Carnivals are celebrated throughout the Caribbean on Emancipation Day Weekend (typically the first weekend in August) to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. In Toronto, it provides both a cultural and artistic connection between Canadians and Caribbean culture.
A local’s guide to Toronto
My father, Russell Preddie, smiles when he thinks back to attending the first Caribana in Toronto. As a Jamaican immigrant, seeing so many Caribbean people in one place gave him a sense of identity and validation. At that time in Canada, he said, “you didn’t hear this music on the radio. You didn’t have this food in the store. All of the islands came together. It was a transportation of culture and a relief from the discrimination that made us feel invisible.”
Ontario is home to more than half of Canada’s Black African and Caribbean population, and 37 percent live in the province’s capital of Toronto. Although some immigration took place in the late 1700s, most of the people who left the Caribbean for Canada arrived in the latter half of the 20th century.
Between 1955 and 1967, the West Indian Domestic Scheme brought more than 3,000 young Caribbean women to Canada. The program was created to fill the domestic void left by women entering the workforce. After one year of domestic work, Caribbean immigrants were eligible to sponsor their family’s emigration.
These women suffered low pay, long hours and strenuous work to eventually receive citizenship. They faced hostility and racism as they attempted to find housing, further their education or change jobs. Race-based immigration laws changed in the 1970s, allowing many more West Indians to immigrate to Canada. These migrants established Caribbean communities, predominantly within Toronto and Montreal, and changed the shape of these cities forever.
“All of the islands came together. It was a transportation of culture and a relief from the discrimination that made us feel invisible.”
— Russell Preddie on attending the inaugural Caribana in 1967
In its 55th year, North America’s largest Caribbean Carnival continues to celebrate Canada’s strong connection with the Caribbean diaspora. “Now more than ever, we need a place to honor diversity, celebrate emancipation and self-expression, and to be together again,” said Laverne Garcia, the executive chair of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival,
This year’s theme is “Embrace the Carnival in you,” inviting dance to don colorful costumes to steel-pan bands, and indulge in jerk chicken, fried festivals, patties and Trini doubles. There are also nighttime cruises, dance hall club nights and family-friendly zones where kids can enjoy the party.
What to see at Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival
Carnival kicked off earlier this month with the Junior King & Queen showcase: Kids 12-and-under show off colorful costumes in the hopes of being crowned. The children’s parade is a week later, filling the streets of East Toronto with music, kids in exciting costumes and the debut of the junior royals.
On Thursday, this quest for the Carnival crown is a spectacular display of imagination and pageantry with more than 50 costumes, all different interpretations of the Carnival theme. Unique headdresses made of jewels and feathers, bejeweled bras that snake around the body, sparkling bangles and colorful feathered wings will parade past a panel of judges and a cheering crowd. Male and female competitors are judged on the detail of their costumes, their creativity and how that costume represents the Carnival theme. At the end of the night, the King and Queen are crowned. They will lead the Mas band in the Grand Parade on Saturday.
This is the magical main event. On Saturday, along Lakeshore Avenue West, sprawling Exhibition Place will fill with more than 10,000 masqueraders in vivacious costumes, drumming, DJs and dancing. From 8 am to 8 pm along Toronto’s waterfront, you can enjoy Caribbean foods, delicious drinks and stages hosting more live musical performances.
This Sunday celebration is new to the Toronto Carnival roster. Held on the Toronto Exhibition grounds, the event will have every type of Caribbean dish you could dream of, including oxtail, chicken roti, rice and peas, and sahenna (spinach fritters). There will also be live music and vendors selling Toronto Carnival souvenirs. Prepare to indulge.
Steel pan is a musical tradition associated with the islands, particularly Trinidad and Tobago. These pans, initially created from oil drums, dustbin lids and frying pans, represent a resistance against colonial powers that attempted to restrict aspects of the island’s Carnival celebration in the early 20th century. On Friday, the Ontario Steel Pan Association will host a night filled with live performances that showcase the instrument’s many rhythms.
Air Canada sent a Toronto man’s cats to California without him
Daylit at Cabana Pool Bar
Every year, Toronto’s largest patio and pool bar throws one of the festival’s best parties. Previous artists have included DJ Khaled and French Montana, and the former has already been spotted in the city.
Friday, July 29, 2 pm to 8 pm
Set It Off at Roy Thomson Hall
Hosted by BET and NYC radio station Power 105.1, this party kicks off the weekend with the best in hip-hop, reggae, soca, R&B and trap.
Friday, July 29, 10 pm to close
Toronto Caribana Boat Party at Queens Quay
This boat cruise is for you and 1,000 of your closest friends. Every year, this massive party cruise plays club anthems, hip-hop, dance hall and mash-ups. Both events always sell out, with tickets starting from $47 ($60 CAD).
Friday, July 29, 9 pm to 3 am; Saturday, July 30, 1 pm to 6 pm
Elite on the water at Empress of Canada
This night cruise has sold out eight years in a row, and this year will be no different. Playing hip-hop, R&B, reggae and soca on Lake Ontario, take in the beautiful Toronto skyline while you wine your waist.
Sunday, July 31, 9:30 pm to 2 am
Young Money Reunion at Budweiser Stage
Toronto rap superstar Drake will perform with Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj in the finale of three shows for October World Weekend. He’s promoting the festival as the “Road to OVO Fest Tour,” which he used to regularly host during Carnival weekend. The festival includes a Thursday group show at the History venue for “All Canadian North Stars” of hip-hop and a Friday show at the Budweiser Stage with Chris Brown and Lil Baby.
Where to find Caribbean culture year-round
When Caribbean migrants arrived in Toronto, many settled in the Eglinton Avenue West area, and it soon gained the title “Little Jamaica.”
The ’80s were the community’s glory years: Reggae and soca filled the streets, grocery stores carried yams, plantains and bammy from home, and you could get hair products that were unavailable elsewhere in the city. Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff are among the famous musicians that have visited here, strolling what is now called “Reggae Lane.”
Last year, the area was designated an Ontario Heritage Site, which means that many of the stores, restaurants and businesses will get support to help curb the effects of gentrification and the pandemic.
This community is still very much alive. Monica’s Beauty Salon has been the place to buy cosmetics and hair products since the ’80s, and the team at Ther’s Salon are the best at cold straightening and braids.
Cafes and restaurants, such as Treadjah Isle and Judy’s Island Grill, and barbershops including the Barbers of Eglinton continue to host classic reggae nights, show live music, and provide venues for community discussions and workshops. You can get some late-night jerk chicken at Rap’s restaurant, a Toronto institution.
From Aug. 26-28, Little Jamaica will present Sinting Fest, a family-friendly celebration of Jamaican music, vendors, dance and, of course, food. This electric avenue is the essential Toronto destination for a taste of the islands.
CaribbeanTales Film Festival
This Black-owned and led registered charity has been working toward inclusivity in Canadian media for over 16 years. It focuses on connecting multiethnic communities through education and workshops, running a Creators of Color Incubator, and providing a platform to showcase Black filmmakers. It also manages international distribution for Black films and has recently launched its own production arm.
The CaribbeanTales Film Festival takes place every September and celebrates the talents of Black filmmakers of African and Caribbean descent. This year, CTFF takes place Sept. 7-23.
Toronto Black Film Festival
The Toronto Black Film Festival is held every February as a part of Black History Month activities. The festival highlights the best in Black filmmaking and creates a space to discuss cultural, social and socioeconomic issues. Here, unique voices within the independent film industry can explore their own culture while educating the wider Canadian community. The program features filmmakers of African, Caribbean and African Canadian descent.