May 23, 2003
The debate about national holidays has taken an acrimonious turn in the letter columns of this newspaper. The critical issue, however, relates to our flatulent holiday calendar, which has consequences for the economy of the nation. The simple truth is that a small country like this one, which is so dependent on exports for survival, cannot close down for more than one day a month. And our commercial sector is not robust enough to sustain the burden of closures on all these holidays - or pay double time to employees on a frequent basis in order to remain open.
Much of the discussion has revolved around whether an ethnic occasion should in principle be a national holiday. Some have taken the view that it could, provided that every other group received acknowledgement in the same way. In fact, it did not take the Guyana Organization of Indigenous Peoples long to point out that it had requested an Amerindian Day even before the Indian cultural organizations had started campaigning for Indian Arrival Day, while a correspondent speaking for Africans wrote that he did not regard Emancipation Day as a celebration of African culture as such.
The argument that a national holiday recognizing the arrival of a single ethnic group would be divisive, cannot be valid; but the argument that we cannot bear the burden of two, three or more additional non-working days to recognize the arrival of different ethnic groups certainly is. Of course, as suggested in an earlier editorial, we could at least prune Caricom Day from the calendar. However, various suggestions to remove Boxing Day and/or Easter Monday and/or May Day, almost certainly will not fly, because they have been entrenched for so long - among other reasons.
Of course, the Government itself has complicated the situation by inserting Independence Day into the holiday complement through the back door. Its reasons are largely political, as evidenced by the fact that it announces the annual awards on May 26 (no problem there), but then holds the investiture ceremony on October 5 - a partisan date, if ever there was one. In its early days in office the administration was hoping to miniaturize Republic Day, something which even it seems to have recognized is not possible.
The PPP has seen Republic Day as a peculiarly PNC affair, even although the party did give its support to the constitutional amendment in 1970. However, it is also uncomfortably close to the date of the late Mr Burnham's birthday. (It might be noted in passing that while the day was chosen to coincide with the beginning of the 1763 Uprising, February 23 is most likely not the date of the start of the great rising on the Berbice River; February 27 is - although it is true that there was a local revolt on Plantation Magdalenenburg in Canje on February 23.)
Political issues aside, it is the case that Independence in terms of the markers in our history, is more important than Republic Day, although whether that justifies making it a holiday at this juncture, rather than waiting to see if over time it can replace another holiday which has lost its significance, is perhaps arguable. However, whether we institutionalise Independence Day now or not, what will not be acceptable is the proposal that May 26 should also be a general Arrival Day. This will satisfy absolutely nobody, because it corresponds to none of the dates which are known - particularly for the Indians and other nineteenth century arrivals - and has no meaning for those peoples where the precise dates of their advent here are not known and may never be, like the Amerindians and the first Africans.
At the moment, there are two holidays which mark milestones in our history, namely, Emancipation Day and Republic Day. If the Government insists on adding Independence Day in the immediate future (and all the signs are that it will), then there will be a gap in the calendar insofar as there will be nothing marking the final end of indentureship - surely a date of no small significance in terms of the evolution of this society.
Exactly what date that should be, the historians of the period might be in the best position to assess. In an earlier editorial we had suggested a date from 1917, but perhaps 1920 would be better - possibly (but not necessarily) the date when the last indentureship contracts were cancelled.
If we go this route, then we will be acknowledging the end of slavery, that most brutal of institutions which affected both Amerindians and Africans, and set the scene for indentureship; the end of indentureship which affected Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Chinese and tiny groups of other peoples, such as Maltese, and which marked the cessation of plantation bondage in all its forms; the end of colonialism; and finally, the severing of the last constitutional bonds with the former colonial power.
All of which does not mean to suggest that arrivals should not continue to be observed; far from it. What is at issue is simply national holidays, not cultural celebrations.