Scene of mass protest in Roseau on May 29, 1979

Scene of mass protest in Roseau on May 29, 1979

On May 29, 1979 a huge protest against the government of Patrick John took place in Roseau. It turned deadly as members of the defense force fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared one man was dead and 9 injured. Below is a CANA news story on the events of that day over three decades ago. It was a day that changed the political landscape in Dominica forever. 

Prime Minister Patrick John faced a major crisis tonight after a big demonstration against two controversial Bills resulted in the death of one man, injury to nine people and union demands for the Government to resign.

Five of the island’s main unions, representing some 8,000 workers vowed to strike until the Dominican Government stepped down, today soon after Defence Force members and demonstrators clashed violently outside the House of Assembly.

That clash left 23-year-old port worker, Phillip Timothy dead, felled by a bullet that went right through his lower abdomen from side to side.

Nine other people were shot and are in the Princess Margaret Hospital. Three of them, including a man and a thirteen year old school boy were categorised by hospital sources as serious.

A detachment from the eight-three strong Defence Force resorted to live bullets after blanks and tear-gas failed to completely subdue the demonstrators who hurled stones and jeered some Government Parliamentarians as they entered the Government Headquarters building to attend a session of Parliament.

The Government was reported tonight to have passed the amendment through the Industrial Relations Act and the Libel and Slander Ordinances changes which critics said would emasculate trade and unions and muzzle the press.

Debate on the Bills continued in the absence of the opposition who walked out when the Government defeated their motion for an adjournment because of the troubles outside.

Prime Minister John’s Labour Party Government holds fifteen seats in the House of Assembly.

The new Labour amendment sought to prevent strikes in the Civil Service and Essential Services such as telephones communication, water, Electricity, customs and airports. But all except electricity and water were affected today by the unions’ protest action.

Melville Hall Airport and the Seaport were closed and Cable & Wireless closed their telephone communications section three hours early.

Labour unions are also objecting to a clause providing for an arbitration tribunal. They say it is only an industrial court to which they had earlier objected in a new guise.

Opposition politicians also deemed as objectionable a new requirement that newspaper Editors disclosed the identities of anonymous writers who refrain from publishing articles critical of a person in his professional and official capacity.

The relevant clause read: “An Editor of a newspaper shall not publish in his newspaper an article which directly or indirectly offers criticism of any person in his professional or official capacity or which ascribes to any person conduct which may have the effect of lowering that person in the estimation of others unless the article carries an indication at the top therefore as to whether the article is a political or other commitment or purports to factual together with the actual name of the correspondence or writer of the article.

An estimated thirteen thousand people gathered this morning outside government headquarters in Roseau to stage their protest as Parliamentarians entered the building which houses the House of Assembly on the fifth floor.

A Government MP Culand Dubois was mobbed by the crowd who cornered him at the gates. Police came to his aid and had to repeat their rescue act for the External Affairs Minister Luke Corriette.

Just before Prime Minister Patrick John was due to make his appearance, a Defence Force detachment drew up and fired tear-gas to disburse the crowd.

Demonstrators retaliated by throwing stones, smashing the windscreens of three cars, one belonging to the defence force and another belonging to the Police ad, the third to Deputy Prime Minister Henckel Christian.

Under a hail of stones, the Defence force members opened up with blanks. Then they resorted to live bullets. People scampered and the situation was shortly afterwards brought under control.

Four people including Dominican freelance reporter Elsworth Carter were arrested and kept in custody inside the Government Headquarters for just over an hour.

Following the clash, union leaders held a massive meeting at the Goodwill Parish Hall and speaker after speaker announced strike action until the Government resigns.

The Unions’ involved were: The Waterfront and Allied Workers Union which claims to represent eight thousand workers ; The Civil Service Association , about three thousand; The Dominica Almagated Workers Union; under six thousand; and the Dominica Trade Union, one thousand workers.

The DAWU and the DTU represented workers in the country’s vital Banana Industry.

Supporters for the strike action has also come from the Dominica Farmers Union.

CANA Editors note: The May 29, 1979 demonstration and other events preceded it, led to the toppling of the Patrick John Administration less than a year after he led Dominica into Independence from Britain.

The May 29 incident led to a constitutional downfall of the Patrick John regime on Friday, June 22 1979. The general strike called by the unions’ on the island paralysed the country for nearly one month.