By Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony and Ashley Abdul
Whether you’re part of the Caribbean diaspora or not, everyone knows summer isn’t complete in Toronto without the Carnival season, in particular the Caribbean Carnival parade, formally known as Caribana.
For many folks who immigrated to Canada from the Carribean islands, Caribana was a welcome taste of home in a foreign land; but for those of us who were born here to immigrant parents or came as young children from the islands, Caribana was our deepest connection to our history, community and culture.
Our childhood memories were made every summer from sneaking out to soca fetes, attending band launches to find the perfect costume, enjoying the parade with our families and taking in the majestic King and Queen competition down in Lamport stadium. As another year of COVID once again strips us of a fulsome Carnival experience, these are the stories that we share while we try to ease the Carnival Tabanca.
I started going to Caribana when I was in my late teens, early twenties. The memories were some of the best of my life. In those times we would travel from mas camp to mas camp checking out costumes, attending soca fetes, blockos and walking up and down Yonge Street on a Caribana Friday dressed to impress, “repping” our flags with pride. I worked for a couple of years in the camps building Mas, which gave me some serious perspective on the level of work it takes to bring a Toronto Carnival to life.
On parade day it was all about the food, the music, the costumes, the rush you got chippin’ and winin’ down the road with your friends while your favourite soca celebrities hyped up the crowds from on top of massive trucks – it was all part of the memories we made growing up as children of the West Indian diaspora.
Recently an artistic project pushed me into learning the deeper meaning of Carnival, Mas and the culture of resistance it stemmed from. I look forward to Toronto Carnival getting back to its former glory and playing Mas again with even more pride knowing that it’s not just some party, but rather it’s a celebration of our history of resistance, resilience and continuing to keep the gift that is Carnival alive for generations to come.
When I think of Caribana I think of unity and people coming together as one to free up and have a good time. My first memories of playing Mas in the carnival were when I was a kid. My aunt picked me and my sister up to attend the Kiddies parade and while en route she handed us two costumes and said, “get changed”.
I had always attended Caribana with my family and watched the parade but now I was actually going to be in a parade. I was nervous and excited at the same time, but it was an amazing experience, with all the parents telling us kids to dance and have fun. After that I never looked back and have played Mas many times since.
There is something about playing mas in your home town that prepares you to go elsewhere as it connects you to your culture. For us playing Mas is a birthright, a coming of age for many of us Caribbean youth who wait for the day to be able to play ‘big people’ Mas in the parade. It’s a feeling you can’t quite explain and summer in Toronto has not been the same without it.
I have been going to Toronto Caribana since I was a baby, and I’ve seen the sense of belonging and unity it’s created amongst our people. From the time I could remember, my grandparents would get me ready as my mom was already heading downtown to meet her section in Carnival Nationz. Year after year, they would cook up their doubles, roti, aloo pie, drinks and we headed down early to secure our spot by the big tree and make a lime.
I always envisioned what it would be like when I got on that road and in 2015, I was finally allowed to play Mas. After that moment I never missed a beat. From fetes going from Caribana Tuesday to the following Monday, the most warming feeling is continually building memories with our crew.
This experience fueled a passion inside of me to explore my culture on a deeper level, as a Canadian born woman, with deep roots extending from Trinidad to India. The foundation of what made me proud to be Caribbean was Carnival, and I took this and started my own non-profit, the Brown Gyal Diary which focuses on creating representation for the Indo-Caribbean community, creating an inclusive space that spotlights cultural representation and preservation.
Carnival is home. Carnival is me. Carnival is ours.