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National honours call for a national approach

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The effects of COVID or not, it is expected that National Heroes Day will be observed this year, albeit in scaled-down circumstances. Pride of place will be the annual tribute to our National Hero, Paramount Chief Chatoyer, at the obelisk at Dorsetshire Hill, believed to be his place of death.

This year the tribute to our National hero has far wider-reaching connotations, for in the context of the COVID pandemic, there are many persons worthy of national appreciation for the selfless and heroic role that they are playing. How many of us would be willing to risk the lives and safety of ourselves and our precious families to take care of patients of the Mental Health Centre, badly affected by the virus, or the prisons for that matter?

Our reality is that while Chatoyer will and must continue to keep his exalted designation, thousands of people over the years have performed heroic roles as what we refer to as “first responders” in crisis situations. Thousands of others have performed similar roles in a number of ways outside the glare of public attention, often at tremendous personal sacrifice. In both cases they have all been taken for granted, their contributions not considered worthy of national recognition.
As we commemorate National Heroes Day it is most opportune to widen our discussion on the subject much beyond those who have been in the limelight by virtue of position – Prime Ministers, warriors, educators etc. and consider the contributions of ordinary working people in heroic circumstances and proportions. We will never all be Chatoyers or George McIntoshs or Ebeneezer Joshuas but that does not mean that our country cannot show appreciation for and recognition of outstanding contributions of citizens in many fields.
Unfortunately since the institution of the status of National Hero, our focus has been on a small group of persons considered as worthy of such status. We have not paid sufficient attention to the broader issue of demonstrating national appreciation of outstanding citizens for public service ranging from high-profile national service to very valuable community service.

Our debate therefore has centred around the few individuals nominated to join Chatoyer and not on the hundreds of others whose unsung contributions have kept our country going. Part of the problem is rooted in the colonial experience that we have endured. Not only did the colonial power reward its own citizens dispatched to these outposts to protect colonial interests but it made sure through its knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs and the like, that selected locals were singled out for recognition as well. In the absence of national awards and given the global recognition through the Empire and later the Commonwealth, one could well understand the appreciation of persons so honoured.

In the post-independence situation persons in Britain’s ex-colonies were faced with this dilemma. Let us suppose that you were a person of very humble origin who had worked yourself up through education, public or community service to be one of society’s most respected citizens, worthy of public recognition. Others before you were bestowed the honour of being recognized globally, but in our post-independence society you may well have been given “The Breadfruit Award” or “Jackfish Award”. One can be forgiven for privately musing, “Who go recognize that in St Lucia or Grenada or much further abroad”?

One may, like me, have strong anti-colonial positions and indeed many of those hypothetically referred to here may harbour them as well, but they would like their contribution to be respected and appreciated both at home and abroad. That is our dilemma.

It can only be resolved if first of all we are honest about the issue and willing to discuss it frankly. There is no long-term partisan political benefit to be gained by pussy footing on the matter. It would be best addressed by a collective Caribbean approach but reality tells us that is a very long-term goal.

In the meantime there are constitutional and political hurdles to be overcome. We can only do so with maturity, recognizing the complex nature of the problem and the absolute need for national consensus on it, throwing partisanship out the window. Must we leave it to institutions beyond our shores to honour a Frankie McIntosh for instance while we remain in a state of paralysis only able to offer what the Queen of England has on the menu?

We ought to be mature enough to engage in national dialogue on the situation. More and more of our citizens would like to be suitably honoured for their service to the nation but there is a void outside the British honours. As we reflect during this month, should we not dwell on these matters?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.