Letting the Turks and Caicos Islands slip away
Gord Henderson, The Windsor Star
| Apr 06, 2013 | Last Updated: Apr 06, 2013
Canadians, proud but perennially shivering occupants of the Great Northern Meat Locker, must have been suffering from chilblains of the brain when we chose to look the other way while an opportunity to claim a hot and juicy slice of paradise was dangled under our drippy noses.
It boggles the mind, seeing the Turks and Caicos Islands for the first time from the window of a Brazilian-built Air Canada jet, looking down on a riot of blues, greens, turquoises and pastels, to think we let this 40-island splash of sand, sun and serenity in the Atlantic south of the Bahamas slip away when it coveted an intimate relationship with Canada that could have included vows of marriage.
Seriously? We let this suitor go without even trying? In nixing an engagement with TCI, as the locals call it, we doomed ourselves as a polar nation to forever being the polite paying guests in someone else’s tropical retreat because we lacked the chutzpah to seal the deal on our own place in the sun.
A lot of folks have never heard of the British Overseas Territory known as Turks and Caicos Islands. That might explain why mail bound for island businesses sometimes ends up in Istanbul, Turkey. But for Canadians who enjoy a bit of history, the tiny island chain, population a mere 32,000, is a curious case of what might have been if only an unassuming Canada had been willing to extend its reach beyond the 10 provinces and three northern territories.
Canada did have visionaries who saw the possibilities. Sir Robert Borden, the PM on our $100 bill, tried to persuade Great Britain at the end of the First World War to place some of its Western Hemisphere possessions, including the Turks and Caicos Islands, in Canada’s loving care. His proposal was given the brush-off by British prime minister Lloyd George at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference where triumphant global powers were busy sowing the seeds for the next world war.
And then there was Max. In 1974 Max Saltsman, an RCAF veteran and New Democratic MP for the Waterloo region, introduced a private member’s bill calling for Canada to annex a more than willing Turks and Caicos Islands.
His proposal, sadly, never made it to a vote. Critics dismissed it as a hare-brained idea, inconsistent with Canada’s high-minded stand against colonialism during the Pierre Trudeau years – even with as many as 90 per cent of islanders in favour of some kind of association with Canada. Fears were also expressed that the island chain, as Canadian territory, could become an open door for illegal immigration from the Caribbean. Other federal politicians took up the cause over the years. And yet it never goes beyond chatter.
Some would say that’s a good thing, given the difficulties the Turks and Caicos has faced in recent years. A longtime sleepy backwater, it experienced dazzling growth in the early 2000s, especially on the main island of Providenciales which became a leading destination for jet-setters and celebrities, creating a construction boom in upscale hotel/condo towers, shops and restaurants. The place looks more like South Florida than the Caribbean.
That’s history. The boom came to a screeching halt with the Great Recession and the end of good times and easy money. The cranes are gone, along with thousands of imported construction workers. The business headlines say it all. The Economist: “Paradise Interrupted.” The Independent: “An Economic Free-for-all that veiled a culture of corruption.” And this from the Caribbean Centre for Money and Finance: “Turks and Caicos Economy in Meltdown – Paradise Suspended.”
In 2009, appalled by reports of massive government corruption, the British government reasserted direct control over the essentially bankrupt colony and has been footing the bill for basic government services while it tries to have the former premier extradited from Brazil to face corruption charges.
In other words, it’s a right royal mess. Not that your average visitor would notice. Tourists continue to pour in, enticed by 350 days of warm sunshine annually and by 12 km of glittering white sand on Grace Bay, repeatedly listed as the world’s best beach. The island is too rocky and arid to be pretty. But the beaches, reefs and restaurants? In a league of their own.
Here’s the strange thing. Canada, officially, has never climbed in bed with Turks and Caicos. On the ground, it’s a different story. A Canadian company provides the power. The hospital is Canadian operated. The two most senior police officials (on loan) are former RCMP officers. Canadians own and operate hotels, restaurants and recreation and adventure companies. The head of the real estate board is a Canadian.
It doesn’t show on a map. There are no boasting rights. But we’ve slipped in and quietly made ourselves right at home. I suppose that’s the Canadian way.