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Quo Vadis Carifiesta?

Quo Vadis Carifiesta?

By N Oji Mzilikazi


(Originally published in Montreal Community Contact Volume 21, Number 14)

July 7, 2011

On March 13, 2011, the City of Montreal handed the Carifiesta Carnival Parade mandate to the CCFA- Caribbean Cultural Festivities Association, rather than the MCDF- Montreal Carnival Development Foundation, ending the wrangling that resulted in its cancellation of the 2010 Parade.

Carnival was back on. The Community was happy as pappy. Die-hard revellers couldn’t wait to get on “wotless”– shake off Winter’s dreariness, as well as the drudgery, privations and frustrations that qualify the lives of many in our Community.

Carifiesta, for all its marginalization by the City of Montreal, reconnection to West Indian cultural patrimony, expressions of ingenuity and creativity, freedom from a certain amount of constraints like body image as an example, was catharsis; therapy.

In addition, Carifiesta is a revenue generating machine for the City. Something that the City, judging from its history with the festival does not care about, and to which successive Carnival administrations have failed to advance and exploit in order for the festival to obtain substantial increase in its funding, present a superb product, and have the respect it deserves.

There was no Montreal International Jazz Festival, Montreal Gay Parade or even a Canada Day Parade in Montreal when Carifiesta was launched.

July 9th, 2011 marks Carifiesta’s thirty-seventh (37) birthday, yet the festival continues to be a top spinning in mud.

While expectations are that the new management of CCFA will get the job done, the scars of ineptitude and lack of vision by past Carnival organisers are so deep that CCFA faces a steep uphill climb. That is further compounded as the City feels it is doing our Community a favour in allowing us Carifiesta.

CCFA is on probation with this parade. They must do it right; have it running smoothly, and by inference, present a quality product in spite of the short notice (three and a half months) and consistent annual low funding- 30,000$.

Defenders of the paltry sum points to the hidden expense of security, clean-up and the loss of parking revenue on the route and so on, which run into hundreds of thousands of dollars as mitigating, but it’s all b.s.

The City has no problem bearing those same costs for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Gay Parade and so on. Additionally, it has no problem with the loss of parking revenue when it shuts down certain areas to traffic for playoff hockey or to facilitate pedestrian traffic in certain areas for the entire summer.

Nonetheless, it is that “hidden cost” Montreal City Hall Councillor Marcel Tremblay, the brother of our mayor Gerald Tremblay used in 2005, as an excuse to question the relevance of Carifiesta, as detailed in “Fail or Prevail? The Choice Is Yours” in the previous Community Contact.

The City also demanded that the CCFA inform both residents and businesses along the parade route of the parade. This was a first. Anyhow it’s sliced; it cuts into the operational budget of the CCFA both in terms of manpower and finance, and given its budget…

Such a demand shows the contempt to which the City holds Carifiesta. By virtue of its office, the City has the machinery and money to make light work of that task. It’s akin to CCFA telling businesses, “Be prepared for an infusion of cash from Blacks,” but without reciprocity. The politics and attitude of City Hall to Carifiesta is obvious to the discerning.

Regardless as to what part of the world they are held, Carnivals are a tourist attraction and a generator of huge revenues. City administrations/government and businesses gladly invest for the economic benefits to merchants, restaurateurs and hoteliers among others and themselves is worth it.

According to our very own Quebec Winter Carnival website, its 2009 operating budget was $8.6 million and it resulted in “direct economic repercussions of $48 million.”

In 2005, the Ontario government invested $400,000 in Caribana and the City of Toronto $384,000. In 2009, the Federal government invested $415,000 into Caribana. The Ipsos Reid Economic Impact Study of Caribana 2009, released in April 2010, revealed it injected $438 million into Ontario’s economy.

The City of Montreal 30,000$ must be seen in the light of stinginess, and they not giving a damn about the festivity. Perchance because it emanates from Black hands and they believe they don’t need it because their economic cup floweth over from the City’s International Jazz Festival.

There was a time when the Carifiesta parade brought close to a million visitors to Montreal. People came from American cities like New York, Washington, Virginia, Boston, Philadelphia, and Buffalo, as well as from the Caribbean for the occasion. With Ottawa and Toronto just down the 401, thousands upon thousands of Ontarians with or without West Indian or Montreal roots descended upon our fair city.

Since the hotels downtown were filled by tourists coming for the jazz festival, all the motels on Rue St. Jacques were filled by Black tourists coming to town for the carnival.

Until its demolition and replacement with a Canadian Tire outlet, all the rooms in Belvedere Motel on Rue St. Jacques were annually reserved for the carnival weekend by Hawks International, a social club whose headquarters is in New York.

Montreal has no Black area or a Black neighbourhood. The Carifiesta Parade is not held in the vicinity where there are Black, Caribbean/West Indian or African merchants. White businesses remain the primary beneficiary of the expenditure of Blacks during Carifiesta. No merchant along the parade route is ever going to refuse a dollar from the Black consumer. Yet, as referenced in the last issue, Councillor Marcel Tremblay had no qualms stating, “No one wants us.”

Encounter with a racist mindset is not foreign to the black experience. People of African descent have long recognised that some would prefer us to disappear than embrace us. However, the State has a moral authority to be fair to its citizenry irrespective to skin pigmentation, religion or sexual orientation.

Rather than making “no one wants us” a card of trumps, so the City was doing the Community a favour, the councillor, as representing City Hall, ought to oppose any who seek to exclude Blacks from participating fully in the society. After all, Blacks have been in Quebec since 1406. Once again, leadership failed to put a knife to such a deserving throat.

On July 25, 2005, Mayor Gerald Tremblay and his wife Suzanne snipped the ribbon to kick off the Gay Pride Parade. In blessing the event, the mayor sported a VIQ badge – “Very Important Queer badge.” I can’t ever remember him showing any such solidarity or love to Carifiesta.

While St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the oldest street parade in the province, and is culturally important to the Irish, it does not bring tourism to the city or pump additional revenue into its coffers the way Carifiesta does.

Every major city has more or less their St. Patrick’s Day Parade. As such, that of Montreal depends entirely on the support from locals. Sure, its spectators are going to indulge in a couple of pints and Irish pubs are going to make some extra cash, but it’s a pittance compared to the overall boost to the economy that Carifiesta brings.

So in spite of Carifiesta outstripping St. Patrick’s Day in terms of financial contribution to the economy and attendance, there is a great divide in the way both festivals are treated by City Hall.

For starters, the Irish are given royal treatment. The City of Montreal paints its main thoroughfare green for their parade while Carifiesta’s route is on one side-street or another.

The City never saw fit to gage the economic impact of Carifiesta because they do not care for it. Sadly, the failure of leadership to make the economic impact of Carifiesta matter, to solicit corporate/private sector sponsorship, seek funding from Quebec’s Tourist Ministry as it brings tourists to the province, and to sell Carifiesta as part of the tapestry that makes citizens with Caribbean roots proud to be Quebecers and Canadians, have us in the current mess.

Carifiesta has within itself the potential to become a cultural and economic powerhouse for the Community. CCFA can only take us out of this morass if they’re willing to hire a worthy development consultant, or have a consultation committee to engage in brainstorming, strategic planning, to advise, inform and formulate sound business policies, and is given 100 per cent community support.

I have long been an advocate of rebooting Carifiesta to make it better and financially viable as evidenced by the Community Contact Volume 1, Number 11 May 1993, article, “Plain Talk Bad Manners: Suspend Carifete.”

In the article I decried the 35,000$ funding, felt that the two months notice given for its staging by the City was an insult. It undermined having a professionally executed and successful festival, and described the Carifete Committee as co-conspirators to ensure we remain an invisible minority.

The 2010 suspension of Carifiesta and the court case between CCFA and MCDF placed retooling the festival in limbo. It’s a shame that after three decades Carifiesta is still in diapers. My hope is that the CCFA does not turn out to be “old wine in new bottles,” but who we were waiting on.

It pains to see Carifiesta and Jamaica Day on the same day. But as Ms. Emmanuella Borgella, CCFA’s vice-president explained, the organisation was first given July 2nd, and then the City changed it to the 9th. In the spirit of cooperation they were cross-promoting Jamaica Day as well- attend Carifiesta then go to Jamaica Day. That being said, Happy Carnival!

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