Monday, July 21, 2008

First Person Narrative: Charles Roach

Published in Sway: Summer issue

The First Caribana

Charles Roach, one of the founding chairmen of Caribana, has been a part of the festival since its earliest days. Here the prominent Canadian civil rights lawyer reflects on the unity, perseverance and passion behind the creation of the first Caribana celebration.

The first Caribana meeting took place in the fall of 1966. My role was to call to the meeting various people in the community who would form the Caribbean Centennial Committee in December that year.

The reason that the whole thing came about was because we were asked by the federal government to be involved in Canada's Centennial celebrations, but to celebrate in our own cultural way. People from other groups were invited too, and the first Caribana was designed to coincide with the World Expo Festival in Montreal.

People were excited about Caribana because it was a little bit different from what was going on at the time. In those days, Toronto was a quiet place in the summertime, in terms of outward demonstrations. We had Caribbean stars come from time to time to play at Massey Hall and there were some clubs along Yonge Street, but back then Toronto was very conservative as far as alcohol [and events] was concerned.

There was a men's temperance movement in play, and it was a bit of a troubling time. Martin Luther King was still alive and this was the Civil Rights era. There were a lot of demonstrations throughout the United States and Canada, including those produced by the women's suffrage groups and the Quebec separatist movement. The year 1967 was a year of progression, and the celebration of Canada's Centennial was an encouraging occasion for the city.

Everyone welcomed Caribana, but there was definitely some apprehension about the large numbers of people of African heritage on the streets during the Civil Rights years. To have people taking over the street where you would normally have vehicles was pretty dramatic at the time; they would close the streets for the Santa Claus parade, but it was amazing to see Yonge closed from Bloor to Queen for a party. Something that many people don't know is that police officers on horseback led the first two Caribana parades. However, because it's more of a street dance party instead of a marching parade, we had to stop leading with horses.

Back then, the carnival wasn't so dominant as it is now. For commercial reasons, Caribana has emphasized the carnival part, but back then it was more of a festival of arts: storytelling, music, culinary displays and other artistic disciplines were given the focus.

However, we never received any arts funding; that was the biggest issue, so there was the question of how it was going to be funded. We were not seen as an arts festival, but as a multicultural show. So, especially in the early years, people like myself and the other organizers put money from our own pockets into Caribana. We weren't rich, but there were many professionals in that first group that put up their money, especially Dr. Al Liverpool.

One of my favourite moments from that first Caribana was going to Olympic Island and having that entire island set up like a place in the Caribbean. We brought in palm trees and the festival lasted a whole week after the parade. The Caribbean came to Canada, and that made a lot of people from the Islands who were homesick feel good. The first festival changed a lot of lives because it showed all of Canada that our culture was positive and impacted part of this nation's growth.

Today, I'm so proud of the progress that our festival has made and how it has spurred other festivals to grow larger. I think it inspired a lot of the street festivals that we've become accustomed to over the last few years. You could say that Caribana served as a model for many of the street festivals in Toronto.

We've always been innovative; I think now, everyone would agree that Caribana set the bar and the trend of festivals in this city.

Link to story in Sway here.

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