Caribbean Carnival gets Toronto jumping

Colourful costumes are part of the attraction at the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival. (Andrew Weir photo)

Story by Rod Charles Deputy Editor

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Caribana 1977, my first.

I was six years old when my parents made the two-hour drive to Toronto from Grey County, Ontario to meet up with our relatives so that we could watch the Caribana parade.

There were so many people dancing on the streets the floats could hardly move. I remember clinging on the side of a building holding onto my father for support. Even with his help, it was hard to see the parade.

It was magical then, and it still is. I have early memories of the colourful chaos that is Caribana, and some of you reading this article have yours. Now in its 45th year, Caribana has grown since its start in 1967 to become North America’s largest cultural festival.

Once a three-day event Caribana, or the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto as it’s officially called, now runs three weeks from July 17 to August 5. It’s a celebration that’s expected to draw more than a million tourists from all over the world. After the 2012 London Olympics, it just may be the biggest event happening on the planet at this time.

“The parade has matured, and it’s bought in so many different parts of Toronto and Canada,” says Caribana spokesperson Stephen Weir. “Today we  have events for gays and lesbians that coincide with ours. And it’s not just Caribbean people — we have a marching band from Hong Kong participating in the parade this year.”

The first Caribana parade was held in 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday, as a centennial gift from newly arrived Caribbean immigrants to the people of Canada. It is the last Centennial Project that is still on the books.

Another interesting fact: Both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago gained their independence from the United Kingdom 50 years ago. The milestone for both countries is being marked in this year’s  parade.

It’s impossible to list all the events that are happening during Caribana, and what we have listed may not be what you want to see. That’s part of the beauty of the event. Some people only go to the parade. Some go for the food. For others it’s all about the nightlife. However you choose to celebrate, we know it will be magical.

Grand Parade
Where: Exhibition Place & Lakeshore Boulevard
When: August 4, Time 11 AM.
Cost: You can watch free by lining up along the parade route. But you can also get a comfortable seat within Exhibition Place for $20.

The main event of Caribana, and also the largest Caribbean parade in North America with over a million people set to attend. Events abound at this festival but this is one parade you should make the effort to see at least once in your life. The costumes, music, and party atmosphere will have you dancing all the way home.

King and Queen Competition and Show
Where: Lamport Stadium
When: August 2, starting at 7 pm
Cost: Advance $30 / Gate $35 / Seniors $30 / V.I.P $100 VIP

The festival kicks off with the King and Queen show. Male and female competitors are judged “on the details of costumes, how that costume represents the theme the mas bands will perform during the 2012 Caribana Parade and the performance of the leader. At the end of the night, the King and Queen are crowned.”

Stephen Weir: “Great for visitors. The costumes will blow you away. The goal is to get as tall and as wide as possible. It’s the only time you can see these costumes at night under spotlights, since the parade is during the day. It’s an incredible time, and people come from all over the world to see it. Last year four L.A.-based Japanese reporters flew up to Toronto specifically to tweet pictures of the King and Queen. When the king and queen is picked, people have to bow and take their hats off … so there are some bragging rights. And of course there’s $3,000 in prizes.”

Fact: Great food at this event. Every vendor at the festival has to go through health practices and standards.

Carnival Vibez Boat Cruise
Boat: Enterprise 2000
Boarding: August 2, 7 pm; Depart: 8 pm Sharp! Return: 12:30 am
One of the coolest things about Caribana is the boat cruises, of which there are many. One of them is the annual All White Carnival Vibez Boat Cruise.
Cost: $50 per person

“Trust the boat cruises that are linked to the Caribana site,” says Weir. “They’re worth getting to and you want to make sure you’re buying the tickets from the right people. Be aware of the weather, it can be a bit cooler on the water. And be aware that the boats leave when they say they’re going to leave.”

In other words people, these boats aren’t operating on “Caribbean time.”

Nightlife Events
Click on the link above for a full listing. The events are one of the things that make this festival a true party destination. The events on this list, including Calypso All Stars Showcase (Cost TBD) and Beyond De Lime – Food Festival & Concert ($20/VIP $85) are official events. Most parties have something great to offer, but even we at can’t vouch for all the parties.

And remember — just because the promoter says it’s a Caribana party doesn’t mean that the event is in any way affiliated with the festival. That doesn’t mean the party won’t be good — some of the best parties aren’t official Caribana events. We’ve picked out two that aren’t on the official page but should be really good: Soca on the Roof at  Skybar Nightclub, August 3 from 10 pm-3 am ($30) and  J’ouvert at Hickory House Nightclub, August 3, 2 pm-midnight ($30).

Caribana Family Events

  • Carnival: From Emancipation To Celebration

Where: Royal Ontario Musuem
When: July 28
Be dazzled by this vibrant display that features the costumes and artwork of Brian MacFarlane, six-time winner of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival.
Cost: Adult $15, Senior (65+ years) $13.50, Student (15-25 years, with student ID) $13.50

Where: Lamport Stadium
When: August 3, 2012
Some of North America’s best musicians will compete for the title of Caribana 2012’s Best Steel Band.
Cost: $25

ScotiaBank Caribana Gala
Where: Liberty Grand
When: July 27. 5:30 pm: Cocktails, 7:30 pm: Dinner
Cost: $160 (individual), $1,600 (table)

“You don’t wear much for most Caribana events,” says Weir. “But this is one event where you dress up. It’s an event to honour the Caribbean Canadians who have made a difference.”

Caribana History: Food, parade, costumes.

“On August 1, 1838, Trinidad and Tobago became the first  British colony in the Caribbean to declare the abolition of slavery. As part of the annual celebration the former slaves of Trinidad put on the Easter clothing of their former overlords and danced/marched through the streets of Port O Spain. The Easter clothing has religious connections of course. For the marchers, that clothing became what they called Masquerade. Now that term has morphed to the term Mas and those Masquerade costumes have morphed into very skimpy costumes that pay homage to the elements, wild animals, sea gods and yes even Michael Jackson.

Here in Canada we hold the Carnival Parade on the Saturday of the Simcoe Day Holiday weekend and it usually coincides with Emancipation Day proclamation of 1885. Being able to legally march in the streets is still vital to the reason for the parade (even though we are in Canada) as is wearing the Mas costume (we call it playing Mas).” — Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival

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Rod has previously worked for and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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