Come Out to Caribana ’67

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on July 27, 2011.

“Laughing girls in leopard skins dance along Bloor St in Saturday’s Caribana ’67 parade. Toronto’s 8,000 West Indians are throwing a week-long centennial party on Centre Island and inviting the rest of the city to join in the fun.” (The Telegram, August 8, 1967.) Photo by Lee Harrison.

Festival fever was in the air in 1967. Canada was in a celebratory mood during its centennial year and while most of the action was at Expo in Montreal, the federal government encouraged ethnic groups across the nation to showcase their contributions to a country starting to embrace its multicultural makeup. One such group was Toronto’s Caribbean community, who determined it was time to infuse the city with the colour and spirit of carnival. With less than a year of preparation, and long before there were any squabbles over management, financing, and name proprietorship, the first edition of Caribana was quickly embraced as a highlight of Toronto’s summer.

“Mayor (William) Dennison enjoys some West Indian culture.” The Telegram, August 11, 1967.

The first discussions for a West Indian–themed festival occurred in a downtown fire hall in late 1966. Organizers felt the one cultural expression found on every Caribbean island was the colourful tradition of carnival, with the pre-Lenten celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago serving as a model to follow. The August long weekend was ideal for a celebration due to its close approximation of tropical heat and low risk of rain. Centre Island was chosen as the focal point for activities, though this would affect how much profit the festival could make due to municipal regulations which restricted admission fees on park property to 50 cents or less. The festival’s name, Caribana, was devised to convey notions of Canada, the Caribbean, and all-around fun. Packed volunteer meetings dealt with issues like muting the raunchier aspects of carnival so as to not offend Toronto’s prudish tastes (answer: discourage explicit dancing and public drunkenness). By the end of July 1967, an official organizing body (the Caribbean Centennial Committee, later the Caribbean Cultural Committee) was in place and volunteers geared up to prepare events ranging from balls to a book exhibit spotlighting the works of Austin Clarke.

“A calypso band supplies the throbbing beat to make the big day swing for the Caribana parade.” The Telegram, August 8, 1967.

The first Caribana parade was scheduled to begin at Varsity Stadium at 9 a.m. sharp on Saturday, August 5, 1967. But as organizer Dr. J. Alban Liverpool told the Telegram, “West Indian time is different than North American time.” Ten floats and over 1,000 participants didn’t leave the stadium until 11:30 a.m. Mounted police assigned to guide the parade were occasionally shocked to find nobody behind them, as participants moved in circles instead of a straight line (several years passed before police accepted that they couldn’t pace the Caribana parade with the military precision of the Santa Claus Parade). The inaugural route went east on Bloor Street, south on Yonge Street, then west on Queen Street to the still-new City Hall. The designated route was a symbolic one for festival organizers, who wanted to demonstrate that a minority group with little political clout belonged on major city arteries, while the backdrop of City Hall would show that the community was an integral part of the new Canada. Several participants noted that although the parade attracted 50,000 spectators, the cold reserve Torontonians were known for led to one of the quietest carnival celebrations they had ever seen.

Globe and Mail, August 7, 1967.

While a concert in Nathan Phillips Square followed the official greeting from Mayor William Dennison, many ferried over to Centre Island after the parade to take in the main festivities. During the opening weekend, Caribana officials estimated over 35,000 people checked out the festival’s music, food, and exhibitions. Among the praise that poured in was a glowing editorial in the Telegram:

Here’s a toast in a planter’s punch, or in pop if you prefer, to the West Indian Centennial Committee for the swingiest, gayest, jauntiest party in this old town all this week at Centre Island. “We appreciate Canada,” said Eric Lindsay, business manager of the Caribana Committee, and the West Indians of Toronto are singing it in the hauntingly beautiful rhythms of their islands and expressing it in their dances and in the radiant colours of their native costumes—a festival for which they have expended $40,000, no small feat for the smallest ethnic group in the city. “Thank you,” Toronto says for this delightful treat, and may Centre Island continue to pulse with the warm hearts of this city to enjoy it.

Even when disaster loomed, things went right for the first Caribana. Little seemed promising for the Trinidad and Tobago show brought in from Expo 67 on August 9. The troupe had no rest from their routine of four sold-out shows a day in Montreal. Rain half-an-hour before the main performances didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of an audience, huddled under umbrellas, who yelled “More! More!” to the warm-up steel band. When the lights short-circuited, the band played three more songs without missing a beat. A Caribana official mopping the stage received roaring applause when the lights came back on. The rest of the evening went off without a hitch.

Advertisements, (left) the Telegram, August 11, 1967, (right) the Toronto Star, August 12, 1967.

By popular demand, Caribana was extended one day to end on August 13. The move was a wise one, as closing day crowds helped set a one-day record for ferry use. The day also included a surprise visit from Sir Clifford Campbell, the Governor General of Jamaica, who was on his way back to the Caribbean from Expo 67. As the festival wound down, Mayor Dennison indicated to festival organizers that he would support making Caribana an annual event.

Despite the difficulties which have threatened to derail the festival over the years, the core celebratory spirit that infused Caribana in 1967 should be on display during this year’s Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival, along with outfits that would shock the quiet, repressed, upstanding Torontonians who lined the route of that first parade. Perhaps one of the key goals the festival has aimed for throughout its history was best summed up by one of its early officials, businessman Trevor Clarke: “Integration is something that can only be effected when people can give as well as take. Culture could be the beginning of this. Unless I can project myself into your culture and you into mine, we are not equal. Caribana ’67 is showing people that it is more pleasant not to disregard us.”

Sources: Caribana The Greatest Celebration by Cecil Foster (Toronto: One World, 1995); the August 8, 1967, August 10, 1967, and August 14, 1967 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 5, 1967, August 8, 1967, August 9, 1967, and August 11, 1967 editions of the Telegram.


“Twirling and spinning; gaily costumed dancers cavort to the pounding beat of musicians from the Trinidad and Tobago show at Expo; in Toronto as part of Caribana ’67. Despite a summer rain storm and a brief power failure; some 8,000 persons flocked to Centre Island for last night’s show and most ended up singing and dancing along with the performers.” Photo by Frank Lennon, originally published in the August 10, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0102988F.

Once in awhile, I irritate readers. One, using a pseudonym based on an early 1960s Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine movie was not happy with a characterization I made near the end of this piece when it was republished in 2015.

“the quiet, repressed, upstanding Torontonians” Just out of curiosity, how do you know that Torontonians were particularly quiet or repressed? I’ll bet you weren’t even alive back here then, were you? Why do people make these blanket statements? Does anyone really think the people here were any more quiet and repressed than Vancouverites or Montrealers when it came to Caribbean parades, or has it just become a habit amongst everyone assuming they know what life was like back then?

The next day, under the alias “I. Give Up,” they were miffed that Torontoist was ignoring their complaint.

I give up on Torontoist. I wrote a perfectly valid question yesterday as to why the author was so quick to condemn Toronto as being any more cold, prudish, etc… than any other Canadian city, but apparently it was not sycophantic enough to be printed. People who write these articles weren’t even here back then and are simply re-writing history as they believe it should be. Shame on Torontoist for only printing comments that agree with them; that is what the Sun newspaper does.

My editor provided a great response.

We have had a big uptick in spam over the past few months, and your comment got caught up in that filter. It has now been published–our apologies for the delay.

We hope you enjoy reading Historicist.

Answering their charges after all these years: no, I wasn’t alive in 1967. No, I’m not looking for sycophantic comments. But I’ve read enough material from that era both depicting and poking fun at the stiff image of Torontonians – including that year’s Caribana coverage (I had already discussed concerns organizers had about offending prudes) – that it seemed like a good line to use. That the complainant chose to use two aliases while leaving their comments and compared the perceived slight to Toronto Sun editorial page policy indicated that neither me nor my editor needed to take them seriously.

Don’t Scream for Ice Cream

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 4, 2012.

“Cecil Heal sells ‘ices’ from insulated basket he uses. A second man stays at truck to watch out for children crossing street.” Photo by Barry Philip, originally published in the July 11, 1966 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0018658F.

The sight and sounds of an ice cream truck are, as Torontoist declared last year, “SUMMER INCARNATE.” While many of us enjoy walking up to the nearest parked truck to sample its dairy/pseudo-dairy delights, there are those who see a darker side to the vehicles. Half a century ago, Toronto’s suburbs engaged in a war against roaming vendors of ice cream and other treats in the name of safety and preserving tranquility.

The main reason cited for banishing ice cream trucks and other mobile food vendors was child safety. Thanks to periodic accidents, politicians and editorial page letter writers maintained that children were so distracted by the lure of dairy delights that they were oblivious to oncoming traffic. Read between the lines of the complaints and you’ll find that the trucks were targeted for their ability to drain the pockets of parents, create noise pollution, and a sense that they brought the class of any upstanding neighbourhood down a notch. In a letter to the Don Mills Mirror published in June 1963, Don Mills resident Bridget Rees found it “quite touching but at the same time hypocritical” that North York officials pushed to remove trucks from township streets. “If children’s safety is the reason for the ban,” Rees wrote, “why are there so few sidewalks in North York.” Rees pointed out that nobody was calling to ban bread or milk delivery trucks, and pointed to one neighbourhood, Glenorchy Gardens, which was fighting sidewalks it believed were “a mark of poverty.”

Following Etobicoke’s decision to implement a mobile vendor ban in 1961, other suburban municipalities within Metro Toronto considered their own restrictive bylaws. When York Township contemplated a ban the following year, the major newspapers attacked it. “It is not possible to bring up children by bylaw,” a Globe and Mail editorial began. “And even if it were possible, it would not be desirable.” The paper felt the real problem was parents, especially mothers, “who lack the strength of mind to forbid twice or thrice-a-day ice cream to their children would like a bylaw to do it for them.” It was pointed out that if truck bells tempted children to run into traffic, why not ban balls that could roll into the street? “The ice cream salesman with his tinkling bell is one of the legitimate joys of childhood,” the paper concluded. “It is ridiculous that the child should be deprived of his joy, or the salesman of his livelihood, because an officious council is endeavoring to take the place of a number of timorous parents who do not have the courage to say: ‘No, Junior, you cannot have another ice cream cone.’” The Star brought up similar points, adding that if the sound of bells was so annoying, “are the same residents up in arms against power mowers?”

While no bans on lawn manicuring aids were forthcoming, removing ice cream trucks became a hot issue at North York Township council during the spring of 1963. Beyond fears surrounding safety, complaints from the public included the ability of ringing bells to wake children from their afternoon nap. The push for a ban came from council’s traffic committee whose chair, Murray Chusid, credited his personal stance against trucks for getting him elected. Traffic co-ordinator Sid Cole insisted that rising motorist speeds meant on-street retailing could not be considered safe. Lawyers representing hard and soft ice cream vendors pointed to polls which suggested that while introducing restrictions like turning off the bells after dark would be appreciated, most questioned were against a total ban. From a modern perspective, at least one claim from the soft ice cream lobby seems dubious: “Many mothers appreciate the fact that with ice cream sales Johnny doesn’t have to cross busy intersections for his daily intake of vitamins via ice cream.” Remember that health tidbit next time you stop at a Mister Softee.

A crowd of children gather around a Good Humour salesman selling his treats in a North York driveway. The Don Mills Mirror, July 13, 1966.

Compromise proposals struck some North York councillors as ludicrous. A map presented at a June 1963 council meeting suggested allowing trucks to prowl some roads (marked in green) but not others (marked in red) made reeve Norman Goodhead laugh. “We could paint street signs red or green so people could decide if they wanted to live on an ice cream street or not,” he joked. Council voted in favour of a ban affecting ice cream trucks and mobile vendors of candy, fruit and peanuts that month, but deferred enacting it to provide time to gather more data and avoid harming existing vendors entering the busiest part of the season. Among the evidence considered was a Metro Traffic and Safety Council report stating that in the previous three-and-a-half years there were 45 accidents involving children and ice cream trucks. Of those, 43 were blamed on the children, with only one involving direct contact between truck and victim. In the end, council voted to implement a ban in November 1963.

As North York deliberated, Scarborough Township council voted in favour of its own mobile vendor ban. Besides the reasons outlined elsewhere, reeve Albert Campbell believed operators brought the wrath of the community upon themselves; “They disturb shift workers trying to get some sleep in the daytime and have done nothing to make themselves less of a nuisance.” While vendors were allowed to operate for the rest of the season in Scarborough, the final bylaw passed in January 1964 prohibited mobile sales on all but 46 streets located in industrial parks or areas that hadn’t been built up yet. Violators would be penalized up to $300.

Vendors unsuccessfully fought the Scarborough ban in court but won a minor victory when a case against an ice cream truck was dismissed in July 1964 when it was revealed a police officer ate the evidence. Dundurn Foods was among the first companies to exploit a loophole in all of the suburban bylaws: while ice cream was specifically mentioned, ice milk wasn’t, which led salesmen to claim, as they did in this case, that they were selling not-quite-ice-cream whenever cops approached them. When magistrate James Butler asked the officer what his “Big Gem Banana Split” tasted like, he replied “ice cream.” Since the truck wasn’t patted down and no chemical analysis to determine if the treat really was ice milk was conducted before the officer downed the dish, charges were dropped. Reports didn’t indicate if the officer enjoyed his banana split.

Toronto Star, August 28, 1965.

Fervour seemed to die down for a time, but a fatal accident brought the issue back to the forefront for suburban governments. On August 27, 1965, three-year-old Karen Davies when killed when she was run over by an ice cream truck on Peacham Crescent in North York. She had pedalled her tricycle into the seven foot blind spot in front of the stopped truck. When driver Mike Giambattista pulled out, he heard a bump. A coroner’s inquest two months later found both parties responsible for the accident, though coroner Eli Cass warned that the truck’s bells had a “Pied Piper” effect on children. The jury recommended that drivers have a helper to determine if the way was clear before pulling out, that products should not be sold to anyone under the age of 10 unless accompanied by an adult, and that North York should rewrite its bylaw to cover all types of confectioneries. The incident caused the Globe and Mail to change its tune—having long mocked all attempts to restrict ice cream sales, an October 1965 editorial admitted that young children were impulsive and “probably no amount of traffic safety instruction by their parents will entirely overcome their tendency to run toward any sight or sound that interests them.”

Following the advice of the coroner’s jury, North York rewrote its bylaw, which was also passed as a private member’s bill at Queen’s Park in May 1966. The key new word was “foodstuffs,” which was felt to cover all the bases. But the ever-crafty minds at one of the largest ice cream vendors, Good Humor, found another loophole to exploit. While the new bylaw banned selling food from a truck, there wasn’t any specific wording restricting drivers from temporarily parking their truck, getting out, then walking with a plaid-covered insulated basket filled with treats that could be sold door-to-door or along driveways and sidewalks. Good Humor vice-president J.L. Jackson promoted his new distribution method as a safe one that would prevent kids from tackling numerous dangerous street crossings to grab a treat at a shopping plaza—“We think we reduce accidents rather than cause them.” To prove their dedication to safety, trucks now carried warning signs like “Wait on the Curb, I’ll Come to You,” while drivers made thorough checks around their vehicles for any lingering kids before driving off. The company pointed to recent statistics from the Metro Accident Bureau, which showed that out of 4,261 children injured in traffic accidents since 1963, only 33 were due to ice cream trucks.

“Noise is everywhere. Added to the many other sounds of the city, even the pleasant chimes of an ice cream truck can be felt to be disturbing to peace.” Photo by Barry Philip, dated June 28, 1966. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0018659F.

Good Humor’s actions irked North York politicians, who continued to raise the spectre of fatalities based on residential fears. The company was hauled into court several times through the early summer of 1966, one of whom was Mike Gambattista, who claimed to be unaware of the new bylaw (and whom the court didn’t realize was involved in the Karen Davies fatality). After several convictions for selling ice cream from a truck parked on a roadway, Good Humor stopped looking for further loopholes and ceased operating in North York in late August 1966. When Etobicoke’s ban was being beefed up and considered by Queen’s Park in early 1967, a North York MPP noted that residents in his riding had quickly tired of youngsters on their lawns and the garbage left behind when the ice cream salesmen departed.

The bans remained in effect for decades to come. North York’s remained among the tightest, though it did allow for some vending along Yonge Street north of Highway 401. While offering to support downtown Toronto street vendors facing harassment over where they could operate in the mid-1980s, North York mayor Mel Lastman defended his municipality’s ban by stating there weren’t enough crowds on the streets to justify overturning it. Eventually, the bans faded into history as the amalgamated city adopted its own regulations regarding ice cream trucks, allowing these icons of summer to remain in our midst for years to come.

Sources: the May 29, 1963, June 5, 1963, and November 13, 1963 editions of the Don Mills Mirror; the July 18, 1962, July 3, 1963, October 21, 1965, October 22, 1965, and August 3, 1966 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 25, 1962, January 14, 1964, July 16, 1964, August 28, 1965, May 19, 1966, July 11, 1966, February 16, 1967, and May 23, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.


Globe and Mail, July 18, 1962.

Toronto Star, July 25, 1962.

Don Mills Mirror, May 29, 1963.

Don Mills Mirror, June 5, 1963.

Globe and Mail,. October 22, 1965.

Toronto Star, March 1, 1966.

Toronto Star, July 11, 1966.

Don Mills Mirror, July 13, 1966.