Resetting the relationship with Rasta: Doing the right thing!

Resetting the relationship with Rasta: Doing the right thing!


Thursday, September 19, 2019

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As representatives, we have two main obligations: To do what is right, and to do it in the right way.

I returned to Government in 2016 on a mission to do the right things for culture, gender, entertainment and sport. It was in this spirit that we started and completed the process of clearing the records of our national heroes and other freedom fighters. It was the right thing to do. It was in that same spirit that we began a process of reconciliation with our Rastafari brothers and sisters.

There is no doubt that what happened in Easter 1963 at Coral Gardens to members of the Rastafari community is a stain on Jamaica's development. For 54 years our Rastafari brothers and sisters lived with the physical, psychological and emotional scars of that incident and the feeling that successive governments had let them down by not sufficiently acknowledging what they had been through.

That changed in April 2017 when Prime Minister Andrew Holness decided to do the right thing by taking responsibility and apologising for what happened in Coral Gardens in 1963 — before he was even born.

Doing the right thing is not always simple, popular, or expedient; reconciling with our Rastafari brothers and sisters is none of those things. It is, however, the right thing to do and we must do it in the right way.

Included in the prime minister's apology in 2017 was a commitment to establish a trust fund in the amount of $10 million for the victims of the Coral Gardens incident. The amount was recommended by the Office of the Public Defender, which had started an investigation into the Coral Gardens incident in May 2011. The public defender proposed a trust fund of no less than $10 million, subject to review if further analysis suggests the need for a greater sum. By the end of the 2017/18 financial year — in keeping with the prime minister's commitment — my ministry forwarded, not only the promised $10 million, but an additional $2 million to the Administrator General's Department as trustee to establish the fund.

We needed a fair mechanism to determine how and to whom compensation should be paid, and turned again to the Office of the Public Defender to continue its work of locating survivors and getting information on their current socio-economic and living conditions. In its earlier report in 2015, the Office of the Public Defender said it was “unable to find a yardstick by which to recommend individual monetary compensation”. However, at our request to continue its work, the Office of the Public Defender underwent a careful, detailed and lengthy search and compilation of data (since 2017) and finally submitted a report to the prime minister in April 2019.

While the Office of the Public Defender was conducting its comprehensive survey of socio-economic and living conditions of the survivors, my ministry had been working with the Administrator General's Department and Jamaicans For Justice, which represents the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society, on establishing the terms which will govern the trust fund. We anticipated the report of the Office of the Public Defender to finalise the trust and move to begin making payments.

However, in its 2019 report, the Office of the Public Defender concluded: “Even after our survey of socio-economic and living conditions of the survivors, the material gathered still fell below that which was sufficient to allow us to make any reasonable estimate of damages.”

Therefore, the issue of a fair mechanism to determine compensation continues to occupy our attention in light of the conclusion of the public defender. I recognise that the survivors of the Coral Gardens incident have waited a very long time for acknowledgement, an apology, and compensation from their Government, and I am determined to work day and night to expedite the process so that they will not have to wait much longer.

The official apology and the establishment of the trust fund are part of a broader programme of reconciliation with the Rastafari community.

The Government alongside the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society has identified land that will ultimately be used to house a permanent elder care home for the victims. In the interim, we are taking steps to make ready temporary facilities to serve as the Coral Gardens Elder Care Home. Through the efforts of my ministry, wheelchairs, furniture, and furnishings have been provided to survivors by Food For the Poor, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and private donors.

Additionally, my ministry has pursued making other provisions for the welfare of the survivors and the Rastafari community in general, in consultation with the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society and Jamaicans For Justice from time to time. At our last meeting at the end of August 2019, we agreed that we would work towards actioning additional initiatives in October 2019.

I have also appointed a cultural liaison with responsibility for Rastafari affairs. The liaison is Barbara Blake Hannah, a known expert in Rastafari heritage and matters relating to the welfare of the community.

I want a new, improved relationship with I and I Rasta brethren and sistren and with the team, including the directors of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society. I am working hard to achieve this new I-nity.

We will see this reconciliation process, including compensation for the Coral Gardens incident, through to conclusion. It is the right thing to do.

Olivia Grange is the minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport.

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