The preeminence of the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago is a constitutional matter and legislation must be enacted to recognise that preeminence in law.
That was the comment made by Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, Clarence Rambharat, during yesterday’s virtual symposium titled: Our First Peoples: Leading us Toward Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Communities.
At the symposium held by the Faculty of Law, UWI, St Augustine in partnership with the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, Rambharat delivered his contribution focusing on four areas—legislation, a national action plan, the components of a national action plan and current projects his ministry was undergoing with the First Peoples.
Regarding a national action plan as it pertains to the First Peoples, Rambharat said it must be clear on what that focus would be.
He believed it should be on the preeminence of the First Peoples versus equality—the latter he had often heard out of the mouth of Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, Chief of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, and firmly disagreed as he believed it was not a favour owed to them rather a right.
“Having followed the narratives, particularly the speeches of Chief Bharath. I found there was too much reliance on this concept of equality by the First Peoples and not the concept of preeminence. The ‘preeminence’ places the First Peoples at ‘first,’ and that is no accident that we call the First Peoples, First Peoples,” said Rambharat.
He said society acknowledges that whoever came here met the First Peoples here and the lands and whatever is to be found belongs to the First Peoples—a fact widely recognised around the world.
Rambharat explained: “In other words, recognising that the First Peoples were here and the state has an obligation to place itself second in line and to deal in a purposeful, positive and respectful manner with the First Peoples.”
Earlier in his presentation, Rambharat referred to the Canadian Bill currently being drafted to bring the preeminence of its First Peoples into law. He said the Bill could act as a model for T&T, however, he said in crafting any legislation in T&T about its First Peoples, it must be assured that the legislation gives a level of commitment and provides some of the real benefits, entitled to the First Peoples.
“I would say that we must put comparative legislation in Trinidad. The Canadian Bill may present some ideas for us. The British Columbia Bill definitely sets out for us what we may want to do, if we head in that direction,” Rambharat opined.
He told those present at the symposium, all this was in keeping with the most recent effort to bring into international law, the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
He cautioned, however, while it was an important step, care must be taken in adopting the declaration through national legislation, and reiterated, the appropriate language must be used giving it the required force and commitment needed.
Rambharat emphasised, “I think the preeminence of the First Peoples must be recognised in the constitution and it must not be left to case law or jurisprudence or subsidiary legislation or anything like that. It must not be left to a mere mutually achieved agreement. I think it’s a constitutional issue in which preeminence must be established and that’s the first element of a national action plan.”
Other elements of a national action plan Rambharat highlighted, included in respective order:
An agreement between the state and the First Peoples that flow from the issue of preeminence—what it means and what were the elements of that.
The relationship between the First Peoples and the Government must be with the Office of the Prime Minister and not embedded in different ministries as it currently is.
The agreement must establish how the First Peoples are funded. And that funding in the vein of preeminence should be a charge on the consolidated account.
The last should entail not only in law but also as a matter of principle, what rightfully belonged to the First Peoples and their right to not only claim it but also own it.