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HomeOpinionOp-EdConstitutional referendum: Correcting an historical error – part 1

Constitutional referendum: Correcting an historical error – part 1

On Wednesday, July 23, 2014 Prime Minister Perry Christie, in a Communication to the House of Assembly, foreshadowed the introduction and first reading of four separate bills to amend the Constitution of The Bahamas “to institute full equality between men and women in matters of citizenship and, more broadly, to eliminate discrimination in The Bahamas based on sex.”

Prime Minister Christie asserted that the purpose of these four bills is remedial in nature: “The changes to the constitution foreshadowed by these bills will not only help remediate the problem of structural gender inequality and discrimination in our country but will also assist in bringing  greater inclusiveness and cohesion to family structures while at the same time ensuring that The Bahamas lives up to its international obligations in these matters.”

In a mature gesture of bipartisanship, the leader of the opposition, Dr. Hubert Minnis stated that while “there is much which divides us in this place, let us speak with one voice when the issue is equality before the law. Let us Mr. Speaker, speak as one in this place. If we can do so, we will signal to every Bahamian and the watching World our unified commitment to the advancement of Human Dignity in our beloved Bahamas.”

The four bills represent the culmination of the work that was done by the Constitutional Commission, appointed on August 1, 2012 to review and recommend changes to the Constitution of The Bahamas, in advance of the 40th Anniversary of Bahamian independence.

The Commission was chaired by Mr. Sean McWeeney, Q.C. and the members included Loren Klein, a member and technical co-coordinator of the Commission’s Secretariat, Carl Bethell, Justice Rubie Nottage (retired), Mark Wilson, Lester Mortimer, Tara Cooper-Burnside, Professor Michael Stevenson, Dr. Olivia Saunders, Michael Albury, Chandra Sands, Brandace Duncanson and Carla Brown-Roker.

The commission completed the constitutional review process that had been started by the earlier Constitutional Commission that had been appointed by Prime Minister Christie on December 23, 2002, under the joint chairpersonship of Paul Adderley and Harvey Tynes, Q.C., but which process the government under Hubert Ingraham abandoned after the 2007 general elections.

The American legal scholar, Professor Myres McDougal, asserted that a constitution should be “a living instrument, a dynamic and continuing process of communication, practices and decisions. It is made and continually remade in response to the changing demands and expectations of the people under ever-changing conditions. It should reflect not only the shared expectations of the original framers of the constitution, but also those of succeeding generations. It should also reflect the contemporary shared expectations and experiences of community members today.”

The Bahamas Independence Order 1973, an Act of the British Parliament, provided for The Bahamas to become an independent sovereign nation. The constitution is actually the appendix to The Bahamas Independence Order 1973. The representatives of the Bahamian people at the Constitutional Conference in London in December, 1972 comprised the following individuals: Sir Arthur Foulkes, Sir Orville A. Turnquest, the late Sir Lynden O Pindling, The late Sir Clement Maynard, Arthur Hanna, Paul Adderley, Philip Bethel, George A. Smith, Loftus A. Roker, Cadwell Ambrister, Norman Solomon, Sir Milo Butler, the late Sir Kendal G.L. Isaacs, the late Carlton Francis and The late Henry Bowen.  These 15 men are collectively known as the Framers of the Bahamian Constitution.

As I will demonstrate, it was an historical error not to have included any women at the Constitutional Conference of 1972 in either the delegations of the Progressive Liberal Party or the Free National Movement. Further, It was also an historical error not to have consulted with Bahamian women and their organizations on the issues of nationality, given the obvious discriminatory impact on them and their children of the nationality provisions agreed to  in London.

These omissions on the part of both political parties is particularly striking, given the prominent and decisive role that women had played in the affairs of both parties and the struggle for majority rule. These omissions also require that we engage in a national reflection on the persistence of the singular male perspective in the Bahamian body politic, legacies of the politics of colonialism and the merchant elite who dominated politics in The Bahamas until 1967.

Prominent Bahamian women in the Progressive Liberal Party included Effie Walkes, the unheralded strategist of the dramatic Black Tuesday incident, whose role in that historical event was captured brilliantly in the documentary, Womanish Ways, by Marion Bethel, Maria Govan and Kareem Mortimer.

The fact that Effie Walkes is unheralded even to this day for her role, in comparison to the male protagonists, illustrates this blind spot in the political sociology of The Bahamas.  At the time of the Constitutional Conference In 1972 the suffragists Doris Johnson, Mable Walker, Albertha Isaacs, Ethel Kemp, Madge Brown and Althea Mortimer, just to name a few, were still alive.

Other prominent women in Bahamian civil society at that time included Jenny Thompson, Janet Bostwick, Judy Munroe, Pauline Allen, Susan Wallace, Telcine Turner, Margaret McDonald, Mizpah Tertullian and Eileen Carron.

The lack of female representation on the Constitutional Conference is the more stunning because by 1972 the women suffragist movement had already provided The Bahamas with the template for an inclusive and bipartisan coalition to achieve universal suffrage for women in 1962.

The template of an inclusive national coalition for constitutional change existed, according to Janet Bostwick. In her thoughtful essay “Bahamian History – The women suffrage movement in The Islands – then, and now: Women’s struggle in The Bahamas”, she wrote that the women suffrage movement “reached across partisan lines, racial and social class divides . . . started by a black woman who, after party politics was introduced in The Bahamas, was a member of the UBP, it was embraced by the PLP, it was adopted by women without party affiliation, supported by women of different races and social standing, and it was championed by progressive men.”

Our approach to the upcoming referendum should be framed in the context of seizing the opportunity to build a progressive national coalition of women and men of all party affiliations, without party affiliation, of different races and social standing to ensure the success of the referendum on November 6, 2014.

Because Bahamian women were not engaged in the historical error of 1972, the proposed referendum of the constitution on that date will afford Bahamian women, for the first time in our history, an opportunity to be directly involved in the remaking of our constitution, exercising the hard earned right to vote gained in 1962, as members of the Constitutional Commission, members of parliament and electors, to remediate this historical error.

Sir Lynden Pindling, at a colloquium on reform of the constitution convened by Michael Stevenson, Felix Bethel, Raynard Rigby and myself at the College of The Bahamas in June, 1998, presented a paper entitled “Refining the revolution”.

Sir Lynden, with the perspective of 36 years of an independent Commonwealth of The Bahamas during most of which he was prime minister, implicitly challenged us to correct this historical error of discriminating against Bahamian women and their children when he posed the following question: “While defining the rights of Bahamian citizens for the 21st century, don’t you think favorable consideration will have to be given to the question as to whether children born outside The Bahamas to Bahamian mothers and foreign fathers should become Bahamian citizens on the same terms as children born outside The Bahamas to foreign mothers and Bahamian fathers?”

• Alfred Sears is a noted attorney, scholar and political figure who served in several Cabinet posts between 2002 and 2007. He currently serves as the chairman of The College of The Bahamas Council.

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