Establishing an ambassadorial presence in Ottawa is a strategic move for St. Kitts & Nevis as part of the new government’s mandate to expand its diplomatic footprint and use the new office as a springboard to engage the Canadian government, which last year imposed a visa restriction on citizens from the Eastern Caribbean territory.
Last November, St. Kitts & Nevis joined Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Grenada as Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) whose nationals require a visa to travel to Canada.
“For us, it was a tragic blow to our national psyche and pride,” the islands’ Foreign Affairs Minister, Mark Brantley, told Share while in Toronto for an event last Saturday night to mark the federation’s 32nd independence anniversary. “It was particularly galling because the very day Canada removed our privilege, they granted it to Chile. They took it away from a nation of 50,000 and give to a country with 17 million. One of my main tasks is to seek to mend relations and … restore that coveted status.”
Brantley, who also holds the aviation, tourism, health, culture, information, youth, sports, community development, gender and social welfare portfolios, said he raised the visa imposition issue with Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Rob Nicholson, at the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama last June.
“At the time, I indicated to him it was our intention to open a high commission in Ottawa,” said Brantley. “In the interim, we are speaking to the Canadian high commissioner in Barbados. We have spoken about the issues Canada highlighted as concerns and we feel we have made some progress in terms of assuring Canada, as we have sought to assure the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and other partners, that we are reliable partners in the context of world safety and security, that we understand as a nation our shared responsibility and that as a people, we are prepared to do what is right. The destruction of trust sometimes takes time as does the restoration of trust.”
Career diplomat, Shirley Skerritt-Andrew, was appointed high commissioner to the diplomatic office that is expected to be opened before the end of the year.
Brantley, the 2010 St. Kitts & Nevis Observer newspaper’s Man of the Year, said part of the government’s mandate is to build on existing relations and establish new ones.
“The world has changed and I feel we need to be in the epicentre where decisions are made which impact us,” he said. “Many of our people, I think, for far too long have felt that somehow in the Caribbean we were insulated. The reality is that decisions made in let’s say New York, at the United Nations or at the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development, impact us directly.
“We see, for example, the notion based on the formula that the first-world has established where they say places like St. Kitts & Nevis are now high to medium income countries and are no longer eligible for overseas development assistance. When we look at what happened in Dominica with Tropical Storm Erika and the fact that six hours of rainfall wiped out the entire island’s gross domestic product and set it back almost 20 years, we have to be concerned. We have been advocating for a balanced look that takes into account our vulnerability, so epicentres of power like Ottawa are important places for us to engage.”
Last February, the Team Unity party – with Concordia University graduate Timothy Harris at the helm – swept aside the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) led by Dr. Denzil Douglas, who was seeking to become the first Caribbean leader to win five consecutive elections.
The alliance comprises the People’s Action Movement (PAM), the People’s Labour Party (PLP) and the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM).
The new visa requirement came into effect under the former government.
A Canadian government release stated the visa restriction was implemented because of concerns about the issuance of passports and identity management practices within the St. Kitts & Nevis investment program.
In 2012, Canadian border agents became concerned after questioning an Iranian businessman who was holding a St. Kitts & Nevis passport he claimed he bought for US$1 million. He told border security he was entering Canada for meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the St. Kitts & Nevis government.
His claims proved false.
Two years ago, Dr. Douglas declared that nationals from Afghanistan and Iran would no longer be permitted to apply for St. Kitts & Nevis citizenship under the program.
Brantley said the government has vowed to fix the program and ensure the passports end up in the right hands.
“We have been adamant that the program is a legitimate exercise of our sovereignty to attract investment,” he said. “Other countries have done similarly. It’s no accident that in Vancouver, there are very wealthy Chinese who came here by way of direct policy. London (England) has the most Russian billionaires anywhere in the world and that’s no coincidence. While I defend the program, I accept that we have a responsibility to conduct the program in a manner which doesn’t pose a threat to our neighbours. That means we must adhere to the very high standards and we must do our due diligence to ensure we attract only legitimate investors and that we are granting our citizenship only to legitimate people. That is where the rubber meets the road.”
The St. Kitts & Nevis government is reviewing the program and the passports previously sold.
“We feel we will come out of this stronger with a better program,” said Brantley, a University of the West Indies law degree graduate who holds a legal education certificate from the Norman Manley Law School and a Bachelor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford. “We have been doing this since 1984 and we are the pioneers. For us, the program is an example of small islands using intellectual capacity to create an industry.”
Brantley, who took a leave of absence from his law practice to pursue a political career, is confident that St. Kitts & Nevis will join the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) – the region’s final appellate court – that adjudicates cases from Guyana, Barbados, Belize and Dominica.
Other countries have not signed on for myriad reasons, ranging from concerns over the court’s independence to the cost of holding referendums to effect the required constitutional change and political expediency.
St. Kitts & Nevis will have to make a constitutional amendment to facilitate the CCJ since the current constitution recognizes the Privy Court as the final court of appeal.
“That’s not an insurmountable hurdle,” said Brantley, who is a member of the St. Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, Grenada and Antigua & Barbuda Bars. “I favour the CCJ and I don’t say that as a discourtesy to the Privy Council which, I think, has given us yeomen service over the years. We just celebrated our 32nd independence anniversary (September 17). I think we have to take control of all the processes – government, judicial and otherwise. For me, the CCJ is a final natural step to demonstrate our maturity as a nation and as a region.”
The theme of this year’s independence celebration was, “United to Build a Stronger Nation”.
Brantley said nationals in Canada and the rest of the Diaspora are being counted on as part of the unifying force necessary to build a sturdy and resilient country.
“In the past, we felt there was a divide because of distance,” he said. “With the digital age placing us a device away from each other, there’s absolutely no reason for our people abroad to feel any sense of division. As a government, we are trying to leverage the financial and intellectual capital that our people have in the Diaspora to assist us at home.”
Community awards were presented at the independence celebration to businessmen Hugh Jeffers and Desmond Bowry, while Centura Tiles founder, Julian Selling, was the recipient of a Corporate Citizen Award.
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