Most people around the world have heard of Caribana. They either look forward to attending for the first time or going back again for more entertainment and action. But many are unaware of how it got started. A unique celebration of Caribbean culture in Toronto, the Caribana festival first began in 1967 when the Canadian government asked the Caribbean community to get involved in the Centennial year.  A select group of Caribbean citizens then got together to develop ways to showcase aspects of the Caribbean culture and to reflect both the long-term and the more recent arrivals of the African Diaspora in Canada.

1967_copyThey created a celebratory event to mark Canada's centennial, the abolition of enslavement and the potential for progression and independence for people of African descent. This was the beginning of what they called Caribana which has evolved into a world-class phenomenon.

To create Caribana, the Canadians of African descent used the model for Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago that had its roots in colonial times when African slaves imitated the costumed pre-Lenten parties of their French masters. The slaves adapted them to create their own festivals which they continued after their emancipation. 

These celebrations later developed over time into today’s street parades of costumed bands and festive fun. Caribana has raised the profile of African/Black/Caribbean influences on culture, foods, arts, culture, music and dance to new audiences from all over the globe. Caribana culminates the first week-end in August which coincides with Simcoe Day, marking the abolishment of slavery in Upper Canada.

Forty-three years later Caribana is still going strong and has grown into the largest festival in North America. It is one of the grandest festivals in the world and one of the most important in terms of highlighting some of the African Diasporic culture and traditions. Caribana attracts over one million visitors to Toronto breaking down social, racial and cultural barriers to bring people together for loads of fun and excitement.

DancesEach year festival events include calypso tents dances, parties, masquerade competitions, a junior carnival and shows featuring story tellers, comedians, and others expert in the oral traditions. Festival-goers can also enjoy moonlight cruises on Lake Ontario and a Caribana picnic on Toronto Island. The main attraction is the grand parade that is well-worth the trip to Toronto even if you don’t get to do anything else.

The parade is usually scheduled for the last Saturday in July or the first Saturday in August to correspond with the commemoration of the emancipation of Afro-Trinidadians from slavery in 1834. A spectacular display of colorful costumes, drumbeat music and rhythmic dancing, the parade that lasts for several hours has dazzled crowds for many years traveling down a road that is usually about three miles long. Participants in the parade are organized into masquerade groups with their own bands performing different sounds with a particular historical, political or unique fantasy theme. The different masquerade groups are led by 'kings' and 'queens' wearing the most spectacular and lavish costumes. The colorful costumes are uniquely creative and very theatrical - the result of fabulous design and craftsmanship.

pansThe musical component of the Caribana parade supports a main Caribbean carnival aesthetic – rhythm and motion. One particular type of music is pan music that is performed with the steelpan or steeldrum, a steel percussion instrument which was invented in Trinidad and Tobago and has the distinction of being the only non-electronic music instrument invented in the 20th century. 

Salmon Cupid, a music teacher within the Toronto District School Board, and also the inventor of the E-Pan, the world's first electronic steelpan, stated that "the inception of the steelpan can be traced back to the 1930's...and throughout the decades, the "cause célèbre" has witnessed advancement through numerous innovations...To accomplish that much in such a relatively short period of space and time is a remarkable testament to the talents, skills and creativity of the people of T&T [Trinadad and Tobago]."

The predominant music heard is calypso and soca, but also includes other musical types such as reggae (from Jamaica), tassa drumming (from the East Indian tradition in Trinidad), cadence (from Haiti and Dominica), zuk (from St Lucia), Latin salsa, as well as pop, rap and R&B from America. Participation by different groups in the past 20 years from Central and South America, Africa, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Canada has continuously add dimensions of multiculturalism to Caribana.  

For many Trinidadian Canadians and others of the African Diaspora, Caribana is a cultural event that serves as a symbol of historical significance, connectedness and heritage pride. It is an opportunity for different people from all over the world to learn about heritage and culture while at the same time enjoying the time of their lives!

Caribana is more than a festival. It is an adventure. Once you’ve experienced the thrill and excitement, the memory will last a lifetime. You can rest assured that Caribana will continue to dazzle people of all ages, races, and backgrounds for many years to come.


All Photos by Andrew Wier unless otherwise noted