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Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas

Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas

ROSEAU, Dominica - Thirty-one years ago, Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas led the most famous university riot in Canadian history. He wore an Afro and dark Ray Bans. He spoke out against the "establishment," used phrases like "black power" and called Canada "the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." Today, Mr. Douglas has become a card-carrying member of the establishment he once railed against. Last month he was elected prime minister of Dominica, a tiny speck of an island in the Caribbean Sea. Although he says he is still committed to the struggles of his youth, the former student radical seems to have grown up. Balding and stoop-shouldered, the 58-year-old premier wears business suits, travels with an entourage of press secretaries and bureaucrats, and speaks earnestly of "bilateral agreements" and "the new globalization."

"Have I mellowed?" Mr. Douglas pondered recently, taking time out for an interview at a seaside hotel in this small Caribbean port city. "I think the world has mellowed. Who would have thought 20 years ago that Nelson Mandela would have been freed, that racism would be the issue it is today? I don't think I have mellowed. I think the world has come around to my way of thinking."

Mr. Douglas' way of thinking got him into serious trouble in 1969, when he led more than 100 students in what began as a peaceful demonstration at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University) in Montreal. Mr. Douglas, a graduate of Sir George and at the time a political science graduate student at McGill University, was protesting what he perceived to be racist policies. The two-week sit-in at the computer centre, where the university's records were kept, was called to protest the treatment of six black students by an assistant biology professor. Mr. Douglas and others believed the students had been given failing grades because they were black.

On Feb. 11, 1969, the sit-in degenerated into a riot when many protesters rejected the administration's proposals for ending the standoff. The Montreal riot squad was called in after they barricaded stairwells and shut off elevators and telephones. According to an account from The Gazette in Montreal, "about 150 students ran through several floors of the university, breaking windows and doors and smashing chairs with axes taken from emergency boxes in the corridors."

The students kept police away by hurling bottles and pieces of broken furniture and turning on the building's hoses. By the end of the riot, 97 students were arrested and more than $1.5-million worth of equipment had been destroyed. Among those arrested was Mr. Douglas and a 19-year-old Barbados-born student named Anne Cools, who is today a Liberal senator. Ms. Cools was convicted of mischief and served a four-month sentence in 1970. She was later pardoned, and appointed to the Senate in 1984.

Unlike Ms. Cools, Mr. Douglas refused to apologize. To this day, he believes the RCMP infiltrated the student movement by sending in agents provocateurs, who he says caused most of the damage. He has had frosty relations with Ms. Cools, whom he accuses of having "sold out."

"They did the same thing to me [asked him to apologize], but I couldn't apologize for being black, for standing up for what I believe in," said Mr. Douglas, who was sent to a Quebec jail for 18 months.

In 1976, still unrepentant, Mr. Douglas was labelled a national security risk and deported to Dominica. Since then, he has had difficulty visiting both Canada and the United States. Although he was twice allowed to return to Canada to visit three of his children -- in 1983 and 1989 -- as prime minister he says he can finally visit the country that was so important to the formation of his "political consciousness" without any bitterness.

"For 30 years I have waited for this moment to return to Canada," said Mr. Douglas. "I wanted to go back to Canada as the prime minister of my country. I wanted the Canadian people to understand that what they felt of me was misconstrued. I am going to return proud and confident as the leader of my people and sit across the table on an equal footing with Prime Minister [Jean] Chretien."

Mr. Douglas said he expected to visit Ottawa this week. However, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said Mr. Chretien had no plans to meet with the Dominican premier.

In any case, Mr. Douglas has his hands full in Dominica, a lush but underdeveloped island of some 80,000 people situated between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

He inherited a near-empty treasury and a massive unemployment problem, which leaves 60% of young people out of work. Many are becoming involved in the drug trade and the sale of Dominican passports.

In the past, the island has been severely criticized for selling passports to Chinese and Russian mobsters. Last year, several Chinese migrants were discovered in Canada with Dominican passports. Mr. Douglas has promised to crack down on the illicit trade. Still, his biggest problem is not the sale of Dominican citizenship but creating economic opportunities for an island that has been both blessed and cursed by its geography.

Cut by huge swathes of breathtaking tropical rainforests, Dominica is the most mountainous island in the Caribbean -- a geographical feature that has historically prevented the large-scale cultivation of coffee and sugar, which are the backbone of many other Caribbean economies.

Mr. Douglas hopes to develop the island's burgeoning eco-tourism industry, and has enlisted the aid of some of his former friends in the Marxist struggle to develop a crayfish industry. Last week, Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba's foreign minister, visited the island promising to help Mr. Douglas, whom he called "a great and old friend of Cuba" to improve Dominica's fortunes. Mr. Perez Roque and Mr. Douglas signed a bilateral agreement, increasing Cuban scholarships for Dominican students and committing Cuban technicians to help Mr. Douglas diversify the economy.

In addition to Cuba, which Mr. Douglas once called "the only territory in the Americas free from imperialist domination," he has ties with Libya. He has said he worked with Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, raising money for the African National Congress and other "liberation movements" in Africa.

Although he has been identified with Marxist causes, many here are loath to label him a communist. "A lot of youngsters adopted a pro-Castro view in the Caribbean some years ago," said Charles Harding, editor-in-chief of Dominica's weekly Chronicle newspaper. "But I can't rightfully say Rosie was a communist."

Many who knew Rosie Douglas in his youth say he is an unlikely Marxist. Born into a wealthy Dominican family, his political consciousness was not formed until he arrived in Canada in the 1960s. He became involved with civil rights after attending a lecture by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s.

Mr. Douglas, who went to Canada to study agriculture, switched to political science. He became leader of the Sir George Williams Progressive Conservative student organization in 1964, and counted former prime minister John Diefenbaker as a close friend.

Mr. Douglas left the Conservatives when its then national student leader, Joe Clark, refused to address the issue of racism on a national level. Mr. Douglas says his political views also changed radically when he went to live on Indian reserves in Quebec and visited Nova Scotia's black communities in the 1960s. The impoverished conditions of black people there affected him so much he says he decided "there and then" that he would devote his life to improving the lot of black people around the world. He counts U.S. black leaders Malcolm X and Angela Davis as his biggest influences, and said he became even more radicalized after serving time in a Quebec jail alongside militants of the Front du Liberation de Quebec.

"I learned a lot about the injustices in Canadian society when I went to jail," he said. "I met a lot of ordinary Canadians and I set up a literacy class for prisoners who couldn't read or write. The truth is that I didn't become committed to the fight for equality in Dominica. I became committed to the movement in Canada." In 1992, Mr. Douglas took over the island's Labour Party after the death of his brother, the former leader. "Yes, I feel the sacrifice was worth it," he said, referring to his time in jail and his deportation from Canada. "I feel exonerated."

Reproduced from

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