinion on what they suggest: “They are insinuating violence. This is 10:59 am that you’re talking about being in full body armour.
“We had patrons in tears,” Sharma adds. “Their Carnival weekend was ruined. They booked hotels in Vaughan. They ate at restaurants in Vaughan. And they were told to turn around and go back. Nobody was violent.”
“I had senior food vendors who put blood, sweat and tears into what they do, preparing all week. The amount of food that was thrown away and how sad they were… we need to do right by all these people.”
Carnival and violence
There were four separate shootings in Toronto on Monday, September 9, 2019. No broadcaster or newspaper mentioned that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was happening at that time. The media knows that one thing has nothing to with the other.
The murder in question, motivated by an alleged drug debt, took place at around 4:30 am Sunday morning at Yonge-Dundas Square. That’s almost 12 hours after the parade was over and eight kilometres away from Exhibition Place.
When it comes to insinuating violence about Carnival, the media is too eager to stretch time, geography and logic.
In the last 25 years, there have been two shootings at the Grande Parade; one in 1996 and the other in 2011. But the media has fed this perception that the Toronto Caribbean Carnival is dangerous.
Following the 2011 shooting, when an armed suspect was fatally shot by police after the parade was over, the Toronto Star produced a roundup of incidents on Carnival weekend since 1992. The headline said: “Festival marred by violence.” Five of the seven incidents did not take place at the Carnival. Four of them occurred at night in the Yonge and Dundas area where crowds just happen to gather on Carnival weekend.
“It has nothing to do with the festival,” says Chris Alexander, the COO of the Carnival’s Festival Management Committee. “It has nothing to do with the people that participate in the festival.”
Alexander says there have been many more examples over the years of the media twisting completely unrelated incidents, whether in Toronto or Barrie or Ajax.
Newspapers may occasionally post a retraction, but who reads those? The damage is done. White people will say they’re heading to the cottage and steering clear of the parade because of all those (two) shootings.
Anyone who actually goes down to the parade knows the fear-mongering is completely unwarranted.
“We take our babies down there,” says Candice Dixon. “I’ve never been to Toronto’s Carnival and felt threatened or scared for my life. If anything I’m so excited about all the people and the beauty I’m going to see.”
Supporting Toronto Carnival
Does the perception built around Carnival negatively affect its ability to raise money? Or do corporate sponsors not want to get behind it because they simply don’t see the value in Black people?
No one can say for sure. Chris Alexander explains that raising money is a complicated game involving lobbying, analytics and the simple matter of who’s at the table.
“But rooted in that, there is a certain level of systemic racism,” Alexander admits.
Last year, all five major banks, Manulife Financial, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, Pizza Pizza and more were crawling all over each other to attach their brands to the Santa Claus Parade. None of them show up for the more heavily attended Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
The lack of corporate support doesn’t surprise SOS Fest’s Sharma at all. He actively pursues sponsorships but can’t even get help from the liquor brands that profit from his events.
“They want people within our communities to consume their products,” says Sharma. “But they don’t want to be attached to them in terms of a brand. ‘Drink what we have. But we’re going to give our dollars to someone else.’”
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival’s economic impact was estimated to be over $400 million, more than the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and TIFF.
“During Carnival month, you’ll notice that every car rental company is sold out,” says Heywood, who begins to list as many businesses as he can that benefit from Carnival. He includes the LCBO, hotels, restaurants, AV companies, transportation and boat companies that are booked up for Carnival cruises. “I can keep going.”
Chris Alexander shouts out the City of Toronto. He acknowledges that they and media partners like CP24 have continuously supported Carnival. But he knows the festival could be so much more with support from the provincial and federal governments and corporate sponsors.
“We want to grow,” says Heywood. “We want our Carnival to look like Trinidad.”
Road to the future
Last year, the Dixons hit Toronto’s Carnival with 360 degree cameras. Their SugaCayne teamed up with immersive technology company Contraverse to create a VR experience that goes behind the scenes at a mas camp and on the road during the Grand Parade. They took that experience to Caribbean arts festival Carifesta in Trinidad, where the mother of all Caribbean carnivals takes place.
“It was like bringing sand to the beach,” Dwayne Dixon admits.
Nevertheless, the VR experience that had users virtually chippin’ down Lake Shore created line ups around the building, with many patrons expressing shock at how massive and lively Toronto’s Carnival actually is. “It’s a great commercial for Toronto and for our Carnival,” says Candice
Dixon, who points out that our festival is as world class as our city, eclipsing the much smaller Caribbean parades in New York City, L.A. and Miami. The Dixons hope to have the full virtual experience ready in 2021, but are giving the public a taste with an online trailer.
SugaCayne created the VR experience to celebrate the culture and its multiculturalism; to get you close to the artistry and the designs; to break the stigmas; and to bring people who have never experienced the joy on the road closer to it.
That goes for a younger generation who think that Carnival isn’t really for them; and it goes for those absent corporate sponsors who don’t understand what Carnival even is; and it goes for everyone who thinks Carnival is something to be afraid of.
SOS Fest moved to Markham Fairgrounds in 2019. According to Sharma, they had their best year ever in terms of attendance and support, because the Carnival community always comes back hard.
“It’s a resilient community,” he says. “We bonded over what happened in 2018, as organizers, the crowd and the vendors. In 2021, I’m positive that we are going to grow even more.”
Sharma is also high on his experience with the City of Markham. He says they welcomed Carnival Kingdom with open arms. And in post-event meetings with city officials, including police and fire departments, he discovered that the enthusiasm was mutual, and Markham is ready for more.
“They were more than happy with what happened,” says Sharma, with plans to return to Markham when COVID-19 gives way. “They thought it was a great cultural injection into the city. The hotels were full. The restaurants were booming.
“I’ve been in nightlife and entertainment for 20 years. I’m on the coloured side of the business. You’re not used to getting that call saying ‘Hey, when you coming back?’”
Radheyan's first assignment for NOW was reviewing the Ice Cube heist comedy First Sunday. That was back in January 2008. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Scarborough, Rad currently lives in Leslieville with his wife and two adorable kids.