Festival Caravan: Around the world for $20

39th Anniversary Will Be Held Under One Roof
Country Pavilions showcasing Global Cultures, Traditional Dance, Live Music, Authentic Cuisine plus an International Bazaar,and for the first time since 1969, featuring insightful Tourism information, Business Import & Export Opportunities

The Date Will Be Posted When Venue Contracts Are Finalized

Caravan Bus
Zena’s Models


“Now that we have Caravan, I won’t have to think of changing my name anymore”.

The words are from a letter written by a young girl to Caravan founder Zena Kossar. Zena gets lots of letters with similar quotes.

“I can’t say that my original intention was to allay the anxiety school children might have about the sound of their names”, Zena confides almost wistfully. “When we started Caravan, all we were trying to do was to bring an international festival to Toronto. But there have been some nice by-products”.

Open the door to Zena’s year round, downtown Caravan office, (the sign on the door tells you to “Dance Right In”), and you’re welcomed by a petite, quietly spoken lady who, in truth, is a little difficult to imagine as the originator of a concepts of the magnitude of Caravan.

But as she speaks, her conversation grows more expansive and one gets a clearer picture of how her original concept grew into the establishment of a cultural festival that’s left an indelible mark on our city – as well as our country.

Each year, for nine days at the end of June, Toronto’s population swells significantly as tourists and local residents (last year a total of more than two million people) flock to Caravan. It has its imitators. But it’s still the largest North American cultural festival by quite a few country miles. It’s cited as a point of historical reference in Columbo’s Canadian References, the famous encyclopedia of all things significant and Canadian, and save for the Calgary Stampede, which possesses a cultural energy of it’s own. What other Canadian city festival attracts so many, from places as diverse as Japan and Georgia?

The Caravan ideas didn’t just happen overnight (miracles seldom do). It was first brought to fruition in 1960, but it actually began with a trip to Europe, Zena and her husband Leon took not long after the war. (Leon, at the time a newspaper reporter covering community events, is now the president of Caravan as well as the Executive Director of Canadian Folk Arts Council). Before they left, friends who had emigrated from Europe told the couple about the many local festivals unique to each country. The Kossars expected to be part of a crowd of tourists witnessing joyful townspeople dancing in the streets.

“Of course we saw none of that,” Zena recalls. “Instead, we saw a Europe that was reconstructing itself after the war. One could feel little of the essence of culture at that time. There wasn’t the excitement – and certainly not the joy”.

Strangely, it wasn’t until they returned to Canada that the Kossars found that they had expected to find in Europe. Tagging along as an enthusiastic observer, when Leon covered cultural community events for now defunct Toronto Telegram, Zena was impressed by the genuine expressiveness and energy in the cultural gatherings held in church halls, and community centres all around Toronto. The costumes, the foods, the dances were all different. All age groups were involved, from toddlers to grandparents. They were proud of their traditions and they were talented, too.

As Zena talk to the people in these communities, her interest and appreciation of them grew. “And during these talks, there was a message that kept coming through”, she says: It seemed that each group in its own way felt a little isolated and wondered why people didn’t pay more attention to it”.

As they became more impressed with the activities of Toronto’s cultural underground Zena and Leon began to wonder how its traditions might be captured and presented to the wider Canadian public. Was there a way to harness all the richness and variety of the many cultures and peoples that make Toronto what it is? And, if so, how would Torontonian’s take to such an idea?

While the Caravan idea was slowly beginning to germinate in Zena’s mind, she and Leon began to stage and promote presentations of cultural creativity, using their contacts in the various communities, they produced the colourful Nationbuilders Show at the Canadian National Exhibition from 1963 to 1970, the Ontario Show at Expo ’67 by the Canadian show at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. And they staged Royal Command performances. These events gave the participating community organizations a new image of professionalism.

Realizing that they were presenting something of interest to just about everyone, and encouraged by their successes, The Kossars began to research the possibility of introducing many cultures in separate kiosks at the CNE (sort of cultural midway). But Zena discovered that there was simply too much red tape involved, and had to scrap the idea. She was discouraged but not defeated.

“I really didn’t know what to do at that point until one day when Leon and I were sitting in the King Eddie,” Zena recalls. “I suggested to him that we have all these cultural organizations, give them city names (because cities, you know are not political) and have the president of each organization serve as mayor of his city pavilion. As well, we could select an annual pavilion princess. That’s when the idea became a truly workable concept”.

The intention having been stated over cocktails at the King Edward Hotel, Zena and Leon began the world of making Caravan a reality. Everyone who became involved on it’s launching loved the idea. And they loved the name Zena had chosen: Caravan (a group of travelers going from place to place).

Zena also remembers that some people were intimidated by the plans. Each meeting held to finalize a Caravan phase would be interrupted by a Doubting Tom. “What if we can’t get the proper buses?” What do we do if a pavilion makes buckets of borscht and nobody wants to try it?” So Zena discussed the Caravan idea fully with some artistic and culinary consultants, and the next time anyone got the jitters, she calmed them with the reassurance that “nobody’s going to hang you if the first Caravan falls flat on its face”. With that, the first Metropolitan International Caravan, complete with 29 pavilions specializing in everything from Ukrainian cabbage rolls to Vienna waltzes, opened in June 1969.

Toronto’s interest was aroused (from sounds of that first oom-pah-pah), Caravan was a wild success. It was the enthusiasm of the people that gave it, its initial push. So apathetic were some members of the media about the first Press Tour of Caravan, that Zena laughs recalling how she plucked a group of writers from the Press Club, plied them with food and drinks and bused them from pavilion to pavilion. Of course they had the time of their lives, tasting Polish kielbasa, dancing the Filipino pagdiwata, and drinking Italian wine. “But I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to be that bold today,” she admits.

Since that first time, however the world’s press has needed no coaxing to crow about this annual event. Articles applauding the festival have been published in countless North American and European newspapers, and in magazines such as National Geographic and Time. With Caravan, announced Time in 1972, Toronto’s “Icebox Melteth”. In 1977, a Toronto Star editorial proclaimed that “we especially need Caravan’s annual reminder that this is still a uniquely good place to live.” And in The New York Times in June of

1974, a reporter noted that only at such a “city-wide festival” would one see “a young Japanese couple warily tasting a sample of spicy haggis being passed around by a kilted Scottish bagpiper”. Canadian and American television stations have recorded Caravan events.

So did a film crew from China, who was especially impressed with the festival’s “lack of commercialism”. And Zena tells of a reporter, sent over last year by Japan’s Mainichi-Press newspapers, who traveled from Tokyo to Toronto, literally, and then, figuratively, around the world again in less than 24 hours.

Great care has been taken in choosing the words that best describe the Caravan experience. It’s been penned as everything from “the Canadian Mosaic” to an annual party celebrating “our cosmopolitan.” But despite the superlatives Caravan fans have used to extol the virtues of what goes on, Zena still refers to it, simply as a cultural event.

Yes, it’s a festival of fun, she says. But it’s also a place where you can watch sheep being sheared in the Sydney-Auckland pavilion, a “genuine” Rembrandt being forged in fun at the Amsterdam stop. Lace maker’s weaving their age-old patterns at the Brussels pavilion. It’s a place where someone who has never set foot in Scotland can enjoy the pageantry of skirling pipes and swirling kilts, or a third-generation Canadian who has rarely been beyond their city’s suburbs can try bending backward inches from the floor in the ultimate Trinidadian limbo challenge.

People enjoy being brought together to have their national identity reaffirmed. As Zena says: “When you compare what is similar instead of focusing on what is different, people accept and understand the uniqueness of each person’s particular culture.”

It’s by design that, at Caravan, the cultural and political are separate. But it’s natural, too. People have always been attracted to new places less for their politics than for the customs, for sights and sounds not experienced before. So that’s the way it is, at Caravan. People visit a pavilion to enjoy the culture it presents (a culture that may have been preserved over centuries), regardless of the political climate around it.

It takes the colour and uniqueness each culture has to offer to entice people away from their own familiar environments. What could be more exciting than to sit at a sushi bar and finally realize why your Japanese neighbour praised the food so highly? Or to choose a side, and cheer lustily during the Oxford-Cambridge boat race?

“People to people” says Zena, “is a healthy thing indeed.” And though she realizes that a festival can’t last forever, nine days each June is just what a great city needs to confirm that it takes a lot of great cities to make Toronto what it is.

by Marilyn Linton

Press Kits and Articles

Metro Toronto International Caravan:
‘Toronto’s Multi-Nation Vacation’
36 Years Young and Growing

Toronto- Celebrating its 36 th Anniversary. Metro Toronto International Caravan for 2004 promises to be even more exciting, featuring the best in food and entertainment of Toronto’s cultural diversity. Caravan founder, Zena Kossar has handed the management reins over to newly appointed President, Kirk Jensen. Jensen, who brings his many years of corporate experience to Caravan states ” I am extremely excited to carry on the wonderful Festival that Zena and Leon created with Caravan. We intend to continue to offer the rich ethnic traditions from around the globe, to the people of the largest Multicultural city in the world, Toronto.”

This year’s Caravan is back to its original nine day format.. Due to an overwhelming demand from last year’s Caravan goers, we have added extra days in order for everyone to enjoy the “Caravan expierence” states Jensen. For the first time in our 36 year history, Caravan will not be held in June, an announcement will be made shortly for the 2004 date.

Caravan’s 36th Anniversary!
International Pavilions Showcasing World Cultures

For More Information, visit: www.caravan-org.comThe new management is: Kirk Jensen, President

Around the world for $20Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Fall 1997 – by Karen Bell

For nine days each June, Torontonians can tour the world without leaving home.

This budget-priced, globe-trotting opportunity comes courtesy of I Festival Caravan, when Toronto’s many ethnic communities–which proudly celebrate their roots–put on a show and invite everyone to join the fun …

Caravan was the idea of Leon and Zena Kossar, who are still organizing and running the festival. The Kossars thought it was a shame that the general public never saw ethnic community events. Thirty years later, in 1997, 32 Caravan pavilions, each named after a major city, opened their doors to cultural tourists eager to view displays, shop for souvenirs, sample food and drink and watch the entertainment provided. All you need is a passport, which is available at any pavilion and costs $20 for nine days (or $10 for one day). With a bit of planning, it’s easy to visit three or four “cities” in an evening. A car is not absolutely necessary since many are conveniently located in the heart of the city, or on public transit routes.

Visitors are usually welcomed by the “mayor” or the “princess” of that particular city, for example, Odessa, Cairo or Rome. Princesses are always dressed in the colourful, elaborate costumes of their particular culture.

If you think you already know all about a particular culture, you could be wrong. This year’s Seville pavilion was said to feature 20 different types of dances from various regions of Spain.

City of Toronto Proclamation

“Festival Caravan Week”
June 19 to 23, 2002

WHEREAS: for 34 years, Toronto has been celebrating one of the most unique and exotic festivals in the world; and

WHEREAS: over the years, Festival Caravan has given thousands of residents and visitors an opportunity to travel the world without leaving our City; and

WHEREAS: this year, 25 pavilions representing the great cultural capitals of the world, allow us to enjoy international gourmet delicacies, celebration dances and entertainment, and the rich and varied traditions and heritage of the many communities that make Toronto their home; and

WHEREAS: while Festival Caravan is a celebration of Toronto’s exceptional quality of life, energy, creativity and unique diversity, it is also a remarkable portrait of our City’s and our country’s heritage.


THEREFORE: I, Mayor Mel Lastman, on behalf of Toronto City Council and the 2.5 million people of our great City, do hereby proclaim June 19 to 23, 2002 as “Festival Caravan Week”, and salute and congratulate the many organizations, staff and volunteers who make it easy and affordable for all of us to travel by bringing the world to our doorstep.

[Signed Mayor Mel Lastman]

One Response to “Festival Caravan: Around the world for $20”

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