Last updated: 10:00 AM ET, Sat August 08 2015

The Biggest Caribbean Carnival is in Canada

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | August 08, 2015

The Biggest Caribbean Carnival is in Canada

Photo via Facebook

Except, perhaps, for Brazil, the Caribbean is the best place to celebrate Carnival. No one does  flamboyant, colorful, loud parades and street parties quite like the islands of the West Indies.

Carnival is traditionally held in February or March before the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent. A handful of islands hold some of the celebrations over until April so that they do not disrupt tourist season (or so that tourist season does not disrupt the Carnival). 

The largest Caribbean Carnival of all

Caribbean cultures are on full display during the largest Carnival celebration in North America. But the parades, concerts and parties of this particularly massive festival take place far away from any tropical islands. Canada’s Caribana Festival (officially dubbed Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival) is held in late July and early August in Toronto. It draws more than a million revelers each year. Not only is this the largest Caribbean-themed celebration in the world, it is one the largest parties in the Americas, period.

Caribana is not a new event. It was started by Toronto's large West Indian immigrant community in 1967. It grew steadily year after year and now draws more than a million tourists and Toronto locals each summer.  The festival was rebranded Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival in 2011, but many people still refer to it as Caribana.

Caribana 2009 Toronto 012

Photo via Flickr

All the authentic ingredients for a Carnival celebration

Anyone familiar with the events at Carnival in Jamaica or Trinidad will see the same signature happenings in Canada: a ball, calypso and soca concerts, stage shows and a massive parade.

The parade is the most-attended part of Caribana. People stand along the 3.5 km route that skirts the lakeshore. Tickets for the VIP areas can run as high as $100 per person, although general admission is only $10 ($20 at the gate).  

Just like in the Caribbean, different “bands” (costumed performance groups) take part in the parade. They are scored by a panel of judges based on their performance, their costumes and their energy.

These bands take the parade and contest very seriously. It is normal for them to start planning for the next year’s parade as soon as this year’s parade finishes.

caribana parade 2009

Photo via Flickr

The peripheral events are what make Caribana worthwhile 

One of the highlights, especially as far as tourists are concerned, is Carnival Island, which is held on Olympic Island the day after the parade. At this low-key event, foodies can try the Caribbean specialties while listening to soca and reggae bands. There is even a games area where people can play dominoes. This relaxed day is the polar opposite of the energetic parade, but it is an equally important and equally authentic part of the festival. 

A number of concerts and parties are held in the days leading up to the main events. People can even grab special ticket packages that will allow them entry into multiple concerts and parties. 

Caribana festival 2015 Concert de Skip the use

Photo via Flickr

Being more than a bystander

Like most of the popular Caribbean Carnivals, you can participate in Caribana with one the parade bands. It is probably too late to do this for the 2015 event, but spots start filling up early for the following year, so you can book a place for '16.

Despite the difference in latitude, Toronto’s Carnival weekend and the events that lead up to it are authentic and the scale is actually much larger than similar celebrations held in the West Indies. For aficionados who love the costumes, the music and the street-party atmosphere, this Canadian fete could be seen as a sequel to February’s parades and parties.   

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