Rt. Hon. Sir James Fitz-Allen Mitchell was born on the island of Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a Caribbean country within the Commonwealth of Nations, in 1931. This island is a favourite among sailing enthusiasts from around the world. When he reached his teens, he left to attend secondary school in Kingstown, the capital city on the main island of St. Vincent nine miles away. He then spent three years of study at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, the forerunner of the University of the West Indies.
In 1954 James come to UBC and obtained the degree of BSA with a major in Plant Science (Agronomy) from UBC in 1955.
In an interview given in 1987 while he was attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Vancouver he explained his decision in coming to BC, stating, “I studied Canadian geography and chose UBC because of the scenery. I wanted to see the place. I was also attracted to the aspects of a broader campus life at UBC”.
He made ends meet with extra jobs, earning $28 a month by getting up at dawn to deliver campus mail twice a week. He did a little better working as a gardener at homes in Point Grey and in the city. “I remember a lady once asked me to prune her apple tree. I knew nothing about apple trees – only tropical fruit trees like mango and papaya,” he says with a chuckle. “But I figured out what to do somehow and she said she liked the results.” He expressed regrets over not never having tried skiing but said he couldn’t afford to break any bones. “I became popular with a number of my male friends for a useful ability to remember the telephone numbers of the girls we met,” he recalled fondly.
After he finished his BSA, he spent another year in Graduate Studies, where the academic discipline served him well. “My studies in soil microbiology made me very sensitive to the changes and evolution of the environment.”
“Professor Brink, my Plant Science tutor, told me that if I wanted people to respect my profession I would have to respect theirs,” he said.
Living in Vancouver also taught him a great lesson about tourism. “I had no idea what other countries were like. After living in Vancouver I came to understand how we could compete better as a tourism destination. There are many beautiful places to see in the world.”
After graduation, he returned to the West Indies and worked as an agricultural officer in nearby St. Lucia and St. Vincent, then went to London, where he was a scientific information officer. While in London, he met and married his Canadian wife, Pat. After they returned to Bequia they had three daughters, all of whom went to school in Toronto.
James entered politics while Pat transformed the old family home on the waterfront into the Frangipani Hotel, the island’s main social centre for locals and visitors. In 1972 he became Premier, then in 1975 formed the New Democratic Party and served as leader of the opposition for the next nine years. He became Prime Minister in 1984 and won three consecutive elections after that, serving as Prime Minister until 2000.
As he stated when he addressed the delegates to the Twenty-first meeting of the conference of heads of government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in 2000 “Thirty-four years ago, the people of Canouan and other islands of the Grenadines entrusted me with their destiny. At that time, nowhere in any of these islands were there any jetties, paved roads, telephones, electricity, airports or running water. No one in these islands could get a loan from a bank in St. Vincent, or quite frankly had any hope. Conquering the stormy seas was then the source of our strength in these isolated islands as we sailed the far oceans on foreign ships to bring sustenance home. Our greener pastures were unknown lands. Who would imagine as you relish the splendour of Canouan today that one of my early jobs here was to ship water in drums to roll up on the beach for people to drink.”
The country certainly faced economic difficulties during the period of his leadership. In 1979 the Soufriere volcano erupted, damaging agriculture and the tourist trade. Hurricane Allen severely damaged the important banana crop in 1980. In addition, recession in the US at this time and the falling value of the pound sterling against the dollar further reduced tourist visits and exports of bananas. Actions were taken by his government to address these difficulties. He made road building a priority, critical in developing the tourism industry, which had overtaken bananas as the country’s leading industry. Under his leadership the economy improved steadily, with a reorganization of agriculture and a reduction in unemployment by stimulation of the construction industry. Another priority was in education, “to get more international exposure for students from St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said. The country follows the British education system and during his period as Prime Minister opened an A-level college.
“I also support any initiatives taken to broaden the international scope of activities of UBC”, he said in the 1987 interview. In addition, one research initiative he would welcome in his country is the use of inert gases in food preservation. “We’d like to find a way to export tropical fruit using inert gases to keep it fresh, rather than packaging it in cans,” he said. “High transportation costs to North America have been a constant barrier to Caribbean business development”.
James was overjoyed to return to Vancouver in 1987, where he addressed the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference at UBC. “I left this city and the University of British Columbia some thirty years ago,” he stated in his address “and I certainly never dreamed then that I would one day return as Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to this magnificent city and this beautiful province which nurtured me so kindly in the wandering days of my youth.”
In 1988, the UBC Alumni Association recognized his accomplishments when he was honoured with the Annual Award of Distinction “in celebration of his distinguished career.” For services to his country James was knighted by the Queen in 1995 and made a member of the Privy Council. In addition The Venezuelan government awarded him with its “Order of Liberator.” In 2008 Sir James received one of the nine LFS Centenary Awards which recognized the outstanding contributions of UBC alumni, and was able to attend the awards event.
In retirement, Sir James plans to continue his involvement in the family hotel. Throughout the years he has maintained his interest and pleasure in gardening. While in office he kept the Prime Minister’s residence full of tropical plants, flowers and trees, ranging from hibiscus to the brilliant yellow poi tree and majestic, towering royal palms. He plans to keep his garden blooming in the warm tropical sun at his new cliff-top home high in the rolling hills of Bequia, where he can look down the Grenadine chain to the island of Grenada on a clear day. Paradise does have its awards!
Sir James’s autobiography “Beyond the Islands” was published by MacMillan Caribbean in 2006.
R Blair and CR Nicholls 2007, based partly on a profile by Susan Stern in the UBC Chronicle, Fall 1999.