The anniversary of Independence is not usually a pleasant time for me. For many Vincentians it is a fashion parade as they create outfits with the colours of the national flag and proudly display them.
Others declare themselves Vincy to the core, some reasserting their ‘Vincentian-ness”. Others identify with anything that is positively Vincentian.
Unfortunately, to a large extent this is short lived because the country soon resorts to its divisiveness. They are no longer their brothers and sisters keepers, and it is back to square one.
As one who had been involved in the movement to independence the manner in which we recovered our Independence has left me bitter, especially since it might be argued that we are now experiencing the sour legacy of what the “Eye of the Needle” would have referred to as a flawed approach to what was to be a milestone in our history.
On my return to SVG from my first set of studies in Canada I was invited to be part of a panel on Independence in Georgetown, with Ebenezer Joshua as the other member. His position then was that we were not ready for Independence.
I disagreed and said that we have always been ready. I made this point at a lecture in Curacao and ended by saying that you can only learn to swim by going into the water. For this I got a standing ovation from the large audience.
During the debate in the Legislature in March 1978 Premier Cato called on the people to become involved in the Independence debate. Joshua who was then Minister of Agriculture had written to Ted Rowlands the Minister of State in the British Commonwealth Office saying that the PPP was not in favour of Independence without a Referendum and General Elections.
He was dismissed after refusing to recall his letter. That led to the collapse of the Unity Government.
The St. Vincent Union of Teachers, led by Mike Browne was quickly off the mark, responding to the invitation to be part of the debate. A National Convention on 3&4 April under the theme “SVUT in an Independent Society” drew up suggestions to be included in the new constitution. Following discussions with groups and individuals and echoed in the Vincentian newspaper, a National Independence Committee (NIC) made up of unions, associations and different groups and individuals was established with Henry Williams as Chairman, Yvonne Francis Gibson (VC), Mike Browne Secretary, Sap Coombs Treasurer, Adrian Fraser Assistant Secretary-Treasurer, Duff James (Workers Union), Elma Dougan (Nurses Association), Adrian Saunders (NYC), Oscar Allen (Arwee) and Colin Williams (St. Vincent Grammar School Council of Students)
Two months were given for groups to submit memoranda for inclusion in the new constitution to the Clerk of Assembly.
Letters asking for an extension of the deadline were sent by James Mitchell (only member of NDP in the Legislature), the SVUT and supported by the Vincentian newspaper. Premier Cato had described the NIC as Jokers and Nincompoops.
Attorney General, Arthur Williams stated that it was his responsibility to draft the constitution “so there is little possibility of ‘these fellers’ having what they want included.”
By the end of July, the NIC had finalised its recommendations and submitted them to the Clerk of the House of Assembly. I joined Henry Williams and Mike Browne in delivering a copy to the Premier at his Office. A delegation without the Leader of the Opposition, Ivy Joshua, or leaders of the other parties left on 16th September for England.
A last minute effort to get Henry Williams as part of the delegation failed since he got his invitation by phone on the same morning the delegation was to leave. What was startling was a comment by Ted Rowlands that the main item on the agenda was to consider “amendments to the Constitution” (The template obviously already worked out by the Commonwealth Office).
The NIC had selected subcommittees, including an Education and Mobilising Committee of which I was part, along with Renwick Rose, Oscar Allen, Mike Browne, Colin Williams and representatives of the NYC. The Constitutional Committee included Adrian Saunders, Henry Williams, Rupert John, Kenneth John and Duff James. The Education Committee was very active, holding meetings at different venues.
I remember one at the Nurses Hostel where I made the point that the people should be involved in the process prior to independence and made a call for the concept of the recall to be included. Also addressing that gathering were Henry Williams, Kenneth John and Hally Dougan.
When the delegation returned the Premier indicated that they had gotten everything they wanted and that the date for Independence was to be January 22. How backward! How ironic! – the date on which they had lied and told us that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ St. Vincent. Crowds of party supporters had flocked to the airport, so much so that the Vincentian newspaper said it was “like carnival at the airport”.
Yulimo was there in protest and made the point that “While we support the principle of Independence, we are not satisfied with the behaviour of government and the way it is dealing with Independence.”
Copies of the constitution arrived on November 28 and a month was given for discussion of the draft which was considered by many as being too short a period.
We were later told by the Division of the British Regional Office in Barbados that January 22 was no longer “a practical proposition” because of the involvement of British lawmen in similar constitutional exercises. 1979 proved to be a difficult year because of the eruption of the Soufriere. When October 27 was selected there were some differences since it was felt that the country was still experiencing the effects of the volcanic eruption.
Eventually October 27 came, to be followed by elections in December and the Uprising in Union Island that brought Barbadian police to SVG. (To be continued)
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian