By ELTON GEORGES
On Monday 10th March most business and commerce and government will stop for a day to ‘celebrate’ Commonwealth Day as a public holiday. This Territory is one of, at most, 3 countries in the world that “wastes” a precious public holiday on this. It has never been a public holiday in any part of Britain and in fact it is scarcely observed there in any way. No programmes in schools, and the like, as we have here.
Commonwealth Day is the successor to Empire Day, of course — the 24th of May, which we were required to celebrate ‘back in the day’. The name was changed in 1958, and they changed the date in 1978 to the second Monday in March. As school children, we celebrated Empire Day by, among other things, singing “patriotic” songs, foremost among which was “Rule Britannia”. We lustily sang “Britons never, never will be slaves”, completely oblivious to the irony that the slave labour of many, including our ancestors, had built up fortunes and cities for Britons in Britain. If our teachers were conscious of the irony, they never let on.
Similarly, as has happened for years, the date of the celebration of the Queen’s official birthday has just been announced as confirmed for the second Saturday in June, with the reminder that it is a public holiday. That means, for example, that employees who would normally have that as a regular working day are entitled to have the day off, or get a higher rate of pay if they are required to work. Yet, it is not a public holiday in Britain or in most countries throughout the Commonwealth, except for a very, very few colonies or former colonies.
What is it that makes us want to retain these relics as holidays on our list?
Back in 1954, the newly reinstated Legislative Council changed the then list on grounds of relevance to the Colony by, for example, removing Labour Day and, in the thinking of the times, instating “St. Ursula’s Day”, which was a novelty. Then in 1956, we got Colony Day (or De-federation Day) – now styled “Territory Day” – on 1st July. It was a major advance in 1999 when the then Government at last removed the archaic “Heir to the Throne’s Birthday” – 14th November – from the list and added the H Lavity Stoutt Day to be celebrated the first Monday in March – so as not to clash with Commonwealth Day.
Seeking to build on that momentum, the Public Holidays Review Committee, in a report tabled in the Legislative Council in 2002`, pointed out the anomaly of Commonwealth Day being a public holiday. It recommended its discontinuance as such and that another new annual holiday be proclaimed instead, in November, to be called “Heroes’ Day” – or similar name – to serve as an opportunity to recall and celebrate the several individuals beside Mr. Stoutt who throughout our history have played significant parts in keeping our island community going during the years of slavery and after emancipation to the present day. Pioneers or outstanding personages in nursing, teaching, farming, the other professions, literature and other arts, scholarship, the church, business – all could be remembered in turn. November was selected because it was the month of the 1949 protest march that played a part in restoration of the Legislative Council, which took place in 1950, with its opening in November. The idea was that having such a day would also spur research efforts to identify such persons and write up the information about them. Commonwealth Day, meanwhile, would continue to be on the calendar of those days that are observed, in some suitable way (such as Environment Day or Remembrance Day) but not public holidays.
It would appear that the preference is to stick with the anomaly.
Queen’s Official Birthday
The Committee recommended that this day be observed also – garden party and parade (although with the emerging views about the monarchy, one wonders whether the main parade should not be moved to Virgin Islands Day, which was the recommended new name for Territory Day) – but it should cease to be a public holiday. The reasons again were clear. Public holidays are a cost to the economy, and they should be reserved for really significant causes. It is held on a Saturday, in any event, and the usual activities to mark it would not be affected by the change. In place of this holiday, the Committee recommended that a holiday be considered for the third Monday in September, to cater to the significant and growing interest, especially among the young, in the connection with Africa and in things African. (This holiday could also be placed in February, the so-called Black History Month.) But there are other possibilities: a Caribbean community day?
The reaction to these suggestions was deafening: silence. It is of interest that in 2008 Bermuda discontinued the Queen’s Official Birthday (it is not the real birthday) as a public holiday and substituted a National Heroes Day, celebrated on the Monday closest to mid-June.Perhaps one day BVI will take a critical look at its holidays and make at least a few timid changes.