FMC discusses plans for Toronto Caribbean carnival amid concerns over COVID-19

By Lincoln DePradine

Veteran band leader Louis Saldenah (left) & FMC’s COO, Christopher Alexander

The Coronavirus outbreak, which has forced the cancellation of large gatherings of people in  cities around the world, and the adoption of other “social distancing’’ measures, could also impact this year’s Toronto Caribbean Carnival which is put on by the Festival Management Corporation (FMC).

Carnival organizers, along with representatives of other festivals that are held in Toronto, met last week with city officials to discuss the Coronavirus, which also is referred to as  COVID-19.

The meeting was also called to put stakeholders on notice about COVID-19 and to urge them to “have contingencies in place’’, FMC’s Chief Operations Officer (COO), Christopher Alexander, told The Caribbean Camera.

“The city said plan as usual,’’ he explained. “So that’s where we are right now.’’

More than 100,000 cases of the Coronavirus have been reported worldwide, and  more than 3,000 persons have died from the disease.

CNN, as of last Monday, began using the term “pandemic’’ to describe the Coronavirus outbreak.

“The World Health Organization hasn’t called the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Nor has the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,’’ said Dr Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent. “But many epidemiologists and public health experts argue the world is already experiencing a pandemic because of the novel Coronavirus.’’

“This virus has found a foothold on every continent except for Antarctica,’’ Gupta added. “Now is the time to prepare for what may be ahead. That could mean quarantines, closed schools and cancelled events in your town.’’

Alexander and other FMC officials held a “stakeholders’ meeting’’ last Sunday at East York Civic Centre, briefing masquerade bandleaders and steelband representatives on the COVID-19 issue and other 2020 carnival-related matters such as funding for the bands and security for August 1, when the Grand Parade is scheduled to be held at Exhibition Place and along Lakeshore Boulevard.

 Alexander told the meeting that because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, FMC is putting systems in place for best and worst scenarios.

“What we’ve done, we’ve planned for the worst, which means no carnival; and we’ve planned for the best, meaning there is carnival,’’ he said.

The FMC has prepared draft contracts to be signed by bands, committing them to their participation in the festival and outlining payment arrangement to them.

Some bandleaders, however, expressed concern at some items being proposed this year, including increasing from $5,000 to $10,000 the fines that are imposed on bands breaking rules governing the parade; and mandating that each band provide four security personnel for every 100 masqueraders.

Bryce Aguiton, a co-leader of Carnival Nationz, said what’s being proposed are “built-in additional costs’’ for bands. According to him, the cost of paid security alone could be as high as $16,000.

“That’s out of our money,’’ Aguiton said in an interview. “They have to be flexible.’’

Aguiton said he’s “hearing very clearly’’ that mas’ bands should expect less money being provided to them this year.

“They have to understand that if they’re giving us less, they should be flexible enough to lower the expectation for the bands,’’ he said. “It’s costing $6,000 to build a king costume and the prize money is $4,000.’’

COO Alexander said it’s likely City of Toronto funding for the festival will be the same as last year’s. However, if funding is provided and carnival is cancelled because of COVID-19, FMC and the bands could find themselves in a “pay-back position’’, having to return the money to the city.

Lawyer Aneesa Oumarally, FMC’s Chief Executive Officer, assured the meeting that funding negotiations have been taking place with officials of all three levels of government.

“We are lobbying as hard as we can,’’ she said, “but, we are fighting for a pie that is not infinite. We are fighting for a piece of the pie that is limited.’’

Veteran bandleader Louis Saldenah said with an estimated $400,000 million generated from the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, government funding for the festival should be about $5 million.

“The stakeholders are not benefitting from the festival,’’ said Saldenah, who has won 20 Band of the Year titles in Toronto.

“The problem with us is that we do not have the political clout,’’ he argued. “We are producing a great product that is bringing in $400,000 million into the economy. Why are we not sharing in that pie?’’

Saldenah agreed to join FMC negotiators who will be lobbying for government funding.

Saldenah’s Mas-K Club, defending Band of the Year champions, will lineup in the number two position for the 2020 Grand Parade. Saldenah selected the position in a draw on Sunday. Leading off this year’s parade will be Revellers.

Ontario Steelpan Association president Terrence Wilson, who attended Sunday’s meeting, promised that “things will be great’’ for the 2020 panorama that is scheduled for July 31 at Lamport Stadium.

“By the end of March to mid-April, we should definitely have everything in place for the pan competition,’’ he said.

FMC officials, emphasizing the need to ensure having the “safest possible’’ carnival parade route, said they’ll be embarking on a campaign, which includes the production of an educational video to address the storming of the parade route by spectators.

Barrier-crashing and parade route storming are an “historic problem’’ by people who believe the carnival is a street party, said Oumarally.

“There is a need to change that narrative,’’ she said.

The  Toronto Caribbean Carnival 2020  is scheduled to be officially launched on Friday, July 3 at 4.30 pm, at Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen Street West.