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Call for action on ‘land grabs’

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A pressure group has asked the Government to keep a promise to launch an investigation into Bermuda's history of “land grabs” and property theft.

The Civil Justice Advocacy Group wants a firm timeline for when a commission will be set up and details on how wide-ranging its remit will be.

Judith Chambers, from the group, told The Royal Gazette: “There are people up and down this island who feel that they were victims or their ancestors were. It needs to be investigated. It needs to be looked at and examined.”

LeYoni Junos, a fellow member, added that any inquiry needed to have the teeth to carry out a thorough job.

She said: “This is huge. It is not something that is going to take weeks or even months.”

Stories of property loss, either through compulsory purchase, adverse possession claims or “sharp practice”, are common in Bermuda and the Progressive Labour Party called for action on the problem when it was in Opposition.

Parliament passed a motion to ask the Governor to establish a Commission of Inquiry into all known claims of property loss or dispossession in July 2014.

However, George Fergusson, who was then in charge at Government House, rejected the request.

Mr Fergusson said the “serious concerns” raised were not “clear or urgent enough to require a commission of the type proposed”.

The decision sparked a peaceful march on Government House, an opposition demand for the Governor to be recalled and a PLP boycott of Parliament.

It also led to a change in the law that gave the Premier the power to appoint a Commission of Inquiry without the Governor's approval.

The land grab issue did not feature in the PLP's election platform in 2017 but was raised by David Burt in his address to the delegates' conference in October last year.

The Premier told the conference: “Over the next four years, we must also deal with justice. I can remember in 2014 when a land grab motion was passed in Parliament and a Commission of Inquiry was never called by the Governor.

“Justice is about finding the truth and there is no price that you can put on justice and so we will find the resources to ensure that we have the inquiry, that the country understands what happened in the past and that we can put in place measures to ensure it never happens again in the future.”

Ms Chambers, who runs the Dispossession in Bermuda Facebook group, set up to examine stories of injustice and flaws in the legal system, was present at Mr Burt's speech at St Paul Centennial Hall in Hamilton.

She said: “I felt that he was genuine. I was excited, even though he didn't give any time frames. I was hopeful. I would like to know when it will happen.”

She said that people often approached her to share their stories of property loss but most were “fearful” of going public.

Ms Chambers added: “That's why it needs to be opened up to a Commission of Inquiry. It's the power in numbers thing. It needs to be done, for closure. There might be cases where they might think that something dodgy happened and it was above board.

“But just for the truth to come out is important. How about looking at it as a deterrent too? If those things are exposed systematically, it could be a deterrent.”

Ashfield DeVent, a former PLP minister, who is not involved with CJAG, has posted on social media about the land grab controversy since the party won the 2017 General Election.

He said only time would tell how much of a priority it was for the Government.

Mr DeVent added: “This might be a prime example of what politicians support and say in Opposition not necessarily being what they support and will act on in government.

“Loss of land or land grabs is a very emotional issue, particularly among people of African descent, who would have made up the majority of the victims.

“Like most issues in Bermuda, race is a major consideration. In this case blacks would have lost land and some whites would have benefited.

“It's an ideal issue to appeal to the emotions of black voters. Now it remains to be seen how committed the PLP government really is about trying to right the wrongs of our past.”

One of the most high-profile land grab cases was the redevelopment of Tucker's Town, where black families were displaced in 1920 on the grounds that the land was needed for tourism.

Walton Brown, who tabled the 2014 motion and is now Minister for the Cabinet Office, told the House of Assembly that the Tucker's Town story was just one example of dispossession of property and that a Commission of Inquiry could bring “closure and a sense of justice to scores, if not hundreds of Bermudian families”.

He suggested Britain might be prepared to pay but Bob Richards, then the Minister of Finance, said “the probability of that happening is so close to zero it may as well be zero”.

Trevor Moniz, Attorney-General in the One Bermuda Alliance administration, told the House that the compulsory purchases could not be revisited and that sharp practice — involving “lawyers, politicians and real estate agents and banks” — was “part of human nature”.

He said: “We do not feel that a commission would be useful, either in the case of the large compulsory purchases or in the case of the individual allegations of wrongdoing.”

Mr Brown did not respond to a request for an interview last week.

Mr Burt and Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, did not respond to a request for comment.

Longstanding issue: an aerial view of Tucker's Town, which is at the heart of the land grab controversy (File photograph by Andrew Stevenson)
Ashfield DeVent
Open it up: Judith Chambers

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Published January 15, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated January 15, 2019 at 10:07 am)

Call for action on ‘land grabs’

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