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Missing in action at Independence

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While Vincentians, many garbed in national colours, celebrated on Thursday, October 27, 1979,glorying in the replacement of the Union Jack by our own flag, I was missing in action. The process leading to that day pained me. It was pure symbolism and very flawed. A resolution in the House of Assembly in March 1978 paved the way for the achievement of Independence.  It indicated that the Government intended to invite the Opposition, Trade Unions, and other organizations to submit proposals for the Constitution.

The teachers, under Mike Browne’s leadership, were quickly off the mark, drawing up suggestions for the Constitution. By mid-April, Premier Cato and Attorney-General Arthur Williams visited England to discuss procedures for taking the country into Independence. The UWI Centre hosted a series of lectures and panel discussions on Independence and other groups and individuals became involved. I remember toward the end of April being part of a four-member panel at the Nurses Hostel. The other members were Henry Williams, Hally Dougan and Dr Kenneth John.

There were early concerns about the two months given to submit proposals.  This was insufficient, and an extension of time was requested. On May 19, a meeting proposed by the Teachers’ Union led to the formation of a National Independence Committee (NIC), led by lawyer Henry Williams, with Yvonne Francis as vice-chair, Mike Browne as secretary, Sap Coombs as treasurer, and Adrian Fraser as assistant secretary/treasurer. Others represented on the executive were the Nurses Association (Elma Dougan), National Youth Council (Adrian Saunders), the Grammar School Council of Students (Colin Williams) and the St Vincent Workers Union (Duff James).

Eventually the Government extended the deadline to July 31, but the NIC wanted two extra months, since the different organizations that were members needed to get back to their bodies and bring proposals from them. On Thursday, June 8, Premier Cato, at a meeting of the Labour Party at the Market Square, referred to the NIC as a ‘bunch of nincompoops” and the “fellas” as jokers.  Attorney-General Williams said he had the responsibility for drafting the Constitution and that there was little possibility that “those fellas” would get what they wanted included. This turned off a lot of people. The NIC reacted. The Vincentian even wrote a very critical editorial on July 7. 

The NIC did submit an 11-page document by July 31, but in a covering letter to the Clerk of the House of Assembly indicated that the short period given for submission was highly inadequate. A copy was also taken to Mr Cato by three members of the Council. I happened to have been one of them. Among the proposals was the call for a Republican system within the Commonwealth and a Senate. The St Vincent delegation left for London on September 16, with the Opposition refusing to participate. On that Saturday, two hours before the delegation was due to leave, Henry Williams received an invitation, which, of course, he declined.

Two matters made a further mockery of things. The date of January 22, the farcical and mythical date on which Christopher Columbus was supposed to have discovered St Vincent, was the preferred Independence date. Additionally, Ted Rowlands, Minister of State in the British Commonwealth Office, was reported to have said that the main objective of the London meeting was to consider “amendments to the Constitution” (meaning the Statehood Constitution). Things so far had been a ridiculous sham for anyone who understood the significance of Independence and the need for the people to be fully involved. I was a member of the Education and Mobilizing Committee of the NIC and at panel discussions, often spoke about the role of people in the movement toward Independence.

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.   

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