When you ask Whitfield Belasco whether he was there at the beginning of Toronto’s Caribbean festival, his answer is, “We were the beginning.”
“I came up to Toronto to start the parade. We made costumes. We took part in the parade. I was the centre of my band,” said Belasco.
The Trinidadian-Canadian has led a Mas band, as they’re called, since 1967 — longer than any other band leader in the city.
He was making masquerade costumes for the Trinidad Carnival when his brother recruited Belasco to help organize Toronto’s first Caribbean festival.
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Artists like Belasco and younger band leaders are credited with keeping the tradition and spirit of the Caribbean celebration alive in the city.
“They are so good, other countries in the Caribbean are coming to our designers for inspiration,” said Chris Alexander, chief administrative officer of the Festival Management Committee (FMC), which has been running the carnival for the last 10 years.
But 50 years on, Toronto’s festival continues to be plagued by a lack of funding and a decades-long fight for control.
Origins of Caribbean Carnival
Carnival in the Caribbean has a history steeped in colonialism. Emancipated slaves celebrated their culture through dance, music and masquerade outfits that mocked their former masters.
About 1,000 revellers in costume swaying to the music of steel pans paraded in the streets for the first Caribbean carnival in Toronto.
“In the earlier days, a band 50, 200, 300 was fantastic and they were together, friendship,” said Belasco. “It was fun at the beginning. Everybody enjoyed it but now it’s more of a business. It is a business.”
It’s estimated that about 1.2 million people attend Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival every year, with an economic impact of $338 million in terms of GDP in 2014, according to Stephen Weir, spokesperson for the FMC.
The first 40 years
In 1967, Belasco’s brother and other prominent members of the Toronto Caribbean community formed the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC). The CCC organized Toronto’s West Indian contribution at Expo ’67 in Montreal, which included Carnival costumes donated by the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
The committee showcased those same costumes at Toronto’s Caribana that same year.