What no Carnival means for Toronto’s Caribbean community

From the cultural to the economic loss, writer Cheyenne Raine unpacks the deep impact the cancellation of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had.
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Just as the 2019 Toronto Caribbean Carnival season came to an end, Kateri Adams-de Souza was eager to get started on her 2020 section for Caribella Mas, which she is a co-owner of. At Caribella Mas, a section in one of the city’s popular mas bands Toronto Revellers, they design and produce their costumes. It can take months of preparation and they had already finished designing their costumes when the City of Toronto announced the cancellation of this year’s Toronto Caribbean Carnival.

The Toronto Caribbean Carnival is just one of a long list of summer events that have been canceled in the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first year that the festival, formerly Caribana, has been canceled since it began 52 years ago.

Adams-de Souza, like many in Toronto’s Caribbean community, looks forward to Carnival season to celebrate her culture with dancing, food, music and mas. “It’s a time for celebration. It’s a time when we as a community can let go of our worries for a couple of hours, free up ourselves. It doesn’t matter our body type, shape, race, orientation or our gender. We just celebrate one another and we redefine ideas of freedom,” Adams-de Souza says.

Toronto has a large Caribbean community, ranging from people who recently migrated to those whose families have been here for generations. People rely on this time of year to get the feeling of being “back home” in a traditional Carnival or for the closest thing they can get to the feeling of a true fete or lime. There is always a Carnival happening around the world, whether it’s in England, the U.S,  or in the Caribbean, but for many living, working, or going to school in Canada, it is hard to get time off or save money to travel to the Caribbean for a true Carnival, and this is the next-best option.

Toronto Revellers 2019 photo shoot [Photo credit: Toronto Revellers]

“We’re a people that love to mix and mingle, and we love to lime … I think it does deeply sadden the community.

“We’re a people that love to mix and mingle, and we love to lime. We love to be amongst one another and feed off one another’s energy,” Adams-de Souza says.

With the Toronto Caribbean Carnival and other summer events, fetes, and boat rides canceled many will not get the interaction they are used to and crave.

“I think it does deeply sadden the community, but we have our backs against the wall,” Adams-de Souza adds.  

Economics wise, in addition to the $400 million that Carnival generates for the City of Toronto every year, it also generates additional income for members of the local Caribbean community. The majority of the festival consists of the talents and efforts of local mas bands, vendors, musicians, DJs, promoters and volunteers who are invested in keeping Caribbean culture in Toronto thriving.

The cancellation of Toronto Carnival this year impacts all the people who work in the mas camps such as costume designers and section leaders who design their costumes and themes in advance, and plan for this additional income to come from masqueraders’ registration. Adams-de Souza, along with her co-owners Vanessa Adams-de Souza and Cicely Galasso-Ettienne began putting their 2020 designs into action as soon as they decided on their costume colours in October 2019. When the cancellation was announced in early April, it was around the same time that mas bands start having their launches.

“Our band launch was set for April 11, but it obviously got canceled … and our costumes were already 100 per cent complete,” Adams de-Souza says. Caribella Mas already had many costumes made including both female and male frontline and backline options. They had a total of seven costume options already made for the band launch before the cancellation was announced.

Aside from mas camps, there are many other businesses and groups of people from Toronto’s Caribbean community that thrive during this time. The music scene has many young, upcoming talents who are making their way into the soca and dancehall markets, and use Carnival to network and showcase their work to local and international audiences.

Sure-D is a Trinidadian-born artist who resides in Toronto, and as a local artist, she looks forward to the city’s Carnival season every year. “Being an artist, [Toronto Carnival] means a lot because that’s the platform where I get to showcase my talents especially during that season,” she says.

Toronto artist Sure-D [Photo credit:]

“Being an artist, [Toronto Carnival] means a lot because that’s the platform where I get to showcase my talents especially during that season.”

When the cancellation was announced in April, Sure-D already had plans to release new music and music videos for the upcoming Carnival season. “I actually had a shoot booked before everything happened, and the shoot had to be canceled. [I had] music that was supposed to be released and everything has been pushed back,” she says. Like many other artists who are in the soca scene, Sure-D times new releases around respective Carnival seasons.

“When you release a song, especially for me doing soca and being based in Toronto, a lot of the music getting out there is based on promotion. It’s more than social media promotion, a lot of footwork has to be done,” Sure-D explains.

With social distancing measures in place, it makes it hard for artists to promote songs due to not being able to do radio and television promotion, as well as appearances or shows. Sure-D prides herself in her live performances and already had her plans in place for 2020 Carnival before lockdown began.

“For certain shows, you need enough preparation. Especially for myself, I come along with dancers and things like that,” she says. She already had performances booked in advance when the state of emergency was announced, and now she has no choice but to play a waiting game and see what will happen.

“During this time, I haven’t been doing a lot when it comes to music because unfortunately, I haven’t been able to record,” Sure-D says. She adds that she has been trying to write and keep active on social media, but it has been difficult. “Things have changed for me music-wise … but in my personal life it’s still very busy and hectic.”

Other countries, such as Jamaica, have been able to postpone their Carnival to a later date rather than cancel altogether. Sure-D says she is staying optimistic and hoping that this will give Toronto artists a chance to break out into more Carnival scenes.

Caribella Mas members and their children with artist Mr. Killa. [Photo credit: Toronto Revellers]

For those who planned to have their summer 2020 filled with shows, fetes, boat rides and mas, they will have to find other ways to be productive and enjoy this time. Adams-de Souza says that she is taking this extra time to spend with her family. “Right now during this time we would be in the mas camp, and we would be away from our children. Some of them do come to the mas camp with us but others are too young…” she explains, adding that between herself and her co-owners they have eight children.

Adams-de Souza is trying to look at the current pandemic and cancellations as a blessing in disguise. Her team at Caribella Mas looks forward to sharing their costume designs in 2021. “Hopefully there is gonna be a Caribana 2021 … if we look at [the costume] and feel we have to revamp it in any way we can do that … Not to sound cocky, but it’s a banging costume, and it’s not something that we’re just gonna throw away. We’re gonna use it for next Carnival.”

Main photo: Caribella Mas members holding 2019 NBA championship belt. [Credit: Renee Dias]

Cheyenne Raine is a freelance writer and reporter who likes to focus on lifestyle, pop culture, beauty, and Caribbean culture. She graduated from Humber College in 2016 with a Diploma in Journalism and graduated from York University in 2019 with an Honours Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. In her spare time, she is most likely watching Harry Potter or listening to soca music.

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