HONOURABLE ROOSEVELT SKERRIT
THE COMMONWEALTH OF DOMINICA
At the Formal Naming of
the Douglas-Charles Airport
Monday October 27, 2014
We gather here today not merely to rename an airport but to recognize and celebrate the contributions of two of our most outstanding compatriots; two Dominicans who literally gave their lives in the service of their country.
These two Prime Ministers, after whom this airport will be named, Roosevelt Douglas and Pierre Charles, inherited the burden of an economic crisis that the previous UWP government had brought upon our land. But they were not daunted by the task, nor were they pre-occupied with constantly laying blame on individuals.
So today, I shall not dwell on the monumental mistakes which that particular Government made and which temporarily halted the economic and social development of our country.
Instead I want to use this occasion to highlight what Roosevelt Douglas and Pierre Charles did in the short period they were given to reverse the downward spiral and set Dominica on the path to recovery.
I also want to appeal to your patriotism to put your shoulders to the plough and to seize the many opportunities which we now have, including this improved airport, to make the great leap forward in the development of our beloved country.
As we approach the 36th Anniversary of our Independence and the celebration of 14 years of relentless progress towards the vision of a prosperous, peaceful and just Dominica, I want to embrace all Dominicans in the final thrust to release the enormous potential of our human and natural resources and share the many benefits more equitably among our people.
The two late Prime Ministers whom we are honouring today had to find creative ways of extricating our dear country from financial and economic devastation. It is to them that we owe a debt of gratitude for their contribution, not only for initiating the rehabilitation and expansion of this airport, but also on a wider scale, for extricating Dominica from the fiscal pit into which it had been thrown.
These two outstanding Dominicans, in the brief period they were given to engineer a NEW START for Dominica, demonstrated clearly what hard work, honesty, integrity, patriotism, dedication to a cause, and a love of people regardless of their class, race or political affiliation could do to transform a society.
Needless for me to say, they have been the undisputed role models for me and my colleagues who were handed the baton to complete the task of raising the standard of living and enhancing the quality of life of ALL Dominicans.
I want first to emphasize the significance of this airport project. The condition in which we found the airport when the Dominica Labour Party assumed office in 2000 was absolutely deplorable. It was impossible for us to just leave the airport as it was, and pursue our stated goal of building an international airport as outlined in our 2000 general election Manifesto.
If something were not done quickly to improve Melville Hall airport, our standing would have been downgraded by the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) and our capacity to provide air access and attract new airlines or even to maintain the ones that we had, would have been severely challenged.
So here we were, with an economic crisis on our hands, created through no fault of our own, while, at the same time, we had to radically improve the state of our airport so as to maintain access for tourists and nationals to and from the other countries of the world.
Basically Dominica could not become a full member of the highly-interconnected modern world without a decent airport. Neither could we capitalize on the growing Tourism Sector to diversify and boost our economy like many of our neighbours in the Region.
But with all the other things that we wanted to accomplish for Dominica in terms of housing, roads, and social services including education, health care and poverty alleviation, we had to be careful how we used our scarce resources.
The task therefore, was left to the first two Prime Ministers of the new Labour Party Government to launch a major project to expand and upgrade the airport, which had been neglected for so many years. Thanks to our excellent relations with the government and people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, under the leadership of the late lamented Hugo Chavez, we were able to make a start to clear the land and extend the runway at both ends. The heroic work of the Venezuelan army in this regard will never be forgotten and the results are there for all to see.
I also wish to specially thank the European Union for its tremendous financial support towards the expansion of the Melville Hall Airport.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as a result of multi-national collaboration, we were able to continue up-grading the airport and introduce night landing for the first time, thereby extending the hours of use of old Melville Hall for the benefit of the airlines and the convenience of the passengers. The control tower now has advanced air traffic equipment and there has been a total overhaul of the terminal building. Parking for both aircraft and vehicles using the airport was expanded and the entire runway was resurfaced. Security fencing was erected around the entire complex. A new fire station and new and enlarged air cargo sheds were also constructed.
You will be delighted to hear that to date, over 40,000 travellers have landed at this airport after dark.
I can also share with you the good news that the demand for a larger airport has now reached the stage at which we must expand the facilities. As such, we have recently signed an MOU with a private sector company in the People’s Republic of China to build the long anticipated international airport using the Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) model.
Let me therefore take this opportunity to thank all the partners in development which we had courted since 2000 and which have remained loyal supporters since then. I am referring here to countries such as the People’s Republic of China, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Kingdom of Morocco, Cuba, the European Union, Turkey, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France and Japan.
So now that we have reached this next level, it is important that we pay attention to the name of this vital facility, which is so crucial to the economic and social development of our nation.
“What is in a name?” you may ask. Why should we bother to go through this change? I will tell you why. And when I am finished, you will understand how important it is for our national self-respect and for the pride and patriotism of our people that this airport be renamed.
Some 250 years ago, the British took over this island from the Kalinago people. Surveyors were sent out from England to divide the land into plots for sale. The most important colonizers, the ‘Big Boys’ of the day, grabbed the best land for themselves. The ‘biggest’ and most powerful of them all was Brigadier General Sir Robert Melville, Governor-General of the Southern Caribbee Colony of which Dominica was a member. He got 2000 acres of land encompassing this valley that you see here. He developed a sugar plantation and named it after himself: Melville Hall.
Over a period of some seventy years, he and his descendants harassed the Kalinago’s, and then imported and enslaved hundreds of black people from West Africa. They were put to work in the sugar cane fields that once covered the land where we are gathered today.
Records in our National Archives show us that those fields of cane, which were spread across this fertile valley, were worked by 138 enslaved labourers who were replenished with new slaves every few years. At the height of the plantation’s prosperity in 1827, they literally slaved away to produce for the Melville’s; 164,650 pounds of sugar, 4,000 gallons of rum and 2,100 gallons of molasses in that one year alone.
The wealth that was extracted from this land never benefited Dominica or the people who had been enslaved. When Emancipation came in 1834, it was the Melvilles who got compensation in cash for the so-called loss of their ‘property’. The compensation that the Melville family got for the loss of their slaves was spirited away to Britain, while those who had actually been enslaved received nothing at all with which to start off their lives as free people.
I am adamant that we cannot continue, in this day and age, to have our main airport named after an 18th century slave-owner, while at the same time this government is actively seeking, along with our brothers in CARICOM, to get reparations for slavery from the British and European powers.
No my friends, it is time. It is long overdue, that we have to honour our own. And so let us reflect on the lives of the two patriots for whom this airport will be renamed:
Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas was born at Portsmouth on 15th October 1941. He was educated at the Dominica Grammar School and went to study in Canada in the 1960s. First, he studied Agriculture at Ontario Agricultural College and then Political Science and Economy at Sir George Williams University, Montreal. In 1969, he led an anti-racism sit-in at Sir George Williams, which led to the occupation of the computer centre when police broke up the protest. Charged with arson, Douglas served 18 months in prison. He was then released and deported.
In January 1974, he published Chains or Change: Focus on Dominica, a book that outlined his radical proposals for Dominica’s development. Back in Dominica, he divided his time between domestic politics and international activism. This included trips to, and the opening of contacts with, Cuba, Libya and North Korea. He formed the Popular Independence Committee during the run-up to the island’s Independence.
Douglas obtained scholarships from Cuba for Dominican students and helped negotiate trade in local soap products to Cuba. He was a member of the Committee for National Salvation in 1979. Along with his brother Michael, he worked selflessly to rebuild the Dominica Labour Party from the doldrums of the early 1980s. He was elected to Parliament in 1985 and became leader of the Dominica Labour Party in 1992 after Michael’s death. He served as Leader of the Opposition in 1995 and became Prime Minister on 1 February 2000. Sadly and unexpectedly, he died of a heart attack on 1 October 2000, exactly eight months after taking office.
Rosie Douglas’ main political ally was Pierre Charles who was born in Grand Bay on 30th June 1954. ‘Pierro’, as he was best known, began his high-school education at the Dominica Grammar School and completed it at the St. Mary’s Academy before pursuing studies at the local Teachers’ College.
He served as a teacher, community organizer and political activist with the group “Laychelle” before entering elective office. He was a member of the Committee for National Salvation in 1979.
In that same year, at the age of 25, Charles was appointed a Senator in Dominica’s House of Assembly. He won the Grand Bay seat in 1985 and was re-elected in 2000, becoming Minister of Communications and Works in the new Dominica Labour Party government. He took over as Prime Minister after Roosie Douglas’ death in October 2000.
Pierre Charles fell ill in February 2003. Concerns about his health led to calls for him to step down. However, he continued to serve as Prime Minister until his death when he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 49 on 6 January 2004.
In the course of these brief biographies, we are made aware of the serious commitment and contribution of these two great builders of Dominica. It is for this reason, and for the selfless sacrifice of the two Prime Ministers, mentioned earlier, that we have chosen to rename this airport the Douglas-Charles airport.
Here are sons of the soil, who strove to change the lives and fortunes of our people for the better; who faced the worst economic adversity so far in this century to set us on the course of financial rehabilitation and progress. It is they who took the first steps to have this major airport project up and running. We, who came after them, took over the baton from them and continued the race.
So let the memory of their dedication and sacrifice live on whenever we mention their names. Let us explain to our visitors the role that these two men played in our nation building and let us recall for our children and those yet unborn that these two men blazed a trail for others to follow and to achieve down the ages. Above all let their names inspire us to do all we can to make our country prosperous, peaceful and just.
As Dominica prepares to take off to higher social and economic heights in the near future, let us ALWAYS remember the two patriots who started the process 14 years ago.
I hereby rename this airport the DOUGLAS-CHARLES AIRPORT.