Column: Rolfe Commissiong On A ‘Rich Legacy’

December 9, 2016

[Opinion column written by Rolfe Commissiong]

On November 13th Ms. Carolyn Young, the wife of labour icon, Mr. Kenyatta Young who predeceased her, was laid to rest at St. John’s Church in Pembroke. Sister Carolyn may not have been known to some Bermudians but I can assure you that to most black Bermudians over a certain age, whose families were touched by our decade’s long quest for economic, social and racial justice in Bermuda she was a well-known, admired and, in her later years, revered figure.

Not that she sought notoriety or fame or undue recognition; she was far too modest and self-effacing for that. Even now I can see her blushing with that wan smile of hers and quietly protesting that she did not need the attention or fuss that these words of mine would likely bring.

Such was the modest women who I saw for years quietly going about her work at the Bermuda Industrial Union on Union Street.

Yet, rest assured, that behind every Sister Molly Burgess, Dr. Barbara Ball and Dame Lois Browne-Evans, there was a Carolyn Young.

More importantly she epitomized many of those anonymous, but not forgotten, black Bermudian women of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Women whose resiliency and strength not only kept our families together as if by some miracle, but played as much of a role as those well-known male leaders in ensuring the success of the political and labour movements, which informed our democratic norms and defined modern Bermuda.

The same women last week that were out in force to stop the government proceeding with the airport bill.

The same women who were pepper sprayed and physically hurt by the aggressive actions of the riot squad that sought unsuccessfully to remove them and the rest of those peaceably assembled from around the perimeter gates of the House of Assembly.

Women like Sister Esme Williams, who legally blind was there too at the main gate, wedged in between my colleague MP Michael Weeks and myself.

The same Esme Williams whose mother and father were members, like my own, of the Progressive Group. The same Progressive Group that over sixty years ago led the effort to dismantle Bermuda’s Jim Crow like system of racial segregation that advantaged whites at the expense of the black majority.

That is why I am sure that Sister Carolyn would have been very pleased to hear on the day following her home going service, the Progressive Labour Party re-affirm and convey by way of the Reply to the Throne speech, the party’s commitment to progressive values and ideas that promise a fairer deal for all Bermudians.

And while the Government’s Speech from the Throne was generally pedestrian in its approach, out of touch with the reality of the “two Bermuda’s” that exists on our island and decidedly unambitious in its scope and intent; the new Opposition leader boldly asserted a compelling case for the future of Bermuda by way of the PLP’s “Vision 2025” plan.

This blueprint for Bermuda, a follow up to the PLP’s response to the budget in 2016 among others things will, on the economic front, promote a more diversified economy by supporting and incubating a “Fin Tech” or financial technology sector in Bermuda. Fin Tech which was first touted by former leader Marc Bean over a year ago is one of the fastest growing areas in the provision of financial services globally.

In addition, we intend to “promote entrepreneurship” by way of tax relief for first time entrepreneurs and liberalize the 60-40 regime to provide access to foreign capital for novice business owners.

We will also increase the lending cap at the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation for small business owners and ensure that those who have been historically shut out will have an expanded opportunity to exercise their talents, bring new innovations to the marketplace and realize their aspirations for business success.

Those who need only a hand up will get one from a future PLP government.

In the area of what I call family first policies we have committed to “tackling child poverty” with the introduction of a “Child Poverty Act” which will establish targets to facilitate the elimination of child poverty in Bermuda.

This is critical because it is clear to me and many others that poverty in general has grown over the last few years driven in large part by the growth of income and wealth inequality to levels that we have not seen in decades as outlined by both Economics’ lecturer, Craig Simmons and more recently by BFM and Chamber of Commerce President John Wight.

Certainly Sister Carolyn would also would have given a strong thumbs up to the commitment of the PLP to not only strengthen anti-discrimination laws by toughening penalties for acts of discrimination more broadly; but would also be pleased to know that we are determined to strengthen the investigative and sanctioning powers of the Human Rights Commissions with respect to those business that discriminate against Bermudians.

One need look no further than the case of Pernal Grant vs. Apex construction to understand that this form of discrimination is real and pervasive and has been for some time.

In that appeal, Chief Justice Kawaley affirmed and upheld a prior ruling of the Employment Tribunal that Mr. Grant who is black was discriminated against along with other black employees at Apex construction on the grounds of nationality, as Bermudians, and due to their race –as persons of colour – in favour of foreign workers.

Moreover, he also affirmed that the black employees were essentially only there as window dressing –if you will – restricted to low level occupations at the company, in order to curry favour with immigration officials in the company’s pursuit of ongoing work permits on behalf of foreign workers.

And finally, the PLP has committed to introduce “Equality Impact Assessments as a component of our legislative and policy development process to ensure that current and future laws and policies do not expand or encourage discrimination.”

Sister Carolyn would have been proud of the Response to the Throne as this statement of intent delivered by the PLP’s leader. From structural reforms to our health care system and education; to tackling the underlying causes that are informing gang formation and violence while impacting the life chances of too many black males in this society this is a document that addresses 21st century challenges with 21st century solutions.

There is so much more that I would like to share with you but space will not allow. Suffice to say that I encourage you to access the Response to the Throne Speech here [PDF]

To the family of Sister Carolyn Young you have my deepest condolences but take solace in the fact that your mother’s life was not in vain and that we in the PLP will ensure that her legacy survives. The “Vision 2025” document is our down payment on that promise to you and the Bermudian people.

She and the people that she fought so hard on behalf of will not be forgotten…

- Rolfe Commissiong


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