Canada’s fantasy islands

PAUL GESSELL March 30 1987

Canada’s fantasy islands

PAUL GESSELL March 30 1987

Canada’s fantasy islands


Through the bumpy streets of Cockburn Town, the ramshackle capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Const. Colin Taylor negotiated his blue Datsun, an off-key rendition of God Save the Queen blaring from the car’s tape deck. Taylor played the recording for the benefit of Canadian visitors last week, demonstrating not only his skill as lead saxophonist for the 16-member Grand Turk Police Band but also his Britishness. Like many residents of this British colony in the West Indies, Taylor is proud of the islands’ heritage but dissatisfied with British rule. And like many “Belongers,” as native-born, black islanders call themselves, the young policeman likes the idea of his homeland joining Canada. Said Taylor: “It would have to be better than with the British.”

Resentment for what many Belongers consider Britain’s parsimonious attitude has rekindled a 13-year-old debate in the islands about forging a political, or at least economic, link with Canada. The

range of possible options is wide, from a free trade arrangement to making the Turks and Caicos Canada’s 11th province. And despite its fanciful ring, the idea of gaining an outpost in the sunny tropics has also sparked considerable interest among winter-weary Canadians. This month a group of Conservative MPs received permission from the Prime Minister’s Office to study whether an association with the islands is feasible. Said Dan McKenzie, a Winnipeg MP who visited the Turks and Caicos in January: “I’ve never been involved in anything that has generated such a positive response.”

On the islands themselves, members of the local moneyed elite privately call the idea a fairy tale that offers false hope for both sun-seeking Canadians and impoverished islanders. Still, some senior political officials in the Turks and Caicos are treating the issue seriously. The British governor, Michael Bradley, said that he was keeping “an open mind” on the question. For the idea to become reality, Bradley told

Maclean's, Ottawa must first indicate a willingness to develop a link with the islands. Then the colony’s residents must express agreement through their elected representatives. If those conditions were met, he said, “Britain would not stand in the way.”

The islands’ leading elected politicians, however, are divided. Ariel Misick and Emmanuel Missick—cousins, despite the different spellings of their surnames—both belong to the 11-member legislature as well as the four-member executive council that acts as the senior advisory body to the governor—in effect, the colony’s cabinet. Ariel Misick voiced strong doubts about the so-called “Canadian connection.” Said the 34year-old lawyer: “The people advocating this have not thought these things through.” Emmanuel Missick, 54, was more interested and said that he wanted to discuss the idea of “some kind of association” with Canada with his council colleagues.

The movement to give Canada its own place in the sun, ringed by 370 km of

white-sand beaches, was first championed in 1974 by Max Saltsman, a New Democratic Party MP who has since died. Some islanders charge that the real backers of that plan were Canadian businessmen with get-rich-quick plans for development in the Turks and Caicos. In any case, Saltsman’s dream foundered when the Liberal government of the day said that it had no desire to become a colonial power.

Now, McKenzie has taken up the cause of making the islands’ conch chowder and calypso music part of Canadian culture. The five-member Tory committee that McKenzie helped to establish plans to hold hearings on the issue before reporting to the party caucus in four to six weeks. Witnesses will include lobbyists from the islands and representatives of the external affairs department. Said committee chairman, Ottawa West MP David Daubney: “We are going to determine, in a preliminary way, whether to hold further exploratory talks with the islanders and the British.”

The proposal also has support in the upper chamber. Liberal Senator Hazen Argue has tabled a motion calling for consideration of a plan to make the Turks and Caicos “a part of Canada.” The motion asks senators to adopt several steps before forming a formal association with the islands. Among them: fixing a common currency, establishing direct air service between Canada and the islands and “designating Canada’s Governor General as the Queen’s representative for the islands.” Argue told

his fellow senators that the Turks and Caicos are a “wonderful place,” with a near-perfect climate and pleasant, hospitable people. “This, I think, is a rare opportunity for Canada.”

On the islands, the official voice of those backing a Canadian connection is the Turks and Caicos Development Organization. Led by two soft-spoken islanders in their 20s, junior customs officer Ralph Higgs and community development officer Dalton Jones, the nonpartisan group has 14 members. Higgs said that initial results from a public-opinion poll conducted by the organization show that at least 65 Í per cent of islanders fa^ vor association with Cani ada. The population of g the Turks and Caicos was 9 put at almost 8,000 in the E 1980 census, but is estimated now at between 10,000 and 14,000 because of emigration from the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If it can raise the money, the organization plans to send a delegation to Canada next month on a goodwill trip to dangle the prospect of eternal sunshine before the eyes of Canadian politicians and businessmen.

Two energetic Canadians, Ian Stuart and William McCord, are taking a leading role in the movement. Their Toronto-based Canadian Turks and Caicos Islands Research and Development Corp. promotes development and investment in the islands. Said McCord, who has real estate and other business interests of his own on the islands: “I believe they could become self-supporting with just a little help.” John Houseman, a British expatriate journalist who lives on Grand Turk, the most populous of the islands in the Turks and Caicos archipelago, said that “Britain would be delighted if Canada took over” its role on the islands. Last year Britain absorbed the island government’s deficit of more than $2 million. No one is quite sure how an association between Canada and the islands would work. But on the islands, proponents of the idea are

primarily interested in improving economic links. Higgs and Jones contend that closer ties would encourage a flow of Canadian investment, expertise and tourist dollars. Both men seem less interested in political ties between the two countries, but they would be willing to consider a form of Big Brother rule by Canada. Other islanders suggest that Canada simply assume Britain’s current role. Said Higgs: “Whatever is established, it should be based on local autonomy, with the best wishes of the Canadian government.”

First settled in the 17th century by residents of another British colony, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos were a Jamaican dependency until Jamaica won independence from Britain in 1962. Since then, they have been a semi-autonomous British colony. There is a general consensus that full independence is economically impossible at present. With a total land mass of only 200 square miles, the Turks and Caicoseight islands and 40 small cays scattered between the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas—have few natural resources, except salt ponds and a colorful cast of eccentric characters.

In fact, the country has never fully recovered from the collapse of its salt industry in the 1960s. Official figures on unemployment are not available, but the tiny tumbledown shacks of the towns and villages attest to endemic poverty. Some islanders have turned to drug smuggling to support themselves. In

1985 islanders were shocked by the arrest of then-chief minister Norman Saunders on drug charges in Miami. Subsequently convicted, Saunders is now serving an eight-year sentence in a U.S. prison.

Hopes for economic growth rest heavily on tourism. More than 34,000 visitors went to the islands last year; the majority were American, with Canadians in second place. But the islands now have only 700 hotel rooms, mainly on the western island of Providenciales, a haven for yachtsmen and skin divers

who shun the package-tour hotels found elsewhere in the Caribbean. Some island businessmen say that Britain has not done enough to develop tourist facilities, and they look to Canada to fill the gap. Already, Canadian investors have built a number of hotels and villas on the islands.

In return for their investment, Canadians would get access to unlimited sun, sand and sea. The Canadian love of warm winter vacations helped to create a $2-billion travel deficit in 1985. If the Turks and Caicos were part of Canada, Higgs and Jones argue, Canadian sun worshippers would flock to the islands and spend their money at home—the same way Americans do in their Caribbean dependency, Puerto Rico. Another benefit: Canadians could pay for holidays in their own currency, instead of paying stiff exchange rates for the U.S. dollars accepted in most other Caribbean countries.

But other islanders say that association with Canada could hurt another promising local industry: offshore financial services. The lack of corporate taxes and exchange controls has lured hundreds of companies from around the world to register in the Turks and Caicos. Fees from such firms will yield the government an estimated $1.4 million in the coming fiscal year, or about one-tenth of total revenues. Lawyers, such as Ariel Misick, also profit from the system, which some islanders say is a prime factor in the establishment’s resistance to uniting with Canada. Still others express concern about the social consequences of such an association. Said Gov. Bradley: “We don’t want uncontrolled development where the islanders become a minority both in terms of numbers and influence.”

But many islanders are willing to take that risk. They see increased ties with Canada as a vehicle to prosperity and a way out of the frustrations and red tape that mark British rule. Explained Blythe Duncanson, a publisher from Providenciales: “People don’t

mind singing God Save the Queen. The British designation does not bother us. We just want less interference.” As for ordinary Canadians struggling through the last bitter weeks of winter, many seemed to relish the idea of a piece of home in the tropics. “I think it’s absolutely excellent, wonderful, wonderful, just out of this world,” said secretary Lois Arnold of Moncton, N.B. Last week Moncton was inundated by 28 inches of snow and temperatures hovered near the zero mark. The weather on Grand Turk: sunny, with an average temperature of 27°C.

— PAUL GESSELL in Cockburn Town with KAREN NICHOLSON in Ottawa