Toronto Caribbean Carnival keeps spirit of celebration, community solidarity alive in face of pandemic

“Being in here and it’s empty is just heartbreaking. There would [normally] be a lot of energy going on right now,” Candice Dixon says as she and her husband, Dwayne, stand in the middle of a desolate warehouse space.

It’s the site of their mas camp, where people would normally gather to get ready and distribute costumes ahead of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival.

Long-time masqueraders, Candice and Dwayne Dixon have worked for the past two years to start their own mas band, SugaCayne, in time for 2020. Costumes were designed, spaces were leased, themes and concepts tirelessly worked over.

That all came to a halt when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and Toronto went into lockdown.

“At first I was like, okay, two weeks … I’ll bring some stuff home and work on a few pieces. And then it became very real that it wasn’t happening, and it was a blow,” Dixon says.

For the first time in 53 years, Toronto Caribbean Carnival (previously called Caribana) will not be held the way people have come to know it: a vibrant multi-day festival with parties, concerts, the King and Queen competition and the Grand Parade attracting more than 1 million people.

  • WATCH: Watch the feature about how Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival is coping with the pandemic, Sunday Aug. 2 on The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.

The first Caribana was held in Toronto on Aug. 5, 1967. It was organized by a group of prominent Caribbean community members as a tribute to centennial celebrations and the tradition of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s a celebration of emancipation of enslaved peoples.

When the decision to cancel this year’s festivities due to the pandemic came on April 8, carnival organizers promised to find a “non-traditional” way to mark the weekend.

They have held virtual events, in the form of makeup workshops, workout and cooking classes, and parties and panels over Zoom and Instagram live. The main event on Aug. 1 is a day-long party with DJs, performers and revelers from around the world called The Virtual Road.

Denise Herrera-Jackson, head of government relations for Toronto Caribbean Carnival, says the goal was to highlight the many contributions by members of the community that often go unseen, and maintain the spirit of celebration.

“We went through it diligently trying to create events that would continue to represent what was going on. And the more important thing I think we found was bringing in what happens in the background of this festival,” says Herrera-Jackson. “Who were the artisans? Who were the designers talking to them? How do you do it, you know? So bringing that back-story upfront was very critical.”

Denise Herrera-Jackson, who handles government relations for Toronto Caribbean Carnival, says organizers wanted their virtual content throughout the month of July to highlight the many Caribbean artists and businesses that contribute to the festivities. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Community impact

But virtual events can’t make up for the money Carnival brings in, with thousands of tourists coming into the city every year to take part. Organizers estimated that it contributes $400 million to Canada’s GDP every year, the bulk of that coming from accommodations, transportation and food and beverage services.

Jackson says it’s small Caribbean businesses that are feeling it the most.

“What about the people who do our doubles and roti and things like that — what are they doing? They have obviously been also impacted,” Jackson says.

For independent event organizer Rebeka Dawn, not being able to hold her popular annual Cozy Caribana party this year is a massive loss, not just for herself but for everyone involved.

“Promoters are losing money, the small people like the door girls are losing money — so many small little pieces that we don’t really consider,” Dawn says.

She had spent months putting things in place for Cozy Caribana, knowing venues normally book up fast as hundreds of parties compete for Carnival attendees. With Carnival on hold this year and businesses struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dawn worries that the losses incurred this year could have lasting effects.

“I think it’s really important that we kind of focus our eye on some type of Caribbean infrastructure in the city, so that we can have our own little piece of something that we know isn’t going to disappear in a year, two years or five years,” Dawn says.

Canadian musicians and artists are also grappling with the ripple effect of not having Carnival this year, which means no parties or concerts to perform at.

For Wendy Jones, the month of July is usually filled with the rhythmic sounds of steel pans and performances throughout the city on Carnival’s biggest stages. Jones has been playing steel pan since the ’70s and is the leader of the Pan Fantasy steel band orchestra. Her instrument of choice: the six bass.

“When I’m behind my bass, I’m in a different world. I’m in a different world because I’m enjoying the music.”

One of the costumes new mas band SugaCayne would have debuted at Toronto Caribbean Carnival this year. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

During carnival season, you can find anywhere from 80 to 100 steel pan players in and out of their warehouse headquarters, known as the Pan Yard.

“This is the first year in all the years … that we haven’t played on the road [in a parade] or played in the festival itself,” Jones says, adding that it has been emotional to be apart from the team. “The band is not just here to play, it’s a family. And because we’re a family it brings us all together.”

Jones says they’re using technology like Zoom and online chats to keep the band connected and the music going, with hopes they’ll be back together in person next year.

“We haven’t stopped rehearsing, so that gives us an opportunity to come together and just work with each other in that context.”

Wendy Jones, leader of steel pan band Pan Fantasy, describes the emotional impact on the community of Toronto Caribbean Carnival being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 0:25


One of the ways revelers and artists are getting through this unusual summer is by sharing memories of Carnivals past.

Wanna Thompson and Martika Gregory, both Carnival enthusiasts and content creators, started the hashtag #CaribanaCyahDun. Under it, people have shared photos and videos of past Carnival costumes, as well as fun scenes from parties and being “on the road” in the parade as a reminder that while this year may be different, the tradition doesn’t end here.

“Caribana Cyah Dun is basically like it’s not here, but it’s not over for us. We are still here. We are the people of Caribana, we are people of Caribbean culture,” says Gregory.

“So even though the parade is cancelled due to COVID, we are still here. We can still participate in our own way, digitally or otherwise.”

“It’s a really great thing to see people in the element. I think mas allows people to forget about their worries and stress for the day or the few hours that we’re on the road,” adds Thompson. “You know, I love that we’re on the road in all these videos that highlight that. But you feel sad too, because we’re not having it this year, obviously.”

That feeling is what many in the community call ‘tabanca,’ the specific sadness and longing that comes at the end of Carnival or when one is not able to participate.

When Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival had to become a virtual celebration due to COVID-19, Martika Gregory and Wanna Thompson started the hashtag #CaribanaCyahDun for people to share photos and videos of past Carnivals. Gregory talks about what it means to feel ‘tabanca’ about this year’s unusual Carnival. 0:38

Carnival’s history of resistance

Alongside the stress and isolation that the pandemic has brought, the recent deaths of unarmed Black and Indigenous people, and the protests that have followed, are another reason why Carnival revelers wish they could have the opportunity to come together as a community.

For Dwayne Dixon, Black resistance and Carnival go hand in hand.

“What’s the same is the cause, the purpose, you know. The reason why we play Mas to begin with, you know, it’s about celebration,” says Dixon. “It’s about liberation. It’s about emancipation. it’s about freedom. And that’s what we’re fighting for today, ironically enough.”

Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago as an evolution of French settlers’ masquerade balls that would be held between Christmas and Lent. When Africans on the island were emancipated in 1838, they created their own masking traditions, known as Canboulay, and used it as an act of defiance and resistance against the British government, which had outlawed African drums and masquerade. And the tradition continued.

Candice Dixon, creative director for new Toronto Caribbean Carnival mas band Suga Cayne, talks about the origins and the importance of Carnival. 1:22

Toronto’s Carnival continues to be held during the August long weekend in order to coincide with Emancipation Day for enslaved people of African descent in Canada.

Bringing those roots and connecting them to the current fight is what Wanna Thompson wishes she could’ve seen at Carnival this year, and what she hopes to see next year.

“I feel that with everything happening this year, especially witnessing what’s happening in America and also our own injustice in Canada, I think it would have been a powerful display of freedom [and] resistance,” says Thompson. “Just like, you know, we’re here in solidarity through our costumes, through the music we’re chanting. We’re here.”

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