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Reconciliation, decolonization and Constitutional Reform

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This Sunday, January 22, ought to give us the occasion for reflection on our past and set us thinking more about our future. For long years, January 22 was a prominent milestone for us, being observed as a public holiday in commemoration of what was shamefully called ‘Discovery Day’. It was a painful reminder of our colonial past, a statement that the original inhabitants of this fair land of ours never existed and that our history began with the supposed arrival of a lost European adventurer, Don Cristobal Colon, also known as Christopher Columbus.{{more}}

It did not matter that there was no sound historical evidence to connect Columbus, St Vincent and January 22, we went on from year to year in blissful ignorance, continuing to live the ‘discovery’ lie. Fortunately, not all of us continued to accept this colonial shame and anti-colonial advocates over the years, from the late Eddy Griffith and Kerwyn Morris, Dr. Kenneth John and P.R.Campbell, down to another deceased, Jim Maloney, ‘Patches’ Knights, Caspar London and Dr Ralph Gonsalves, relentlessly challenged this myth. The removal of the January 22nd holiday and the observation of March 14 as National Heroes Day became a rallying cry for generations of youth, valiantly championed by the National Youth Council.

Long years of campaigning, advocacy and public education finally resulted in the Mitchell government relenting somewhat, by removing the ‘Discovery Day’ stigma, only to retain January 22 as a public holiday and to add injury to insult by calling it “St Vincent and the Grenadines Day”. It is a measure of the success of the anti-colonial campaign, as well as a credit to the progressive policy of the Gonsalves government that, after taking office, the January 22 shame was buried by its removal from the calendar of public holidays, while National Heroes Day was formally and legally instituted.

So, we have advanced along the road of decolonization, but whereas that battle may have been won, the war is far from over. For too many Vincentians, March 14 is merely another public holiday, its significance lost in our customary holiday activities. We have a long way to go still, including instilling a sense of awareness of the importance of the date as a landmark in our history. The decolonization process is not yet complete.

Just over two years ago, we had a great opportunity to remove some of the colonial shackles on our constitutional and political institutions. I refer to the constitutional reform process of 2003/09; but we blew the opportunity, by rejecting a far more advanced constitution than the one imposed on us at independence, by rejecting it in the November 2009 referendum. Our chance for constitutional advancement, albeit limited, was sacrificed on the altar of political partisanship.

Yet, time and again, the limitations of our present constitutional and political set-up are exposed for all to see. Take our Parliament, for instance. Why should persons elected by the Vincentian people be forced to swear allegiance to “Her Majesty, her heirs and successors”? Is that not every bit as shameful as a ‘Discovery day’ holiday? Do we ever listen to swearing in ceremonies in neighbouring countries who share with us the colonial status of the Queen of England being Head of State of independent countries? When are we going to erase this blot on our history?

Another example of the limitations of our current Parliamentary set-up can be observed in the operations of the House of Assembly. Here, in a mechanism which is supposed to advance the interests of the Vincentian people, political partisanship dominates to the extent that it seems that promotion of the political interests of the respective parties often gets priority. Each debate, the Budget Debate in particular, given its high-level profile, is spiced with political bias.

The debate on such crucial issues cries out for a flavour independent of the NDP sauce or ULP gravy. There is need for perspectives not imprisoned by party chains, voices which represent constituencies other than the 15 electoral districts, constituencies like the business sector, the youth, women, the labour and farmers’ movements , the religious community and special interests groups. That can only help to enrich the debate, to make the analysis more broadly representative and assist in framing a more national consensus.

The Prime Minister has taken the first tentative steps towards reconciliation. Perhaps it is as good a time as any to try and arrive at some broad level of agreement with the Opposition on furthering the decolonizing process. Constitutional reform as a term may be taboo to both sides, given its history, but the content is what is important. We urgently need to address these issues.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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