The small demo last week by members of Hands Off Caribana outside Councillor Joe Mihevc's office was just the latest in a long list of episodes the city could do without. The Caribana Cultural Committee (CCC) was bypassed for city cash this year in favour of the Toronto Mas Band Association after failing to properly account for its 2005 expenditures. The protracted showdown that followed this decision is starting to get way out of hand.
Negotiations between hardcore CCCers in the Hands Off group and the Festival Management Committee, or FMC (composed of TMBA reps, other festival participants including the CCC, business and community stakeholders), are stalled over the use of the name "Caribana."
There are also fears by Hands Off folks that the city and business interests are engaging in a coup to take over the lucrative summer fest. And the rancour is heating up like the weather.
I feel like blowing a huge whistle and calling for a colossal time out. All the more so because the dangerous boycott talk is getting louder.
The idea that local activists would sabotage this jewel of a festival by appealing to African-American tourists to cancel their travel plans north just seems so over- the-top especially since the two sides aren't really that far apart.
Caribana founding member and Hands Off spokesperson Charles Roach agrees that there have been problems with the way the CCC ran Caribana, but he wants the city to acknowledge that the festival is ultimately owned by the CCC. The CCC, after all, built Caribana over the last 38 years into the success it is today.
If these issues aren't settled, he says, the group will pull the boycott trigger. Roach, the acting chair of the CCC board, also wants the trademarked name Caribana to remain. "Changing it would be an expropriation of the festival. This is important because we want the festival to be in control of the community, not the city," he tells me.
If these conditions are met, he says, his group will dispense with any sanctions and work with the FMC. This doesn't seem a huge stretch. Roach received a letter from the FMC last week acknowledging the CCC's ownership of the festival, but the festival name had been slightly changed to the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (Caribana).
Roach is upset by this arrangement of words because his original agreement had "Caribana" at the beginning of the title. Is this really a deal-breaker?
Roach also questions the FMC's authority to make an agreement. "FMC is not a corporate persona. We want to negotiate with the city."
Of course, there's much more than nomenclature going on here. Some are quietly saying the conflict between the Hands Off people and the Toronto Mas Band Association exposes divisions and mistrust within the multicultural Caribbean community itself.
As ticklish as it is, some are hinting that the TMBA, whose members' roots are mostly Trinidadian and therefore South Asian as well as African, should not be the ones running the show. TMBA threatened not to participate in this year's parade if the CCC was running it.
To make matters worse, the upstart Black Youth Taking Action (BYTA) has declared that it will boycott Caribana whether Roach makes a deal with the FMC or not. The group says part of its strategy is to build support within the black community in places like New York and Atlanta from which significant numbers of tourists come to the festival.
"These communities won't be very happy to hear that Caribana has been taken over," says the group's prez, Nkem Anizor. Unimpressed by Roach's approach, Anizor says, "I'm a member of the CCC, too, but they just don't get it. The can't think long-term. They don't see what they are giving away." But even she agrees that there needed to be a management change at Caribana.
"We don't dispute that there are financial problems," she says. "But it should be up to the community to decide who runs Caribana. The black community built this festival, but business groups that never give support make lots of money from it. Now they are on the new management committee. This is outrageous."
Fair enough. Lack of business support for the festival has been a long-standing sore point.
The Toronto Board of Trade's Rod Stone says one reason his organization is volunteering to be on the FMC is to deal with exactly that criticism. "We have enormous respect for Caribana and what it does for this city," he says. "We don't want to move in and have business take it over. But we can help bring business opportunities to the festival."
Hugh Graham, president of the Black Business and Professional Association, says corporate Toronto has been willing to play a financial part in Caribana in the past, but plans have usually been scuppered by the CCC board. "You can't have your cake and eat it, too," he says. "To build relationships with corporations, they need a level of comfort that the thing is being run properly."
In the middle of all this is beleaguered city councillor Joe Mihevc, who has had to withstand being called a racist, among other names, by Anizor as troubling and outrageous a claim as it is ridiculous.
As the city's liaison with Caribana for the last nine years, Mihevc has fought many bloody battles at city council to maintain Caribana's funding.
"My chances of getting council to approve money for Caribana this year were nil unless we took a different approach," he says. Mihevc doesn't understand why anyone would think the city wants to take over the festival.
"No one on council wants this file," he says. "There is a mistaken impression that the city makes money here. We actually lose money."
Indeed, while the city and province each kicked in $400,000 last year and the feds ponied up another $100,000, the PST and GST spent by tourists and other Caribana attendees goes only to Queen's Park and Ottawa. The big winners are the hotels and restaurants. Large chain stores reap a particular bonanza from Caribbean visitors who get a chance to stock up on items they can't buy at home.
As to Roach's demand that the city, and not the FMC, negotiate with the Hands Off group, Mihevc says the city doesn't have the authority. It is the FMC's call even regarding the name change. And the boycott? "Will it make Zellers give more money to Caribana?" Mihevc asks. "If a strong organization is built, the funders will come."
Once upon a time, Mihevc and Roach were next-door neighbours. Maybe the two of them should share some jerk chicken and spare us all the sight of a wounded Caribana.