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Report into historic land losses says Government apology should be made

David Burt, the Premier, announced the appointment of members of the Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses in November 2019. Front row from left: Mr Burt, former Puisne Judge Norma Wade-Miller and Wayne Perinchief. Back, from left: Maxine Binns, Jonathan Starling, Frederica Forth, Lynda Milligan-Whyte. Missing from photo – Quinton Stovell

A 500-page report by a Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses signalled “the last mile” of a decades-long race, the Premier said yesterday.

David Burt highlighted that the document would be difficult for some people to read and was among the most “painstaking tasks” undertaken by an independent body.

The report, among dozens of recommendations, said that a legal mechanism should be created to allow an official Government apology to be made to victims of land loss.

The commission also said that consideration should be given to the creation of a public agency to look at historical land loss claims with a view to remedy or compensation.

The recommendations came after 74 sittings of the commission, which covered 18 claims from people who said they were dispossessed of property unlawfully or by “irregular means”.

Mr Burt tabled the report in the House of Assembly this morning.

He told MPs: “The history of many nations and peoples has shown that the past, no matter how painful or controversial, must be openly and fearlessly addressed.

“There is no requirement for people to agree a common history as shared experiences are often differently perceived and recalled.

“However, too much of history has been whispered or unrecorded.

“The Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses has afforded an opportunity to those whose voices had either been silenced or ignored to openly tell their story and to be heard.”

Click here for the Report’s epilogue

Mr Burt added: “There can be no doubt that the work of the commission was an exercise in determining the truth of painful histories and giving voice to claims that others rejected or refused to hear.”

He admitted: “This will make difficult reading for some.

“For others it will represent the last mile of a race they have run for decades.

“History is a delicate thing.”

Mr Burt said: “It must be handled with care and treasured as it is in a fulsome understanding of history that we create a stronger present and a better vision for the future.”

Mr Burt added that the Government would “examine the recommendations in detail and determine what can be done to address them”.

Recommendations he highlighted included that “the Government considers establishing a permanent mechanism of state machinery to review claims concerning the historic loss of properties”.

The report added: “The mechanism should be fully resourced with human and financial resources to address all claims and concerns post this CoI, ultimately with a view of having a legal framework in place to facilitate remedies and/or an award of compensation.”

He said another suggestion was that “Government ensures that the history of the Tucker’s Town and St David’s Island expropriations are memorialised suitably by mandating its inclusion in Bermuda history taught in our schools, its placement in libraries and other repositories and by erection of a suitable physical monument ideally situated in both Tucker’s Town and St David’s Island”.

Mr Burt also highlighted a recommendation for the establishment of “an independent Land Tribunal to deal with all outstanding legacy issues involving historic losses of land in Bermuda and to make recommendations based on the findings of the CoI and any others that may emerge”.

The commission report added that a “statutory mechanism be introduced specifically to … facilitate the issuance of a formal apology from the Bermuda Government and others, holding a series of public hearings on the destruction of the communities of both Tucker’s Town and St David’s Island and the establishment of a development fund to go towards historical preservation of those lands and social development in benefit of former residents and their descendants".

The commission, headed by retired Puisne Judge Norma Wade-Miller, found that the actions that led to expropriations at Tucker’s Town in the 1920s and in St David’s in the 1940s were “lawful as they were based upon provisions of various statutory instruments that received Parliamentary approval”.

But it added: “At the same time, the CoI concluded that the procedures adopted in dealing with the expropriations were in many instances irregular because the bodies established to oversee the expropriations process exercised their power in an unfair and inequitable manner.”

A motion to ask the Governor to set up an inquiry into all known claims of property loss or dispossession was tabled by the late Progressive Labour Party MP Walton Brown and was approved by Parliament in July 2014.

But George Fergusson, then the Governor, rejected the request, which sparked a march on Government House.

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

Mr Burt told the House of Assembly in June 2019 that he planned to set up a commission.

He announced the commission’s members five months later and said the inquiry formed “part of the legacy” of Mr Brown.

The panel included Wayne Perinchief, a former Progressive Labour Party MP and retired Assistant Commissioner of Police, as well as Lynda Milligan-Whyte, a lawyer.

They were joined by Quinton Stovell, a quantity surveyor, Frederica Forth, a real estate agent and former bank executive, Maxine Binns, who was a legal consultant with the Business Development unit of the Cabinet Office and Jonathan Starling, an economic and co-operative development officer with the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation.

Mr Burt explained that the commission’s terms of reference included a mandate to “inquire into historic losses of citizens’ property in Bermuda through theft of property, dispossession of property, adverse possession claims and/or such other unlawful or irregular means by which land was lost in Bermuda”.

People with evidence of land grabs were asked to make submissions and hearings started in September last year.

Ivan Whitehall QC, a lawyer from Canada who was counsel for the commission, resigned his position a month later.

Officials for the hearings said that he stepped down for “personal reasons”.

Dirk Harrison, from Jamaica, took over the role in November last year and the panel continued to hear evidence until May.

Mr Burt said that the commission received 53 claims in total but 15 were denied, ten were withdrawn and ten were “closed by commissioners for jurisdiction reasons”.

He told the MPs that $723,000 was earmarked for the commission’s work in 2019-20 but that the Covid-19 pandemic meant its time frame was extended.

The Premier said that its work in this financial year was funded by savings made in the Cabinet Office budget.

He added: “No new money was requested or required and I can advise Honourable Members that there will be no requirement for supplementary funding in this fiscal year.”

Mr Burt said that the total cost will be reported to the House when it is available, after “the final report is printed, the website upgraded and the appendices uploaded and the final service provider costs paid”.

* To read the report or the Premier’s statement, click on the PDFs under “Related Media”.

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Published December 11, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated December 11, 2021 at 8:05 am)

Report into historic land losses says Government apology should be made

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