GOVERNOR General Dame Pearlette Louisy is quickly approaching a milestone. Already having made history as St. Lucia’s first female Governor-General and the youngest person ever to occupy the position, she is currently heading towards another significant landmark later this year, when she will mark her 20th. year as Head of State.
No one has held the position longer than Dame Pearlette.
Of the five other holders of the position since independence, Sir Stanislaus James held the position the longest, seven years and eight months in two spells as Acting Governor General and then Governor General.
Dame Pearlette also has the distinction of being the only Head of State to have found favour with both the main political parties, holding onto to her position while they traded turns in the seat of government. I remember suggesting in an article on Dame Pearlette way back in 1998 that she could be Governor General “for some considerable time” because her appointment had bridged the political divide.
Ask anyone and they will agree that Dame Pearlette has been an exemplary Head of State bringing class and distinction to the position even while tilting it sometimes from its lofty perch to touch the masses, yet maintaining its grace and dignity.
Dame Pearlette was only 52, an age when most people are only beginning to reach the pinnacle of their careers, when she was called up by Dr. Kenny Anthony, the victorious 1997 St Lucia Labour Party leader to occupy the “house on the hill.” It was in fact her greatest moment, in a life studded with great moments especially in the field of academia in which she excelled.
In that 1998 interview mentioned earlier Dame Pearlette, admitted being awed at being chosen to occupy Government House. She never imagined she would have got so far, she said. “The first thing I remember was wanting to become a lawyer. Halfway through secondary school when I was taken up with French. I thought that maybe I should be a diplomat. I saw myself becoming St Lucia’s first Ambassador to France but by the time I had finished Sixth Form I could only afford to go into the teaching service”.
It was there, however, that she began to make her mark. In 1958, at age 12 Dame Pearlette became a Pupil Teacher in the home village of Laborie. Then followed her secondary education at the St Joseph’s Convent, then a place on the staff and from there the Principalship of the then Advanced Level College.
The establishment of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in 1986 opened another door and Dame Pearlette became Dean of the Division of Arts, Science and General Studies. Then she because Vice Principal and finally Principal of the entire College in 1996.
Along the way, Dame Pearlette added more academic achievements to her resume: Bachelor of Arts in English and French at the University of the West Indies; Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of Lavel in Quebec, Canada and Doctor of Philosophy in Education from the University of Bristol, England. Her career as academic and teacher took her to major gatherings throughout the world: Egypt, France, Canada, the United States, Gabon, Niger, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
In 1999 Dame Pearlette was awarded the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) by the University of Bristol. On 16 July 1999 she was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and in 2011, she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.B) from the University of West Indies.
At home, Dame Pearlette is widely known as one of the foremost champions of Kweyol, and was the first Governor General to deliver part of the Throne Speech to Parliament in the native tongue. Now she regularly uses it in other official speeches and encourages its use around the island.
Last year on the eve of the independence celebrations the Government of Saint Lucia agreed to the adoption of a Kwéyòl version of the National Anthem, which was put together by a Kwéyòl Language Committee of the Folk Research Centre, with input by another special committee chaired by Dame Pearlette.
She sees Kweyol as a vital part of St Lucia’s culture that must be preserved at all costs and flatly disagrees with those who would want to associate it with slavery, poverty or any other social drawback. Dame Pearlette once said: “I came from creole community and family environment. I was raised by a grandmother who spoke very little English. The rules were that she spoke to us children in Creole and we responded in Creole. But we children spoke to everyone else in English. Later my studies led me to languages. At the University of the West Indies, I did English, French and Latin and my Master’s was in linguistics so it was only natural that I should take a look at Creole as part of my general interest in culture”.
Even in the face of criticism, Dame Pearlette stands firm on the issue of kweyol: “I’ve been involved in the promotion of Kwéyòl for years. I have taken all kinds of criticism from persons who say that it is all well and good for you to promote Kwéyòl when you speak English, you speak French, and so they do not see why I then should be promoting Kwéyòl to persons who are struggling with English. But what we are missing is the fact that it is part of who we are and we need to appreciate and understand who we are. We need to be grounded in our realities and when we know who we are and we have that grounding in who we are and what is ours then we can more appreciate others.”
At 70, Dame Pearlette’s time on the hill may be winding down. But no one can doubt that her tenure there has been fulfilling. Whenever she makes her exit she will have left behind a tough act for whoever follows her to replicate. (By Guy Ellis)