Column: ‘That Time Is Now, Lest History Repeat’

March 13, 2016

[Opinion column written by Ryan Robinson Perinchief]

The past few days have seen much discussion surrounding the future of immigration policy in Bermuda. There have been marches, hunger strikes, and heightened tensions between large cross-sections of our island.

Due to the fact that if we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it, it is necessary to add some much needed clarity to this very sensitive issue – for our young people, who may have been denied the knowledge of their history in schools and fall on either side of the debate; for our foreign guests, who may enjoy the privilege of not having to consider the adverse impacts of political decisions on marginalised segments of our society; and for our government, who has evidently ignored the dangers of rushing into making decisions on issues as important as this.

Many of the arguments of this debate have reverted to themes of race and class in regards to economic policy and immigration reform. Irrespective of the number of persons who feel that race is irrelevant to the execution of these policies, Friday’s protests have demonstrated that there is a large segment of our population who do acknowledge a relationship between immigration policy, race and class, have valid and substantial objections, and whose points must be taken into consideration based on historical facts.

The announcement by Senator Michael Fahy on the 5th February 2016 that the government would be seeking to introduce new pathways to permanent residency and Bermuda status produced mixed and strong reactions.

For some, it was seen as a long time coming: there are many who were born in Bermuda and to whom this island is their only home, who have longed to have their citizenship confirmed. Mixed in with this group are foreign-born persons from a wide spectrum who have migrated to Bermuda for various reasons, economic and otherwise, and wish to remain permanently.

The government has argued, among other reasons, that the legislation will increase the size of Bermuda’s working population, stimulate economic growth, and prevent Bermuda from losing out on the valuable skills, experience and expertise of long-term residents who have been fully integrated into our economy.

For many others in our community, however, the proposed amendment seems all too familiar:

In 1842, shortly after the abolition of slavery, Bermuda’s legislature passed an act to encourage emigrants to come to Bermuda from Great Britain, even prepared to pay them to come. In 1849, a grant was awarded to promote further immigration from Portugal, to much protest by black freeholders, who had petitioned the Legislative Council.

While immigration and foreign labour are quite normal in our modern, globalised world, all of this was happening while black Bermudians were being encouraged to leave the island. In this month in 1834, a letter addressed to freed slaves suggested they emigrate to Africa, stating that ‘there is little or no room for them here, to exercise their talents and industry.’

According to Dr. Hodgson in ‘The History of Racism in Bermuda and in its Wider Context’, such cases of attempts to alter Bermuda’s demographics via immigration policy have continued throughout history. As recently as 1942, an act was passed to ‘encourage emigrants coming to these Islands from the United Kingdom’ as a means of counteracting the growing and majority black population.

And so, while many have met the proposals with a sense of relief, there is a very large segment of our population that cannot help but ask, ‘Is history repeating itself?’

When coupled with the fact that the ‘Pathways to Status’ announcement came a day after the OBA lost a by-election in constituency 13, the historical resemblance is obvious – and in this case, perception is reality.

Regardless of anyone’s stance on the matter, the undeniable truth is that in Bermuda, immigration policies have historically been used to disenfranchise black, working class Bermudians and to manipulate our socio-political environment. Bermuda has only enjoyed complete universal adult suffrage since 2003 – less than fifteen years. Thus, the racial and socio-political impacts of Bermuda’s yesterday are not so much ‘history’, but the present.

Many of the undertones regarding race, class and nationality have come to the surface in the ugliest of forms. Just recently, I have seen instances of black Bermudians who oppose the amendment being told to ‘go back to Africa’. I have witnessed sweeping generalisations of Bermudians and foreigners alike, expressed through various blogs, commentaries and on Facebook, which have served only to further antagonise many who feel threatened by the proposed policy.

Such radicalised comments are reflective of the same rhetoric that led to the riots of the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, they are an indication that there are indeed Bermudians who feel marginalised and discriminated against in their own home. In all cases, such remarks are unacceptable and have no place in our society. Likewise, foreign nationals have no right to insult or dictate terms to Bermudians in a place where they are guests and should be rightfully treated as such.

Both the Pitt and Wooding Reports, commissioned after two separate riots in our past, revealed that racial confidence and integration are the key to Bermuda’s future. This means that any decision which can significantly impact Bermuda’s racial makeup and path for integration must only be made after careful consideration to the island’s inhabitants – we the people.

As there has been no sustainability impact assessment nor acknowledgement of the inevitable changes to the islands political and social climate, we don’t know for certain what might happen if the proposed legislation is passed. We do, however, know that if the legislation is halted, we could return to a state of normalcy, even if for just a brief moment, so that cooler heads might prevail.

When tensions are running high, it is always a good idea to halt the offending action and reconsider one’s position. It indeed may be true that the government is implementing this policy for economic reasons…and it may also be true that some who are set to receive Bermudian citizenship under the proposed changes are deserving of it; but the historical realities cannot be ignored.

Even those who are in favour of the proposed amendment should admit that passing this legislation at such a crucial time has the potential to create further division and escalate tensions. As there is no mandate or time frame to pass the pathways to status amendment, there is no harm in collectively taking a moment to pause, discuss, and revisit the issue when our entire community can rally around the giant that is immigration policy.

Speaking in the House of Assembly in the aftermath of the hangings of Larry Tacklyn & Buck Burrows, UBP MP Quinton Edness said: “I think government’s attitude in this sort of crises has really got to be one of restraint. We are trying to handle a very delicate matter that a large proportion of the community feels very strongly about. I don’t think the hard approach is going to resolve anything. When you have a lot of citizens in the community screaming for reconsideration, it doesn’t hurt to pause and listen for an additional period”

If there were ever a time to heed such advice, that time is now – lest history repeat itself.

- Ryan Robinson Perinchief is studying law at Durham University in the UK. He graduated with honours from the Berkeley Institute where he served as Head Boy, Student Council Treasurer and a Peer Mediator. A former Youth Premier of the island’s Youth Parliament, he won the Alpha Beautillion, an Outstanding Teen Award, and the best youth submission to the SAGE Commission.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Imitation Crab Meat says:

    Well said!

  2. Imitation Crab Meat says:

    Seriously, thank you for this informative article! I am now wiser on this subject!

  3. no love says:

    Bury the past, move on and pass the immigration policy. Stop blaming the past for not improving the future.

    • Sick & Tired says:

      Guess you didn’t read his opening paragraph in regards to our past repeating itself.

      • no love says:

        I read the entire article, thank you. Some choose to look at the past, some choose to look forward. Blaming what happening in the past as a reason to not move forward is foolish.
        While this man may be very bright I suggest he live a little before writing such pieces. Life is not as simple as looking in a history book or better said, life is not back and white.

        • The Dark Knight Returns says:

          Well then stop blaming th PLP and encourage the current government to do the same.

      • no love says:

        Keep blaming your failures on the past instead of the present which you control and you will continue to fail. Look forward mate!

  4. Really Really BETTTY says:

    SPOT ON…young man….WELL SAID. ..

  5. 32n64w says:

    Heartwarming to see such a well written opinion piece from a clearly passionate Bermudian studying abroad, but suggest Mr. Perinchief brush up on his legal research, in particular the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We must consider and respect all sides of the issues.

  6. Takbir Karriem Sharrieff says:

    Well Spoken young Mr.Perinchief.You are destined to re -write our history to see a beautiful future for succesive generations.Your uncle Phil Perinchief was imprisoned for standing up for his rights and the rights of others,your uncle Jerome Perinchief,was also implicated along with your aunt Wanda,as members of The Black Beret Cadre.Your Father Wayne Perinchief was a member of the P.L.P party the peoples choice party.Your uncle Takbir Karriem Sharrieff is very proud of you.Keep up the good work son .Power to the People.

  7. lifetime says:

    Well done! It’ll sure be nice to hear from Quinton Edness today!