I join the rest of the nation in commending the Spiritual Crier Baptist Religious Body for their resilience and tenacity in practicing and preserving their religious beliefs despite great challenges and adversity.
In the speech of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at an event to celebrate the Spiritual Crier Baptist Liberation Day holiday, he mentioned that Crier Baptist Cathedral was 90% complete and the government had provided a grant of $10 million. He also said that ten additional acres of land had been made available for them to dedicate as a memorial garden.
This is a very remarkable achievement and proof of tangible support. It bodes well for our nation that its leaders strive to meet the needs of all levels of the population, in the spirit of “leaving no one behind”.
I was particularly touched by the reference to Caricom’s call for reparations for enslaved Africans, in the context of the indignities suffered by Baptist criers in practicing their religion, which has its origins in Africa. This serves as a “wake-up call” to the Trinidad and Tobago Reparations Committee, which has been dormant for several years.
In this context, I would like to draw the nation’s attention to some critical issues affecting First Peoples, who are the first population group mentioned in the call for reparations.
The first is that on the issue of reparations, the First Peoples – whose ancestors were the first enslaved people – have become invisible. Little or no mention is made of the fact that the Caricom call for reparations is two-fold: for indigenous genocide and African enslavement. He goes on to state in point 3 of the ten-point plan that:
“European governments have committed genocide against the indigenous population of the Caribbean. Military commanders received official instructions from their governments to eliminate these communities and expel those who survived from the area, genocide and land grabbing went hand in hand. A community of more than three million in the year 1700 was reduced to less than 30,000 in the year 2000. The survivors remain traumatized, landless and constitute the most marginalized social group in the region”.
The constant erasure of the presence of First Peoples descendants has reached the point of placing us as a mere afterthought.
According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states are expected to meet the unique needs of the people who inhabited the earth before colonization by Europe. Today, our native indigenous peoples are on the brink of extinction due to the unequal and discriminatory treatment meted out to their descendants.
Give us a national holiday
Our second question relates to the granting of national holidays. In 2017, the government approved a “unique national holiday” for First Peoples. At that time, it was happily accepted as a means of drawing national attention to our presence, our contribution to national development and our current needs. Over the five-year period, we have seen a “retreat” in concerns. For example, funds are allocated under the Public Sector Investment Program (PSIP) for the heritage village, and not released due to different institutional conditions, the last of which was the call for a feasibility study. It is a clear demonstration of the lack of recognition of the First Peoples of this country since this village has been in the making since 1990.
In this context, we call for a national holiday, as is the case for other ethnicities, because this seems to be the only way to achieve national recognition. If the great institutions of this country did not recognize our First Peoples, then all our efforts would be in vain.
As an advocate for reparations for African slavery and indigenous genocide, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has an opportunity to begin to right the wrongs committed against the original peoples of Trinidad and to stand on the right side of the story.
Here we state our third problem. Our country would do well to take inspiration from the book of American President Joe Biden. He placed himself on the right side of history saying, “For generations, federal policies have systematically sought to assimilate and displace Indigenous peoples and eradicate Indigenous cultures. Today, we recognize the resilience and strength of Indigenous peoples, and the immeasurable positive impact they have had on all aspects of American society.
“Today, we also recognize the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and Indigenous communities. It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past – that we confront them honestly, we bring them to light and we do everything we can to remedy them”.
Newspaper reports as recently as April 1 state that ‘drums sounded through the frescoed halls of the Apostolic Palace yesterday (March 31) and rolled into St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis greeted a delegation First Nations seeking excuses for the role of the Catholic Church. in the management of Canada’s infamous residential schools.
Following discussions, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said, “I feel that the Pope and the Church have expressed a sense of working towards reconciliation.”
This is a historic moment and our Aboriginal community stands in solidarity with the First Nations in their efforts. The cause of their concern is a reflection of the abuses inflicted on Indigenous peoples around the world under the Doctrine of Discovery, which stated that “all land not inhabited by Christians was available for discovery, claim and exploited”. »
Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas described some of the most extreme brutality of the early years of Spanish colonization in the Caribbean, including the theft of Native American food and land, the murder of men, the enslavement and rape of women and various tortures.
Reparations must also begin with the Church. Under the Catholic missions, the First Peoples became enslaved and landless. An apology to Caribbean First Nations is also due.
Here in Trinidad, the First Peoples have been ignored by the Church although delegations have approached the Archbishop and the Nuncio (the Pope’s representative) on various occasions. If the Catholic Commission for Social Justice is serious about its work, it must begin to focus on the First Peoples who, despite the painful history, remained tied through the Feast of Santa Rosa and living on lands still controlled by the Church.
As President Biden has suggested, it is therefore incumbent on governments to begin the repair themselves. Governments that inherited governance from former colonies, although they did not commit the atrocities, have a responsibility to recognize First Peoples by doing meaningful acts of reparation, for example, National Day, a monument to First Peoples at the Red House site and resources to rebuild the traditional First Nations village.
Yes, the dispossession was so complete that from the surviving skills of a dispersed people, one must reconstruct the way of life of the First Peoples. Subsequently, a representation can be made to European leaders who will see how our country is ready to grant respect, recognition and honor to its First Peoples.
I conclude with a profound statement by a highly respected scholar from Trinidad and Tobago, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, who said: “The root of Caribbean civilization lies in the physical and spiritual preparations established by those who were the first environmental explorers. This we must never forget.
—Ricardo Bharath Hernandez is Chief of the Santa Rosa First Nations Community.