Parliament approves May 5, 26 holidays By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
April 30, 2004

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The National Assembly yesterday approved the report of the Special Select Committee on the Review of Public Holidays that recommended the inclusion of May 5 and May 26 in the calendar of public holidays.

May 26 will be observed as Independence Day and May 5 as Arrival Day in accordance with the committee's mandate as set out in the April 14, 2003 resolution approving its establishment. These holidays would be observed on the Monday if the date falls on a Sunday. May 5th has for many years now been celebrated as the day marking the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers in 1838 and a variety of observances are planned next week.

With the passage of the motion, the way is now clear for the Public Holidays Act to be amended to include the two holidays but there would not be enough time to do this before next Wednesday. However, the minister can use his powers to declare these holidays pending the passage of the amendments to the Act.

The report was approved on a motion which Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj, who chaired the committee, moved and which received the unanimous support of the government and members of ROAR and GAP/WPA - the only representatives of the parliamentary opposition that were present for the debate.

The government defended its decision to have a holiday designated Arrival Day with both Gajraj and Youth, Sport and Culture Minister Gail Teixeira, pointing out that save for the Amerindians, Guyanese are descendants of peoples who had been brought here from various parts of the world, with most of them arriving here in May though in different years. Former Human Services and Social Security Minister, Indra Chandarpal also supported the motion for the adoption of the report and she noted the PNCR boycott of the committee meetings. The PNCR has not been participating in meetings where Gajraj appears in his official capacity.

Gajraj noted too that the other requests, that September 10 be observed as Amerindian Day to mark the entrance in 1957 of Stephen Campbell into the legislature as a parliamentarian, October 10 be observed as African Holocaust Day and the removal of Boxing Day as a public holiday, were outside the mandate of the committee but are an indication that further work was needed. The committee also went outside its mandate and recommended that the Public Holidays Act be re-named the National Holidays Act to avoid the confusion he said that existed in the minds of those who appeared before the committee to support their written submissions.

Teixeira contended that it was not only Indians who arrived here in May but there were indentured labourers from China, Sierra Leone and Madeira, though the Indians were the largest group to land here. It was also noted in the report that there had been calls for an Indian Arrival Day off and on for forty years.

Foreign Trade Minister, Clement Rohee said the government's decision addresses the challenge the nation faces in its efforts to build social cohesion and preserve its cultural diversity.

He stressed that no group is so small that its contribution is of no importance, nor is any so dominant that it crowds out the importance of the others.

ROAR MP Ravi Dev supported the motion too though he said that the sky would not fall in if the government designated the holiday Indian Arrival Day, citing the experience of neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago that had designated the holiday Arrival Day but was forced to change the name to Indian Arrival Day in recognition of what was being observed. ROAR, the Guyana Indian Heritage Association and the Indian Arrival Committee have campaigned in recent years for the day to be declared Indian Arrival Day.

Dev, addressing the argument that a day which led to so much suffering should not be celebrated, pointed out that it would be a day for reflection on the contribution, worth and need of the Indians who were brought here, who stayed to honour the contracts they had signed and the majority of whom remained to build lives for themselves.

He said that none of those who opposed May 5 being declared a public holiday doubt that the arrival of the Indians was an event of landmark importance.

Both GAP/WPA parliamentarians, Sheila Holder and Shirley Melville supported the motion even though only Melville was present when the vote was taken. Dev and Holder had commitments arising from their being members of the parliamentary opposition and sought and obtained the permission of the Speaker Ralph Ramkarran to leave after their presentations.

Holder, in supporting the motion pointed out forty years on, Guyana was still a divided society and some way off from a unifying national ethos. In supporting a holiday to mark Indian Arrival, Holder said that the review of the holidays presented an opportunity for the nation to pay due regard to the interest of minorities so as to alleviate ethnic tensions.

Holder noted Gajraj's observation that most of the representation came from Region 4 (Demerara/ Mahaica) and that it indicates that a better method needed to be used to ascertain the views of a wider cross-section of the population.

On this point Rohee had observed that the de-emphasising of Independence Day was taken without consulting the public. He noted too that the decision in 1970 was to celebrate Independence Day every ten years but that the last time it was observed was in 1980.

Tourism, Industry and Commerce Minister, Manzoor Nadir said that he supported the observance of May 26 with the same vigour he did ten years ago at a meeting at the Square of the Revolution called to support the retention of February 23 as a public holiday, stressing that both days are important.

About his reasons for supporting May 5 being observed as Arrival Day Nadir said that it provided an opportunity for all to educate their children about the contributions the various ethnic groups.

Besides Gajraj the other members of the committee were PPP parliamentarians Labour Minister Dr Dale Bisnauth, Chandarpal, Zulfikar Mustapha, Shirley Edwards and ROAR's Dev. PNCR parliamentarians Deryck Bernard, Amna Ally and Dr George Norton were absent from yesterday's debate.