COVID-19 has caused events all around the world to be cancelled.
But the organisers of the Toronto Carnival decided they were not going to allow the pandemic to rain on their parade.
And so the concept of The Virtual Road was born.
The Toronto Carnival was held online this year replacing the regular Grande Parade, Aneesa Oumarally the chief executive officer at Festival Management Committee the producers of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival told Guardian Media.
And the event was a success, attracting over 100,000 people online Oumarally said.
Oumarally who lived in T&T before migrating to Canada as a teenager describes herself as a “Trini to the bone.”
Both she and her husband attended secondary schools in Naparima and have always been active with the West Indian community in Canada.
As part of her work for promoting Caribbean culture Oumarally joined the board of directors at the Festival Management Committee.
When the former CEO left last May, the board needed assistance in organising the Toronto Carnival.
Being the chair of the governance committee at the time Oumarally was instrumental in the successful hosting of the event.
Oumarally was eventually named CEO.
With this being her first Toronto Carnival, she was looking forward to the event this year.
But then the COVID pandemic hit and Toronto went into lockdown.
And so on April 8, the festival management committee announced the cancellation of Toronto Carnival.
“For the past 52 years, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (formerly Caribana) has delivered an exciting summer festival featuring elaborate costumes, Caribbean music, and food in our Grand Parade. This festival is a labour of love created by our extraordinary talented artistic stakeholders, and supported by participants and volunteers,” the organisation stated.
“Taking into consideration the mass crowds that attend the events, it presents a tremendous risk regarding the spread of the virus, it is therefore unanimous that the priority must be the health and safety of our patrons and having weighed all these considerations there is no choice but to cancel this year’s festival.”
The Grande Parade usually attracts a million people and raises around CAD$400,000 in revenue.
The committee promised that if circumstances changed and the City of Toronto allowed events after July 1, they would find a “non-traditional format”to celebrate.
And so said so done.
Starting on July 3 they began a month of virtual events which featured among other things steelpan and calypso.
“We said we had to find another way to celebrate,” Oumarally reported.
“From start to finish we learned a lot, we learned what was not working digitally, what people liked looking at what people didn’t like. During this time we also formed really good partnerships. The Ontario Science Centre even brought science to Carnival,”she said.
During the Junior Carnival week, Ontario Science created experiments to show the children simple aspects such as “how material would dance on a speaker and it would form a pattern and they did it to soca music of course,” Oumarally said.
The Caribbean Tales Film festival also showed a movie about Peter Minshall which was played on their King and Queen night.
And on August 1, the Virtual Road was held.
“The concept of the Virtual Road is that we were going to encourage everybody across the world to participate with us in Carnival over Zoom. So Zoom was free it was a free Carnival, all you had to do though was register for your Zoom link,” she said.
And the masqueraders answered the call.
The event lasted 13 hours from 9 am until 10 pm.
It travelled through Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and of course T&T.
DJs and live performers represented each area.
T&T was represented by Nailah Blackman, Freetown Collective, DJ Ana and Ultra Simmo.
Every hour a different country was represented with the slogan “all roads lead to Toronto.
“To be honest with you I was asked by media here what success for the event would look like, and I said if we get about 50,000 people I would be over the moon. We got in excess of 100,000 people partying with us from across the world,” she said.
“We could not expect that people would be so excited; it was 13 hours of soca and they stayed 13 hours,” she said.
The destination marketing organisation for Toronto’s tourism industry Destination Toronto claimed “Carnival wins” after seeing the success of the event, Oumarally said.
“We got an A in our report card for creating this environment,” she said.
Oumarally said she was heartened to see the camaraderie and cheer that the event caused.
“We told people put on some feathers, but they were decked out from head to toe in their costumes, boots included ready to go,” Oumarally said.
“People have said we’ve created history by putting on this virtual Carnival and it showed the ability of Toronto Carnival to think quickly on our feet and to pivot,” she said.
Oumarally said overcoming odds is the embodiment of Carnival.
“It feels fantastic to have done something to celebrate our culture and heritage and it also shows the resilience of Caribbean people. Carnival is born out of resilience and this is just another form of resilience,” she said.
“If you put your mind to something you can make changes and people recognise that we may not be able to do something in the same way we are accustomed to doing it but we were not afraid to try something new and that is what I learnt, our community was not afraid to try something new, they wanted the experience of being together, they wanted the experience of community, and they wanted to have that pride in their heritage,” Oumarally said.