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Swan presents case for a ‘Commission of Truth and Reconciliation’ for Island

Resource type: News

The Royal Gazette | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda in an Atlantic grantee. 

Members of the House of Assembly took on the issue of racism and the vestiges of institutionalised racism late Friday night. The take note motion submitted by Kim Swan, who was elected under the United Bermuda Party back in December last year and reinstated in June.

“It took some recognition that institutionalised racism actually existed in Bermuda, and it took efforts by many people, some political and some who were politically motivated who formed both parties.

“Bermuda has had some stumbling blocks in our history, we’ve had riots in both the 1960s and 70s in particular which caused many studies to take place which outlined strategies on how the country could address this very serious problem,” said Mr Swan.

“I would say that not all of the recommendations were followed and certainly that contributed to a great deal of the mistrust that might have taken place over the years. Some of the recommendations were followed and were of benefit to society; Bermuda did make social progress but not to the satisfaction of myself and many in our society as we still live with the structural racism that has manifested itself and adapted to society as time has transpired,” he said.

He noted that the motion “asks us to consider a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation to address the problem of structural institutional racism that exists in our society”.

“For quite a long time there was great denial that racism actually existed. As politicians I certainly feel we have a responsibility and an opportunity to step outside our comfort zone to find some commonality as to how we address this subject.

“I speak specifically to the polarisation that exists within the community within the political realm. There are people who benefit from the system as it is and there are persons who are far more affected by its existence than ever was.”

Bermuda would do well “to come together as a Country and address the vestiges of racism,” said Mr Swan.

He said the House of Assembly has the opportunity to empower Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda by making it a non-governmental organisation with greater teeth.

“A system put in place hundreds of years ago can only be tackled by us giving them the strength to go forward and tackle this social evil, unencumbered by our political bias,” said the St George’s West MP.

Calling for politicians to cast aside their political differences, he said: “We have an opportunity to get on the same page.

“The page needs to be the page of honest brokers, people who care enough about the Country like we do, who can operate in the best interest of the Country, not withstanding any ‘P’ who is in charge of the Country.”

Referring to CURB, he said: “I believe that’s who we need to put our faith in. A group over politics, to be able to tackle this system that exists in our Country.”

Families Minister Glenn Blakeney then read out a dissertation suggesting that, while Mr Swan’s idea holds some merit, he fundamentally disagrees with copying the South African model of Truth and Reconciliation.

Mr Blakeney gave a detailed account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noting it had fallen short in its efforts to heal racial wounds.

The vast majority of whites continue to refuse to acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated on their behalf, he said, while blacks argue about whether they should forgive their oppressors and move on.

Mr Blakeney said Bermuda would face further difficulties because victims and oppressors would be telling stories from a second- or third-hand perspective, as some of the most devastating parts of history happened several generations ago.

Pointing to more problems, he continued: “Hard evidence of Bermuda’s pre-emancipation, segregation and post-segregation eras is best captured by how property and institutions, family-owned, large, established businesses, are distributed today.

“While Bermudians generally accept that blacks have been significantly disenfranchised, reparations would likely have to take into account a redistribution of property and ownership, not simply apologies for the actions of ancestors.

“The story of Bermuda’s racialised history is becoming better documented. The dialogue on this history is a central topic in most daily media.

“But it can be argued that many white people, both Bermudians and expatriates, have little regard for how Bermuda is today as a result of what the Country was back then. There may very well need to be a full accounting, in fiscal terms, of how much wealth was unfairly procured and vested in whites.

“In other words, the full extent of the cost of slavery to blacks and the benefits of it for whites has not been succinctly documented in a way that would allow for a very clear reparative scheme.”

He added that wide-scale reparations in South Africa could not be funded because recommendations for a wealth tax were not upheld.

Mr Blakeney said he was encouraged that the work of CURB would eventually overcome the wounds of the past.

One Bermuda Alliance MP Shawn Crockwell gave an example of a recent personal conversation to illustrate why he believes Bermuda needs reconciliation.

He said one elderly man, who led a successful life in business, remained badly scarred from an occasion in his younger days when he was turned away from an ice cream shop because “they said they don’t serve people like him”.

Mr Crockwell told the House: “He said he has never entered that building again, ever since. And he is in his 70s.

“He refuses to go into that building again because of that experience, and there are others who will tell you they will not go into the Little Theatre because of incidences prior to desegregation of the theatre.

“He said he still has deep rooted wounds because of the legacy of racism.”

The Pembroke West MP said Bermuda needs to bridge its economic divide, but taking money away from the rich is not the solution.

“The answer is greater opportunity for all,” he said. “There would still be disparity, but it will allow all of us to prosper. We have to strive to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

He said politicians have to be careful not to use race as a political tool, and that the dialogue in the coming election would reveal how seriously they want reconciliation.

Education Minister Dame Jennifer Smith gave a date-by-date account of the history of slavery and racism in Bermuda.

She then questioned why Mr Swan had recently claimed the problem of safe seats, as a result of race-based voting, had gotten worse since 2003.

Dame Jennifer said new electoral boundaries had been drawn up purely based on numbers, and it’s not the PLP’s fault the Island is split into black and white areas.

“Yes, they are like that and we don’t like it either,” said the former Premier. “We are stuck with the Bermuda that we inherited. We are stuck with the Bermuda that was created by racism.”


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Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda, CURB