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Guarding Our Laws

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 26, 2017

In 2011, shortly after the People's Partnership was installed as a government, the GOPIO asked me to give a lecture on multiculturalism. I emphasized that Trinidad and Tobago will never reach its full potential unless all of us—black, white, Indian and African, protestant and Hindu—accepted our past as our national patrimony. Therefore, I was pleased when, Kamla Persad Bissessar, in her response to Faris Al-Rawi's attempt to do away with the three-fifths requirement for the passage of certain legislation, recognized that our Independence constitution "was evolutionary and was the result of hard fought negotiations at Marlborough House by our forefathers."

I am not indifferent to the millions of dollars Kamla's administration spent on lawyers or unaware that her statement may be a rhetorical ploy. However, it is an important concession of her awareness of the collective history we share as a people.

On the other hand, I was disturbed when our attorney general, the guardian of our law, signaled he was looking for ways to circumvent our constitution, particularly as it has to do with the protections offered to citizens by the three-fifths majority necessary for the passage of certain legislation.

As I read the AG's comment I thought of our legal giants: Charles Warner, Maxwell Philip, Alexander Anderson and Vincent Brown of the 19th century; H. O. B. Wooding, Ellis Clarke, Tajmool Hosein and Michael de la Bastide of the 20th century. These legal luminaries did not only know the law but immersed themselves in the evolution of our legal history.

In this context, I couldn't help but think of Charles Reis, A History of the Constitution or Government of Trinidad(1929); Hewan Craig, The Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago (1950); and H. O. B. Wooding's "The Constitutional History of Trinidad and Tobago" (1960).

Wooding reminded us that the constitution of a country "is a history of people, of the influences to which they have been subject, the activities in which they have been engaged, the conditions in which they have dwelt, of their hopes and aspirations, their toils and triumphs."

He also outlined the provisions of the Cedula of Population (1783); The Treaty of Capitulation (1797); the "Council of Advice" (1803) and "The Council of Government (1831). Then he jumps to 1925 when the island gained its elected element in the Legislative Legislature; the provisions of the appointment of the Moyne Commission (1937); and the introduction of adult suffrage in 1946, which increased the number of Trinbagonians who were eligible to vote.

Constitutional reforms in 1954 changed the composition of the Executive Council. It called for the introduction of "a Chief Minister, two ex-officio members and seven elected members." This change led led to birth of the PNM, the emergence of Dr. Williams, and the seeds of our present constitution.

In 1960 when Williams and Capildeo deliberated on our Independence Constitution it became necessary to protect the minority elements of the society, a point that was important to Capildeo.

Since then, things have change. Whereas, the Indians constituted the minority in 1960, today they are the majority. It is the Africans who need all the protection they can get under our present constitution.

Needless to say, the protection of the rights of the minority is the most salient aspect of any democratic constitution. This is why Williams went out his way to accommodate Capildeo's entreaties.

Al-Rawi has cautioned that it is "irresponsible of the Opposition to offer a legal view on proposed legislation which has not yet been published." However, it is entirely appropriate for citizens to be on the alert for any threat that purports to erode the constitutional guidelines upon which their fundamental freedoms depends.

Our constitution is too important a document to leave in the hands of lawyers. In his recently released documentary, "I am Not Your Negro," James Baldwin asserts: "History is not the past. History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal."

One cannot listen to Al-Rawi utterances in good conscience and not be concerned about the unintended consequences of his actions, no matter how well meaning he might be. Neither can we forgive anyone, particularly our AG, for not being aware of our constitutional history.

Kamla may have embraced the contributions of our forefathers for many reasons. It is important that we hold her to her words and encourage our citizens to acquaint themselves with the contents of this life-giving document. Our lives depend upon it. It is criminal to think otherwise.

Professor Cudjoe's email is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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