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Parliament should officially recognise the Garifuna/Garinagu language

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Fri Sep 05, 2014

Editor: It is with deep interest that we read of an incident (of great relevance to all Vincentians) which transpired at the Dangriga branch of the CIBC FirstCaribbean Bank in Belize.{{more}}

It is alleged that a female employee of Garifuna extract was suspended for speaking in the Garifuna language with a customer at the bank. This created a furore among Garifuna people in Belize, New York and elsewhere – the argument being proffered that it was a denial of the employee’s constitutional rights to speak a language recognised (though not spoken) by all Belizean people. It is not the official language of Belize – English is. Spanish and Mayan are also featured, depending on how close you are to the Mexican and Guatemalan borders.

It may appear that this is yet another indication of the struggles of an historically subjugated people, who 217 years after being shipped off like cattle from St Vincent and forced to settle in Central America, still have to contend with prejudices that manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

The director of corporate communications at the Barbados head office of CIBC FirstCaribbean responded in a press release that,”… there is no policy within CIBC FirstCaribbean that prohibits the use of Garifuna, or any other native language, within the bank. Our employees are free to use whatever language they are comfortable with in their private conversations.”

It is noteworthy that the release speaks especially to “private conversations” and did not confirm whether there was anything wrong in the case where the employee spoke with a customer in Garifuna for ease of communication. I am unsure whether this instance is or is not, characterised as “private conversation”. After all, the bank encourages the use of official languages of the country when employees are communicating within the “earshot of a mixture of ethnicities”.

And what if the customer had difficulties communicating in English? Wouldn’t it then have been a demonstration of quality customer service by the employee to speak in a language best understood by the resident of an area in Belize where most persons spoke and understood Garifuna? Or is this a measure of the regard held for “our people”? My bank which promotes the recognition of our unsung heroes should clarify.

Whereas the bank confirms that the employee has not been suspended, contrary to other reports, it is rumoured that she has contemplated submitting her resignation. If she does, and if the initial story is all true, she may very well have a case for constructive dismissal and the right to claim severance and damages from her employers. If there is no veracity to the story, then the bank has some public relations work to do.

This matter should concern us all here in the homeland of Garifuna people worldwide. Given its strong presence in SVG, I invite CIBC FirstCaribbean to reassure us all that the people of the Garifuna nation are not being discriminated against in any form.

I also ask the Parliament of St Vincent and the Grenadines to officially recognise the Garifuna /Garinagu language, though no longer spoken here, as an original or originating language of our nation state. To what end, one may ask?- my response is, firstly, to assure Garifuna people in Belize and elsewhere that we genuinely stand in solidarity with them and, secondly and more importantly, to help us chart the course towards full national acceptance of the existential Garifuna character as a defining pillar of our still emerging civilisation.

Joel Providence

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