A constellation of issues rose to the surface when about two dozen protesters demonstrated Monday morning in front of the Save the Seed Energy Centre — the House of Assembly’s temporary pandemic headquarters — while thousands watched online.
Their rainbow of signs decried a lack of government action to support teachers, healthy communities, and the interests of the people who voted in a new administration nearly three years ago.
But the impetus for the protest was a resolution Premier Andrew Fahie brought to the House to excuse Speaker Julian Willock from personally paying more than $120,000 that he incurred while seeking an injunction to stop three attorneys from participating in the ongoing Commission of Inquiry. The resolution was amended on Wednesday and passed on Thursday.
Commercial Court Justice Adrian Jack ruled on Sept. 28 that Mr. Willock must personally pay the fees he incurred before withdrawing his injunction request, though the speaker’s attorneys argued unsuccessfully that his actions were covered by a contract with Silk Legal to represent HOA members in the inquiry.
On Monday, Mr. Willock said before walking past the protesters that he believed he was acting in the best interest of the territory in his official capacity when he requested the injunction, which was not supported by the attorney general.
“The facts will come out,” the speaker said. “When the facts come out, I think all those who are protesting will be proud of my action on behalf of the House of Assembly.”
He and Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles also said they supported the democratic right to peaceful protest.
Footing the bill
But protesters were not convinced.
One of the organisers of the demonstration, Cindy Rosan, said she decided to take action because government leaders have not been listening to community members’ concerns about their recent decisions, including the resolution Mr. Fahie added to the order paper last Thursday to foot Mr. Willock’s bill.
She added that Monday’s protest also intended to provide a platform for residents to air their concerns about school infrastructure, food security, and other areas.
“One of the irritating things for us with the new administration is that a lot of these things that we had painstaking problems with before they went in, they talked about fixing them,” Ms. Rosan said. “They’re three years in, and nothing is moving besides what they want, what they find important and that benefits their friends and so forth.”
Ms. Rosan said residents have already voiced their concerns in other ways, including social media campaigns, and she wasn’t sure what it would take to prompt leaders to take serious action once the immediate publicity dies down.
But she said her message to them would be to either do so or resign.
‘Teachers’ lives matter’
Many of the signs waving in front of the House sought support for the territory’s teachers and students as more concerns have been brought to light following a teacher “sickout” last week.
Holding a sign declaring “Teachers’ Lives Matter,” Claudia Hodge complained that government was prepared to spend thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on Mr. Willock’s legal fees but it hadn’t spent enough to ensure students and teachers have a safe learning environment.
“I think it’s important that we get to a place where the government understands that they are elected by us,” she said. “Their power is through us. When we speak, we need some level of understanding and response from them.”
She noted that the lack of action to support schools today will have consequences in the future considering the impact teachers have in shaping new generations. The situation will likely worsen if young people who leave the territory to seek more opportunities abroad have little incentive to return, she added.
Ms. Hodge also said educators need a comfortable and safe work environment, access to supplies, and other support that has been neglected across multiple administrations.
“At some point, we have to stand up and make a change for the future generations,” she added.
Protestor Roy Penn said he is particularly concerned about health issues related to pesticide use and waste disposal, and he called on the government to pass rigorous regulations about the use of strong pesticides in the territory.
“It concerns me that it gets down into the waters, and gets into the water table and springs,” he said. “We want this stopped immediately, and we want the waters tested.”
Other protesters voiced their displeasure with the House members’ handling of their own insurance packages, as well as victimisation, consumer protection regulations, taxes on international money transfers, and other issues.
Karean Pickering said he didn’t necessarily consider the resolution concerning Mr. Willock to be a tipping point, but he described it as further evidence of a “mob-like” mentality with which some residents are fed up.
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn and his opposition colleague Mitch Turnbull stopped to speak with protesters before entering the House, explaining their intention to vote against the resolution.
Mr. Turnbull (R-D2) said he wasn’t at all surprised to see the demonstration that morning.
“I believe the frustration of the people is one that has been boiling, and now they’ve shown their strength and that they’re not pleased,” he said.
He added that the speaker emailed HOA members on Oct. 3 seeking their support. In the email, Mr. Willock proposed hiring additional lawyers and seeking further legal opinions on the injunction, Mr. Turnbull later explained to Ms. Rosan on a 284 Media broadcast.
In Mr. Turnbull’s response to the email, he said, he opposed the request and questioned why Mr. Willock’s original legal actions had been filed on behalf of the House when members hadn’t been previously consulted.
“I was the first one to voice that I am not in support of it, and my displeasure for how things have been handled in the House of Assembly, where they tried to lump all of us together when discussions were had,” Mr. Turnbull said at the protest, noting that the court had already made its decision.
He said while it was right to bring the matter before the House, he disagreed with attempting to override a court ruling with a “rubber stamp” for spending he said amounted to mismanagement of public funds.
During an “informal” meeting of HOA members held after Mr. Willock’s Oct. 3 email, Mr. Turnbull said he and the opposition leader were the only two who voiced their opposition to the resolution.
On Monday, fellow opposition members Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) and Julian Fraser (RD3) were absent.
Democracy ‘alive and well’
Mr. Penn said he believes it is important to clearly maintain a separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government and respect the court’s ruling. He added that he may have supported the payment motion if Mr. Willock’s initial legal action had gone through the proper channels via the attorney general. He also said his biggest takeaway from witnessing the day’s demonstration is that “democracy is alive and well in the BVI.”
Though the premier didn’t speak directly with protesters that morning outside the House, he shared the same sentiment within the House.
As the sitting got under way with about half the protestors seated in the visitors’ gallery, Mr. Fahie said he had decided to bump the motion on Mr. Willock’s costs to later in the proceedings “due to some extra information that we would like to have in our hands.”
He added that the motion “is not about an individual, but about an official office,” and claimed that the governor planned to utilise legal representation during cross-examination in the COI that may be paid by the government.
An online petition launched on Friday by Bunchie Wheatley to “Make Willock pay his own bill” gained nearly 1,300 signatures on change.org in five days.
Signatories gave various reasons for giving their support, with many stating that the taxpayer funds should go toward fixing schools.
“I am standing with the teachers who were dealt a direct slap in the face when the premier proposed that public money be used to settle unnecessary legal fees … while teachers and students suffer illness from mould in schools and the struggle to make ends meet on mediocre salaries,” wrote signatory Sarah Penney. “More than half the teachers are on work permits, which makes it even harder for them to stand up themselves, so we must stand up for them and for our future generation that are not being given the best chance to succeed with the state of our schools right now.”
Shyril Smith also signed the online petition.
“I would like to see my children and grandchildren enjoy the opportunities and more that was afforded to me,” she wrote. “The lavish and unaccounted spending of taxpayers’ monies must stop.”