It is 2018 and our family is on its first visit to Montreal Canada; the city in which Rosie Douglas’ name became world famous in 1969. As I glanced over the city from a hilltop, a Black vendor selling drinks approaches me and my family amidst the clutch of mostly white tourists. The vendor spying the few Black figures he will surely make a sale. Bottles of water and juice in his hand, the vendor speaks. I will support the cause and take out my wallet. In giving thanks, out of the vendor’s mouth emits the most beautiful Trinidadian accent. I think quickly: Maybe he is old enough to remember Rosie? I ask him what is on my mind: Did you know Rosie Douglas? The vendor responded with a degree of incredulity, mixed with reverence, “You mean Brother Rosie? Every Black person of my generation in Canada knew of Rosie. When you see Black people in positions of importance in Canada today, Rosie’s work contributed to that. Rosie was a hero to us my boy.” Later we toured the Canadian Senate at the invitation of Senator Ann Cools who spent time in jail for her role in the 1969 student uprising at Sir George Williams University. She shares a similar respect for the man and his role in changing history for the better. That love for Rosie finds emphasis in this recent short film Rosie Douglas: Fearless Rebel seen here https://vimeo.com/210956631.
I tell the vendor that I knew Rosie while at high school in 1976 and walked with him in independence and development struggle. We locked eyes and embraced. That respect for Rosie Douglas is evoked by many people that I have met on three continents over the years who knew the man. Now, one of our own has placed his remarkable life in print in a manner never before achieved. The legacy of Rosie Douglas achieves resurrection in Dr. Irving W. André most majestic biographical work thus far, Rosie Douglas: Fearless Fighter for Freedom (Pont Casse Press, 2021).
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The renown noble prize winner and humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer said:
A good example has twice the value of good advice.
That truism is given great resonance in the good example of Dr. Irving W. André and Pont Casse Press in using the written word to revive the best hopes of a nation – indeed all humanity. This is even more remarkable when in telling us of Rosie’s life, André unveils the transformative global leadership – be it in Dominica, Canada, Ireland, or Africa – of Dominica born Rosie Douglas.
Rosie, arguably, is the most eminent Caribbean born Pan Africanist of his generation. How could a young man from such a small island rise to such heights? Rosie’s work in the global movement for civil rights, includes his leadership in the fight for the equality of Black and Native Canadians; his soaring advocacy in Dominica’s independence movement; his work as Director of World Mathaba in the fight for African liberation, and his little-known efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland alongside his friends in the Irish nationalist movement and left-wing members of the British Labour Party. André biography of Douglas unearths spectacular information that will trigger great reflection and – hopefully – inspire readers of this work to commit their lives to community development and greater humanitarian service.
André, a well-respected Canadian Judge, and civic leader, serves the cause of institutionalization of memory by this meticulous rendition of the life of Rosie Douglas. At a time when our national library lies in ruins three years after Hurricane Maria in 2017, our nation is in dire need of being reminding about our greats via the written word.
In crafting the fast-paced work, Rosie is presented as the smart, friendly, and fun seeking favored son of Robert and Bernadette Douglas. The Douglas family is by far the most prosperous Black family on the island by the 1950s, at a time when the majority Black and/or Carib population are of very modest means. Born in 1941 and named after US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose New Deal policies transformed the United States for the better, Douglas seems destined at early age to achieve social transformation. Rosie’s classmates who appear in this biography are unanimous in stating that Rosie had no interest in the material trappings of his family’s social station. His kind acts of sharing food with workers on his father’s expansive coconut plantation are recalled to this day.
In the words of Rosie’s Dominica Grammar School (DGS) classmate former Cadet Corps and Defence Force Commandant Major Earle Johnson, “If Rosie’s parents gave him a half dozen shirts for the school year, he would gift one or two of those shirts to a less fortunate student.” Douglas’ aversion to selfishness or greed became legendary and ultimately won him the love of the masses of Dominicans and others who came to know him.
A son of privilege, Douglas was possessed of dignity, humility, charitable works, a fierce passion for independence, and an indomitable self-confidence. Stymied in his efforts to enter a Canadian college, Rosie dramatically places a call to Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961. He gets through by phone after some effort, when the Prime Minister of Canada returns his call. He argues his case. Within a week Rosie is on his way to Canada where Diefenbaker sends an employee to pick him up at the airport.
Rosie then studies agriculture at Guelph College and rises to become a leader of the Conservative Student Union of Canada allied with Diefenbaker’s ruling party. It is in that period that Rosie’s self-confidence and leadership qualities makes him the best-known Black student leader in Canada – first as a conservative. Later Rosie moves to the political left and to the side of the freedom struggle after listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the US civil rights leader’s visit to Canada in the early 1960s.
In due course Rosie becomes a force for civil rights, an advocate to Canada’s indigenous people and co-chair of the 1968 Black Writers Congress in Montreal. The keynote speaker at that Congress is Stokely Carmichael, the fiery Trinidad born Howard University student and ally of Dr. King who popularizes the call for “Black Power.” That Congress at McGill University, where Rosie is now a graduate student in political science, brings the global Black Power and literary elite to Montreal. Current scholarship notes the Congress as the biggest Black Power event outside the United States in the 20th Century. Attendees include CLR James, Dr. Walter Rodney, Leroi “Amiri Baraka” Jones, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, and others. After the Congress Jamaica’s government bans Dr. Rodney from returning to his position as a University of the West Indies lecturer. The governments in Jamaica and other British West Indian islands are now under pressure from Britain and the USA to quarantine these Black Power leaders as if they are carriers of some fearsome virus. In that moment, the virus is not Covid 19, but the fear of African liberation and Black consciousness. After centuries of subjugation of Africa, genocide against native people and colonial exploitation, it is dangerous to have dignified, conscious” honest and productive leadership that seek social change. Rosie in his rousing call for such change writes a book in 1975: Chains or Change.
In his book Douglas critiques the state of modern Caribbean society in which chattel slavery has been replaced by mental slavery. Islands where the ugly face of blatant colonialism is now replaced by neocolonialism practiced by Black leaders complicit in the exploitation of their own. Rosie is against the practices that keep our people in perpetual slumber, with distractions of song, dance, and trinkets galore. Rosie did not mislead people with mamaguy talk. He focused on educating those around him and encouraged academic excellence. Rosie is of a school of thought that believed in greater human freedom, and equality opportunity without regard to race. Rosie walked in the path of Robert Nesta Marley who said:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.
Rosie on his vigorous quest to eradicate mental slavery came under the scrutiny of the CIA, FBI, and the Canadian intelligence services. The biography reveals in gripping detail that by the early 1970s Rosie is shadowed by FBI plant Warren Hart of Baltimore, Maryland who pretends at being a Black Panther. Hart insidiously worms his way into Rosie’s circle and tries instigating him to plant bombs and brings him guns. Rosie is too smart for Hart and thwarts his vicious schemes.
In a chilling historical convergence, the secret services which seek to perpetuate colonialism and racial supremacist thinking are trying to eradicate Rosie at the same time that the Chicago police are complicit in the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. That vile scheming that led to the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is (terribly similar to that aimed at Rosie by secret agent Warren Hart) is captured in the groundbreaking movie Judas and the Black Messiah https://youtu.be/mS-LyH6YaBg.
André is possessed of several advantages in knitting together this spellbinding work. His family lineage is linked to Portsmouth which is the birthplace of Rosie. In the 1970s André was a student activist in Cadre Number 1, the Roseau Branch of the Popular Independence Committee. A graduate of the Dominica Grammar School (like Rosie Douglas) André is well able to provide the reader with the elements which made for the intellectual maturation of his subject. Having graduated with honors from the University of the West Indies in history, with postgraduate studies at John Hopkins University in the same subject area, André is well equipped to excavate Rosie’s buried past. Of great significance is the importance of Andre’s most opportune position from which to engage this unveiling. As a Canadian trained attorney and sitting judge, André is possessed of the tools by which to provide the reader with a meticulous analysis of the time of Rosie’s greatest trial. We are given the historical backdrop to the arrest, trial, and conviction of Douglas for his leadership role in the February 11, 1969 Sir George William University anti-racism student uprising.
This biography details Rosie’s return to Dominica and leadership of the independence movement. We read of his key role in formation of the Dominica Liberation Movement and the Committee of National Salvation (CNS). The CNS overseas peaceful resolution of the crisis in Dominica after the May 29, 1979 riot that sees birth of an interim government that replaced Prime Minister Patrick John with Oliver J. Seraphine. We are introduced to Dominican leaders of the era: Premiers Edward LeBlanc and Patrick John; Black Power leaders Joey Peltier, Nathalie Charles, Dr. William “Para” Riviere, Athie Martin, Francisco Esprit, Ronald Green, Desmond Trotter, Hilarian Deschamp, Lloyd Pascal and Pierre Charles. The towering role in Rosie’s life of his older brother, Member of Parliament Michael Douglas, is given his due. We learn off the role of Rosie’s kindly sister-in-law nurse Olivia Douglas, at whose home at Portsmouth he resides.
Rosie’s children Debbie, Robert and Cabral make their appearances. However, it is his first child Debbie, who is most present at the height of his leadership in the independence movement. Debbie is a leader of the Dominica Federation of Students during our time at high school. Good looking, as her father is handsome, Debbie accompanies the youth and student activists to Cuba in 1978, led by National Youth Council leader Pierre Charles. It was Rosie who linked Dominica’s left to the Cuban Revolution. He was key in facilitating the Cuban scholarship program that has educated hundreds of Dominicans in the arts and sciences.
After years supporting the African National Congress (ANC) and Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) to eradicate apartheid, Rosie returns home. He rebuilds the Dominica Labour Party after its leader Michael Douglas dies in 1992.
In 2000 Rosie becomes Prime Minister in the Dominica Labour Party led coalition with its former political nemesis the Dominica Freedom Party. Elected with Rosie are young men such as Roosevelt Skerrit and Vince Henderson. Untested in civic leadership, these young politicians are uneasy under Rosie’s leadership. They are young men in a hurry; seduced by the siren song of power. They demand ministries and get it.
Meanwhile, Rosie worked diligently to forge university partnerships and a greater role for the Dominica Diaspora – especially in using its competence in science and technology to transform a backward economy dependent on bananas. To that end, Rosie signed an MOU with the University of New Orleans in New Orleans Louisiana in March 2000. The plan was for UNO to set up a training center for heritage and eco-tourism at what would be a university city at Portsmouth with centers from various world class universities. It was his first visit to the United States as Prime Minister. His Minister of State Reginald Austrie was there, alongside journalists Matt Peltier, Carlisle John Baptiste, and Felix Augustine of the Government Information Service. It was Rosie’s desire to make Dominica the Athens of the Caribbean. A place where academic tourism could thrive as the US owned Ross University Medical School had demonstrated. Ross University, located at Portsmouth, had transformed the economic base of his hometown.
Rosie felt that our well-educated human resource was our saving grace. He felt we could leverage our island’s Diaspora networks to leverage funding, and competence to build an information technology driven nation. He was of the view that with water, wind, solar and geothermal powered green energy, we could create a new economy. Added to that, our well forested island would aid creation of a high end/high value eco-tourism infrastructure owned by locals.
Rosie was not a perfect man and had shortcomings, especially in his casual approach to management. A visionary, Rosie left others to tend the shop, while he scoured the world to consolidate development partnerships. He worked hard at convincing others of our island’s great promise. However, his biography reveals that too many in his cabinet had other ideas. With ministers given more to criticism of him, as opposed to meaningful contributions that they could make themselves, Rosie wilted under the pressure of creeping disloyalty. He died suddenly on October 1, 2000 under circumstances mired in controversy to his day.
André’s biography tells us that efforts to continue Rosie’s legacy flourished for a time after his death with the formation of the Rosie Douglas Foundation (RDF) and its allied Dominica Academy of Arts & Sciences (DAAS) in 2001. However, bereft of public support and opposed by the government he brought to power; such efforts faltered. Indeed, the government led by Roosevelt Skerrit accused the RDF and DAAS of trying to “rule Dominica by remote control.” Twenty years after his death, Dominica is known as a nation rooted in a policy of passport selling, coupled with a carnival of crooked foreigners fronting as its diplomats. The new economy Rosie envisioned has not been built, though we have the human capacity to do it and the funds to afford it. What of Rosie’s Diaspora focused policy of science driven economic development? Precious nothing.
Today, his successors spend millions to misuse our overseas community by bringing in plane loads of Dominicans resident overseas to vote them into power at election time, in violation of electoral laws. Sadly, Rosie’s legacy now seems entombed within a sarcophagus of selfishness and greed in high office.
Rosie, radical though he was, had imbibed a deep Christian faith in his youth. In his later years Rosie’s Christian faith was ascendant. The Christian faith teaches of redemption. It is said that Christ lived simply and died for our sins. Rosie left no palace on a hill. His greatest epitaph was in the educational opportunity he offered to the multitude. Death did not kill the spirit of Christ. His spirit is ever present because of the resurrection. By penning this biography Dr. Irving André engages in resurrectionary history. He has reminded us of the service and sacrifice of our fearless freedom fighter. May we yet show ourselves worthy of Rosie’s sacrifice. And may it be that we are imbued with the beneficial spirit of Rosie Douglas evinced by his service to others, as his soul keep marching on.