An investigation into Bermuda’s history of “land grabs” has taken a step closer with confirmation from the Government yesterday that a group of people were asked to form a Commission of Inquiry.
It came after a social justice advocate said the official investigation into property thefts would form part of the late Walton Brown’s legacy. A government spokeswoman said: “The Cabinet Office today confirmed that a chairman and members of the COI into historic land losses have been invited to serve.
“A further announcement will be made at the next regular session of the House of Assembly.”
Judith Chambers, who runs the Dispossession in Bermuda Facebook group, wrote on the social media page that the death of Mr Brown, who was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke Central, on Tuesday was “very sad news”.
She said: “I first reached out to him when I heard about the then pending motion calling for a Commission of Inquiry into the historic wrongs of dispossession and land theft, the ‘land grabs’, and will remember him for his passion on these issues.”
Ms Chambers added: “My thoughts are with his family and friends, and my hope is that the planned and long-awaited Commission of Inquiry will proceed swiftly. It would help to form part of the large legacy left by the late Walton Brown.”
Ms Chambers explained that she did not know the MP as a friend, but he had at one time been her lecturer at Bermuda College. She said more recently the pair had corresponded electronically as well as meeting in person.
Parliament passed a motion, tabled by Mr Brown, to ask the Governor to set up a Commission of Inquiry into all known claims of property loss or dispossession in July 2014.
However, George Fergusson, who was then in charge at Government House, rejected the request, claiming that the “serious concerns” raised were not “clear or urgent enough to require a commission of the type proposed”.
The decision sparked a peaceful march on Government House, an Opposition demand for the Governor to be recalled and a PLP boycott of Parliament. It also led to a change in the law that gave the Premier power to appoint a Commission of Inquiry without the Governor’s approval.
David Burt, the Premier, announced in June that he would establish a five-member Commission of Inquiry, expected to be made up of a judge, counsel with experience in conveyancing, an ex officio land title officer and two lay members.
He said its scope would include an invitation to investigate “historic losses of citizens’ property in Bermuda through theft of property, dispossession of property, adverse possession claims, and/or such other unlawful or irregular means by which land was lost in Bermuda”.
The Premier acknowledged then the “significant efforts” of Mr Brown, who he said “championed this cause whilst in Opposition and has quietly kept attention to it since we assumed the mantle of Government”.
Mr Brown welcomed the move in an opinion piece published in The Royal Gazette later that month. He wrote: “We have an opportunity to help to correct some of the wrongs of the bad old days, when justice was a fleeting illusion for many, and the rich, powerful and connected acted with impunity.
“While some have dismissed land-grab claims as urban legend, or even disparaged them as fairytales, Bermuda’s working-class community knows that some of our courts, some of our banks and some of our lawyers have not always operated in an honest and just manner.
“For the families who have long felt that their voices were not being heard, this presents an opportunity for their stories to be told.
“For the families who have felt that justice has been denied them for so long, this presents a potential opportunity for justice to finally be done.”
Mr Brown added: “This commission should not be viewed as an opportunity for payback or revenge, but as an opportunity for all of us to learn the truth about our history and for some measure of a healing process to begin. It is unlikely that everyone will be happy with the results of this commission. But that doesn’t negate that it must be done.
“Our living elderly, and those who have passed on, deserve this Commission of Inquiry for all they sacrificed.”