Fire and ice

A settlement of Canadians builds Trinidad-style costumes in the bitter winter of the Great Lakes. Donna Yawching questions their sanity

‘FIRST LAP’ depicting the band ‘Island-to-Island’ (1985), the inaugural liaison between Toronto islanders and guest artists. Photograph by Gera Dillon‘MAS SPECIMENS’ depicts the Shadowland band ‘Down to Earth’ (1991), a multi-faceted theme that showcased the nature of Earth, from crystals to worms, and devils too! Photograph by Gera DilloKathleen Doody of Toronto`s Shadowland Theatre paints a limb of the Merry Monarch at Peter Minshall`s mas` camp, 1987. Photograph by Gera DillonToronto Islanders (Ann Buffery and Brad Harley) study Peter Minshall costume drawings at his mas` camp, 1987. Photograph by Gera DillonToronto Islanders, with Trini friends, form a Cow Band for J`Ouvert, Carnival 1987. Photograph by Gera Dillon

It was diabolically cold, that day in March when I took the ferry from downtown Toronto across to Ward’s Island. The wind would have been whipping up big waves if the surface of the water had not been frozen solid. The ferry crunched its way forward like an ice-breaker. It was all very National Geographic.

Ward’s Island is only a brief ferry ride from downtown Toronto, but in some ways it is like a giant step back in time. Separated from the bustle and pollution of the big city by a chilly stretch of Lake Ontario, it is a close-knit community with no cars but many bikes. Everyone knows each other, and children live under the watchful eye of all the neighbours. It’s not so different from an old-time West Indian village.

Only madness, or a good story, would take an outsider to Ward’s Island in March. The story was the juxtaposition of carnival and snow. On this frigid little lump of land, a small group of dreamers had connected with Trinidad’s hot-pepper carnival. Every year they create their own (very scaled-down) version of it for Toronto’s popular Caribana parade.

Caribana is a yearly carnival-type explosion. Mainly, it consists of expatriate West Indians, colourfully costumed, “freeing up” for one glorious day in July. But the people on Ward’s Island are not Caribbean. They are not necessarily wild partiers either. They are earnest white Canadians—artists and social activists—who for the past 20 years have used the Caribana parade as a forum for consciousness-raising. Trinidad-style mas’ [masquerade] is the medium for their message.
The Caribbean connection started in the early eighties, when a Ward’s Island resident named Deanne Taylor started going to Trinidad for Carnival. A theatre person herself, she was immediately drawn to the highly theatrical, socially-conscious mas’ of designer-bandleader Peter Minshall, now a Trinidadian icon. In 1985, Taylor suggested to Shadowland, the Ward’s Island theatre company, that they should produce a band for Caribana, as a kind of extreme form of street theatre.

“We thought it would be a good idea,” says Leida Englar, a freelance artist and one of the early members of Shadowland. “We knew nothing about it, but Deanne brought Christopher [Pinheiro, one of Minshall’s acolytes] up from Trinidad, and we took a crash course in Carnival.” (“I taught them to wine to ‘Tiny Winy’,” interjects Pinheiro, who now lives full-time on the island, doing research and working on various artistic projects.)

Shadowland’s shift from community theatre to mas’-making was not as much of a stretch as it might seem. The group had been formed on the island about two years earlier, with the aim of doing “large-scale, outdoor theatrical performances,” according to Kathleen Doody, a founding member. What better description of Carnival?

Fired up by Taylor’s suggestion, Shadowland members formed what Doody describes as “a design collective, not a God-system” to create the costumes; and lo and behold, the Caribana organisers—no doubt with a certain amount of bemusement—found themselves with the parade’s first “all-white” mas’ band. “They didn’t think we could do it,” recalls Doody; but they were wrong.

The first band, appropriately named Island to Island, was a riff on what Trinidadians would consider a fancy-sailor band: lots of glitter and satin, with headpieces representing little island houses, birds, fish, etc. At the time, the islanders were waging a bitter battle against the municipal authorities for the right to stay on the island. “We were never just ‘pretty mas’,” explains Doody. “We were always about making a statement.”

Island to Island was meant to be a one-off event. But the Carnival bug had bitten deep, and in Pinheiro’s words, “They got the taste; they got hooked.” The next year they were invited to Trinidad to work in Minshall’s mas’ camp; and this became a habit. Every year since then, visitors from Ward’s Island have made the pilgrimage to Port of Spain (Englar herself has gone nine times), learning such traditional Carnival skills as wire-bending and beating copper. And as artists themselves, they brought their own skills to Trinidad. When Minshall produced Carnival is Colour in 1987, most of the hand-painting of costumes was done by the Canadian contingent.

Back in Toronto, each year the Canadians transferred their new skills and ideas to their Caribana band. They created their own designs, though Doody says “we were very much influenced by Minshall” in materials, techniques, the articulation of costumes, etc. They were also drawn to Minshall, Pinheiro believes, because “like him, they had the urge to make a statement.”

But it wasn’t all just about saving the world. Pinheiro stresses: “They came to Trinidad to have fun, learn, and have a good time. There have been love affairs, marriages, children that have been born out of this exchange.”
In the eighties and early nineties, Shadowland’s Carnival endeavours went from strength to strength. Their numbers grew to 150. They incorporated various aspects of Trinidad folklore—from Dame Lorraines and Pierrot Grenades to moko-jumbies and jab molassies—in their mas’.

Their themes put the spotlight on hot-button issues. Pollution (Water Blues for the Great Lakes, 1986) was visually reminiscent of Minshall’s 1980 Danse Macabre, but thematically connected to his 1983 anti-pollution statement River. Forest degradation was the focus of Trees R Us (1989), and the plight of Native Canadians was featured in Down to Earth (1991). Ontario for $ale (2001) skewered greedy developers, while H2O . . . Oh, Hard to Swallow (2000) was a timely comment on a toxic drinking-water scandal. In many ways, Shadowland’s political edge resembled the Trinidadian concept of ole mas’—caustic social commentary accompanied by a driving beat.

In 1990, Peter Minshall himself visited the island, bringing with him his famous mas’ character, the gigantic articulated figure known as Saga Boy. That year the islanders produced For the Birds, a lyrical effort with hand-painted wings and stick extensions to mimic flight. And who is to say that cross-pollination does not work both ways? In 2002, Minshall created Picoplat, an avian fantasy of thousands of fluttering, iridescent wings.

In their early days, Shadowland, as a theatre group, managed to qualify for a modicum of government arts funding; but in the mid-nineties official policies changed and largesse ended. Faced with much work and little money, band members’ enthusiasm started to wane. Shadowland eventually backed out of Caribana around 1999, passing the baton to an offshoot group called the Toronto Island Mas’ Band, led by artist and social activist Julie Stone.

Stone and her disciples are still involved in creating mas’, but the emphasis has shifted in recent years. Faced with dwindling numbers, it no longer makes sense to mount an entire band; so since 2003 the group has taken its costumes and joined the Caribana parade as a section within a larger band.

But the spirit of Carnival still burns strongly, and Julie Stone is adamant that the island-to-island connection will not die out. “Over my dead body,” she declares flatly. Island children are increasingly involved in stilt-walking and costume-making, she says, and “I know that there will rise out of this a designer-bandleader.” Last year, her theme was belé dancing, with gold skirts, pleated head-dresses, and dance steps taught by Trinidadian Anthony “Prime” Guerra. This year, a posse of Blue Devils “wined down” the stage.

Meanwhile, the Shadowland theatre collective is busy applying the creativity of Carnival to older island traditions such as the Fire Parade. Held the night before Caribana, it features home-made paper lanterns borne on poles, with drummers, moko-jumbies (stilt-walkers) and other costumed beings. It is in its way a version of J’Ouvert: the prelude to Carnival, a homage to the forces of both darkness and light.

According to Christopher Pinheiro (who might well be described as the bridge between the two islands): “Notions of the Carnivalesque are alive and mutating.”