Conferences are generally notorious for their lack of meaning. When the participants are affluent, the meeting produces its usual rounds of cocktails, its luncheons and its platitudes and on the morning after one, is hard put to find out what was really discussed.
When the Conference on West Indian Affairs met in Montreal on October 8 and 9 of this year, not a few people wondered whether it would be another of the clichés. It was the first such conference in North America organised by West Indians, for West Indians and about the West Indies. We were not going to discuss what Canada could do for “the islands” as the whole area is called. We wanted to get away from the palm trees and the white sands to look at ourselves as people who have never really had a meaningful examination of what we are.
This undertaking was necessary because in the past conferences on the West Indies always had the theme of somebody doing something for West Indians, and they inevitably revealed us as a people on our knees who were always asking favours of others. When we did not ask for federation, we asked for no federation, when we were not in London asking the British government to allow more of our people in, we were in Ottawa doing the same thing. Indeed all our conferences, and it is significant that these have in the main involved our “leaders”, have had to do with asking for means to extend or strengthen the status quo. We were determined that this meeting was going to be different. Here, West Indians were not going to think on their knees but on their feet as representatives of an area which has all the potential for generating its own dynamism. This was not going to be a conference of ‘leaders” but then neither was it intended as one of followers. We did not intend a dialogue between superordinates and subordinates. We simply desired a meeting of West Indians.
The enormity of the task was not fully realized until the Friday night the conference opened. George Lamming had come all the way from London to be guest speaker and we wondered how many others would make their way to Montreal. It rained and it was cold and Canada was celebrating (bow ironic it now appears) its Thanksgiving week-end. Would West Indians in this country, workers and students, feel that they couldn’t be bothered to give up their long week-end for a look at themselves? All this went through the minds of the organising committee as the official hour for registration approached. Half an hour before the proceedings were scheduled to begin only one person had appeared. She was a girl from Barbados and she could not conceal her disappointment at the still empty conference hall.
But the situation soon changed abruptly. By bus, car, train and air, St. Lucians, Antiguans, Jamaicans and Trinidadians and others of our people came from New York, Toronto, Detroit, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, Hamilton and Indiana to “shape the future of the West Indies”. Who could claim now that West Indians were not interested in themselves?
The experience was an overwhelming one and George Lamming captured its essence in what has been described as a penetrating exposition of the West Indian fact. To him the conference was one which had echoes wherever West Indians were to be found and as such its scale of operation was worldwide.