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A tribute to sacrifice

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My heartfelt thanks go out to the organizers of last week’s simple but from all reports impressive honouring ceremony held at the Peace Memorial Hall. Thanks on a personal level, since I was one of the persons chosen to be honoured. But more importantly, thanks for the gesture, for the effort and the example of showing appreciation for citizens who have in one way or another contributed to national socio-political and cultural development. {{more}}

It was a pity that I could not be present, being on banana duty in Guyana, but I was certainly there in spirit with my co-honourees – the venerable Oscar Allen, veteran trade unionist and activist Caspar London, farmer and community activist Solomon Butler, the dedicated NGO worker Cecil Ryan and outstanding cultural artiste Nzimbu Brown – just as much as the late Earlene Horne, also honoured, was undoubtedly with the gathering.

Honouring of persons who have contributed to national life has really gained momentum over the past decade or so. It was one positive aspect of our development amidst so much that is negative. Yet it is also a process and an engagement that should be handled with maturity and responsibility if we are to preserve its credibility and validity. There must be clear criteria and different levels, reflecting the variety in scope and depth of contributions. Even in the awarding of colonial, and now in some Caribbean countries national honours, this is recognized by having different kinds of awards.

Which brings us inevitably to the issue of national awards versus the colonial Queen’s Honours. It is a debate that has been raging for more than three decades and one in which this writer has been an active participant. There are, however, several practical difficulties which have hindered a resolution of matter. Discussions on constitutional reform have revealed that the “hanging on to the Queen’s gown” is now a minority view among us, so why then do we still have Queen’s Honours? Why would a “progressive” Ralph Gonsalves-led government continue to nominate persons for Queen’s Honours? Is it going against its “progressive” credentials? And are those who accept the awards merely persons who wish to hold on to colonial relics?

To view the situation in such a manner is to take a simplistic view of a much more complex matter. For reasons of both a subjective and objective nature, in spite of establishing a committee on national awards, our country has failed thus far to agree on a clear policy or process for honouring outstanding citizens. Even the present government seems somewhat unclear or uncertain as how to proceed.

The crux of the problem, as I see it, is in acceptability and credibility of such awards. Anyone, any group, can make awards to any citizens, on whatever grounds they deem fit. That does not automatically win acceptability either at a community or national level. Those of us who have ranted and raved against the Queen’s honours nevertheless have to face up to the reality that it is a system which, for good reason or bad, has credibility, throughout the commonwealth at least.

A person so honoured has the satisfaction of knowing that the honour is not just confined to our shores. Of course the ridiculous notion of “British Empire” makes it a difficult burden to carry in today’s world, but I venture to think that it is not the “British Empire” bit in which people derive satisfaction as the recognition by what they consider to be reputable standards.

Merely replacing these by our own awards – call them Chatoyer, or a-la-Bassy, Breadfruit, awards – narrows the scope of such recognition. That is why, along with constitutional reform to replace the monarchy, I believe that the solution lies in a system of CARICOM Awards, a system which enables honourees to be recognized beyond the conferences of our own territorial space, and where one can be looked upon as an outstanding contributor to Caribbean development. Yet, there are the perennial problems of CARICOM procrastination on implementation, the process could be dragged out indefinitely.

Back, in conclusion, to where I started with the honourees of last week. What makes the gesture particularly pleasing is the recognition by one’s peers. It is recognition when one considers the tremendous contributions, which is well-deserved. But it has come at a heavy price, taken a heavy toll on the lives of those persons. SACRIFICE has been the guiding principle all along, eschewing personal gain or glory for the benefit of the community and society. There are some who cannot, will not accept contributions emanating from amongst our people, who consider that only certain persons of a particular social standing, educational background, or wealth, can be recognized nationally. Yet, whatever one’s views, it is hard to match the impressive achievement in terms of building national consciousness, that collectively the awardees have among them.

It is also a tribute to the national progressive movement of the past 30-odd years to which all those persons have contributed significantly. But in the words of Oscar Allen, much more needs to be done; we have to challenge the structures, the ideas that breed oppression and subjection. The struggle is far from over but foundations have been laid. We need to build on these.