The Passing of Activist Augustin Noel
By TriniView Reporters
Posted: August 11, 2014
On the 11th July, 2014, Trinidad and Tobago laid a warrior to rest in the form of Augustin Noel after many years of service dedicated to the Chaguaramas land struggle. He was the voice of an unpopular struggle that was largely voiceless prior to his involvement. He was renowned for not backing down on the Chaguaramas land issue and fearlessly battled with the various corporate entities that encroached upon the picturesque community in which he once lived, even in the face of his personal misfortunes.
Augustin Noel funeral service at the St. Peter's R.C. Church in Carenage
Despite the inclement weather, scores came out to bid farewell to the man who had defined their community with a lifetime of toil towards improving the lot of the people of Carenage. Despite humble beginnings, he concentrated his efforts towards elevating the Carenage community which has long borne the hallmark of political and social neglect. His outspoken approach to dealing with problems distinguished him and the story of his battle with the Chaguaramas Development Agency is legend.
Augustin Noel was born on August 27th, 1934, at Hart's Cut, Chaguaramas. He grew up on family land in Chaguaramas until 1944 when at the age of ten, he and his family were forced to leave their land by the colonial authorities who had leased the Chaguaramas lands to the US military in support of their efforts during World War II. His family, having been driven off their lands, relocated to the nearby Carenage area. He grew up in simple circumstances as a member of a poor fishing and agricultural community. He was later hired to work as a pipe welder in the petroleum industry. He often shared the story of how his supervisor loaned him to another supervisor in the company to complete a job. Upon completion of the job, it transpired that another welder had been sourced and sent to his position whilst he was away. Both supervisors fought each other to retain Augustin in their respective departments and he realized his value as a professional in the field. The realization marked an epiphany in the life of Noel who was deeply concerned about the community he grew up in as he witnessed youths who had few economic opportunities He returned home and started a school called The Carenage Welding and Electrical Training School to train the youths in the Carenage area. His school was unique, in that he refused to charge a fee to the students.
Germaine ' Jenny' Oliver, secretary of Chaguaramas Legal Land Owners
Longtime friend Germaine 'Jenny' Oliver explained:
We lived in this village for decades and knew each other in the community. Thirty years ago we sat and discussed the direction the village was going in and that there was no voice for the people; there was no one to stand up for them or with them. He saw that the volatility of the youth in the community would result in the village becoming a hot spot, so he opened the school in an attempt to give them a trade, get them off the street and give them hope. The school did very well and for two consecutive years it won the President's Award. He was also singled out and recognized by then President, Sir Ellis Clarke, and commended for his efforts and hard work in uplifting the community. He refused to charge fees even though Father Gerard Pantin of Servol strongly advised him to do so, since charging fees would have put the education he wanted to offer out of the reach of the youths we wanted to attract. It was a costly thing and despite seeking funding he didn't get the support he needed to keep it open. He went to many people, many investors who felt that because there were no financial profit to be had from running the school that it was not worthy of support. And he tried, he tried to show that the profit would be to the community but there was no support.
Shakira Mark, step daughter of Mr. Noel
His step daughter Shakira Mark echoed these sentiments. "He shared his knowledge in welding and electrical installation; all the training was free. When teachers did not appear to take up their portfolios, he taught the welding classes himself. When the school ran out of funding, he was forced to close it down."
After the closure of the school, he was undaunted in his commitment to assist the community, and he formed the Carenage Protection Committee to alleviate some of the problems in the village. The Committee took the role as the voice of the village and functioned as a village council in managing neighbour disputes and other community problems. The members organized village clean-ups and gave advice when solicited. Several projects were undertaken and it was here that the matter of the approximately two hundred Chaguaramas families who had been similarly evicted from their homes by the colonial authorities came to the fore. From this, the Chaguaramas Legal Landowners group was formed. He devoted himself to the cause of the dispossessed families as both he and Germaine 'Jenny' Oliver researched the circumstances surrounding the seizure of the Chaguaramas land. It came to light that of the majority of the families who had been displaced were never compensated and furthermore it was learned that they were entitled to the return of their lands when the Americans relinquished their lease with the State.
Augustin Noel then started the community campaign to seek the recovery of the land from the state. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago had, by this time, formed the Chaguaramas Development Agency with the specific mandate to manage and spearhead the development of the lands previously held by the Americans in Chaguaramas. The struggle that began had hitherto been unimaginable. Challenges to the cause included lack of money, limited legal knowledge and very little support. The battle increased momentum; it began to consume his life and complicate his interactions with the public as he became increasingly impatient with the laissez-faire attitude which characterized John Public's response to the distress of the people affected by the issue. He was described by many as being ahead of his time and up to the task of an ever evolving and highly complex legal battle. He was the driving power behind the coordinated efforts with lawyers and the organized protest marches, pickets and rallies to sensitize and highlight the plight of the families he represented. He even went as far as to camp out in Chaguaramas one night when a rumour surfaced that the army was going to block the road to prevent the march planned for the following day.
Mr. Joseph King, member of Chaguaramas Legal Land Owners
Mr. Joseph King grew up with Augustin Noel in Carenage and together they had spent the last twenty-seven years fighting for the return of the Chaguaramas land. Despite a recent eye surgery, he braved the inclement weather to bid farewell to his friend. He reminisced, "We born and grow together. He was a fighter and he was a fighter for a just cause. A good man. He was well-known in the community but badly supported in his fight for justice." Indeed, the general sentiment expressed among the gathering in the St. Peter's Catholic Church in Carenage was that the community and government support needed in the battle to recover the lands had been lacking all along. As the years slid by, more and more people in the village became discouraged as successive political regimes came and went, yet not only was the issue of the Chaguaramas lands not being addressed, but the community in Carenage became more and more apathetic as it was increasingly sidelined into a state of neglect from the authorities. Mr. Noel became a lone voice in the wilderness. Step daughter Shakira Mark mentioned this as she eulogized him, noting, "He lamented greatly that people weren't conscious; that they weren't aware of what was happening around them. He would come out in the morning expecting assistance from the community and when he didn't get it, he remained undeterred."
Mr. Ian Marcellin, member of Chaguaramas Legal Land Owners
His leadership in the Chaguaramas land issue was deemed heroic by many. As Mr. Ian Marcellin vehemently declared, "Augustin Noel is [the] Trinidad and Tobago Moses! He tried to deliver black people to the Promised Land which is Chaguaramas. He never got the support that he really needed and that was his downfall ... that we never reached the Promised Land. He was Carenage people Moses! In Carenage, at this point in time, we don't have nobody to fill those shoes ... those shoes so big. We in a kind of limbo right now. He was a person with three eyes. That's the problem with Trinidad and Tobago: people using two eyes and we have three. He saw things with his eyes AND with his third eye; that was his mind. He was a leader here. We don't have that; we lacking. What we have is plenty black misleaders."
This disappointment with the authorities was openly expressed at his funeral as persons repeated the sentiment that, by and large, no political group or any governmental agency had done as much to assist them in improving the community. Whenever there had been a problem, even if it had been something as simple as a burst water main on the road, people went to Mr. Noel knowing that his determined approach would garner results. Despite his open door policy, some intimated that he became increasingly isolated. A neighbor spoke of this, commenting, "He was a man of the community but people began to see him as controversial and some stayed away." Shakira Mark offered another insight, pointing out that he had his shortcomings as any human but he focused so thoroughly on what he was doing that he became impatient and sometimes intolerant when he felt that the people around him were not giving him or their issues of their best. She pointed out that while he advocated for people to help themselves, he never hesitated to assist many in various ways, and, as an outspoken fanatic for family, was annoyed by people not giving enough to their familial responsibility.
Many felt that he had changed too after the loss of his two sons. Mr. Marcellin explained, "He had two children and two of them got killed about six or seven years ago and that was the beginning of him going down. They marched and protested with us from babies but they were killed on the same day. He take it on."
Donna Mark, former wife of Mr. Augustin Noel speaks with a TriniView.com reporter
Former wife, Donna Mark Francois also spoke about Noel. She described him as the best of fathers; two of her children, both boys, were with Augustin. However, he made himself a father to the entire family and he was the person they all looked to for guidance in their lives. A staunch advocate for education, he stood with them through their schooling and even ran with them to get books. He was a physical presence in the home and despite their later marital separation, the family remained close. Nevertheless the loss of their two sons took its toll. Ironically, it was the same violence that he'd tried to avert by opening the school which claimed the lives of his sons in two separate shootings within 24 hours. Augustin, or "Nickie" as he was fondly known at home, learned the news of his first son's death on the nightly television news. His second son was shot yards from his house a few hours later and he learned of this only when he heard a disturbance on the street, looked out and saw his neighbours gathered around his son's body in the road. Mark sadly recalled, "The bond in the family strengthened after the two boys passed. He refused to leave his house and move in with us but he stayed close to the family. Every night he cried alone in his house over his two boys, the neighbours, they heard him. The gang war in the area had claimed both his boys and he lived with the loss of them." Donna mused that perhaps this was why he also let his house deteriorate for he was a man who had been accustomed to the best and he let go of many interests after that. His fight for Chaguaramas seems to have been a solace of sorts, but after the loss of his sons he was never the same. She noted that he was still involved with the family but he was different after that. Shakira affirmed, "The death of his two sons weighed heavily. He never came to terms with that and in his quieter moments his tears flowed freely for them."
Notwithstanding his personal tragedy, he girded himself and continued to seek the interests of the former residents of Chaguaramas and, as expressed by many, never hesitated to help when anyone came to him with any other problem. After years of legal wrangling, picketing, marching in the hot sun sometimes as a solitary one man protest, the matter did eventually reach all the way to the Privy Council where the judgement went against them. However, on the advice of former Chief Justice, Mr. Sharma, because the Privy Council had not been given enough information about the matter, he again began to gather his information and prepared to send the matter to the Law Lords for a further assessment. It was at this juncture that a silent killer flared in his body. A neighbor explained, "He had actually called me in the morning, just before he passed and said "Boy, some pressure boy, some pressure. Trouble trouble. He had been ill for the last two weeks and had actually fallen down in town one day. He called the ambulance and I stood in the road to direct the traffic. His appointment was supposed to be Monday to go to Mount Hope but he passed on Sunday." The autopsy concluded that his cause of death was pulmonary tuberculosis and the mystery of where he could have contracted it was conjectured by those in the know. Donna surmised that perhaps he could have picked it up some years earlier. She recalled that he had been hired to work on some pipelines behind Movietowne while it was being constructed and many of the foreigners working on the site were coughing and sickly. He became worried and instigated a strike and it was alleged that they all tested positive for tuberculosis. She opined that it was possible he could have picked up the illness at that time and it had lain dormant in his body until recently. With this last push towards getting the case reviewed by the Law Lords, the strain to his system was more than his body could handle. Shakira said, "He was a very selfless person, always put others first, if you asked him for ten dollars and he only had ten dollars you would get the ten." Donna echoed, "He had very little for himself. His physical state was in part responsible for his poor health. He took in fairly quickly." On the 6th July 2014, Augustin Noel suddenly passed away.
The funeral procession entering the Carenage Public Cemetery
The rains held off as his funeral procession made its way to the cemetery under an overcast sky. The gathering was small. Donna despondently spoke of this, "I feel disappointed when I saw that the people did not support him as they should but I know that we the locals, the community people, we never support the good. When is drug lords die or when is a murder the church would be packed, but, for that struggle, even the neighbours who Nickie used to take his last and give, they weren't there. The person who he was, he loved the people in the community, he loved them and I really felt sad. He lived for his community; that was his life. He was the voice; if there was one more person like him in Carenage, Carenage would have been a better place. Everything he would stand up for; anything, people, they would go to him."
Family and friends bid farewell to Mr. Noel
Augustin Noel was buried in the Carenage Public Cemetary. Some of the surrounding graves were covered with floral offerings whilst others were planted over with cassava by neighbourhood gardeners utilizing the little bits of dirt to produce food for their tables. As Augustin Noel's coffin was lowered into the earth, hymns were sung and those who stood witness to the interment of a local titan eulogized him in their own way amongst the graves. Some of the families for whom he fought were in attendance. Cosmus Brewster remembered him as a respected figure in the village while Terry Joseph, a football coach, spoke of his leadership role for the Africans in Carenage. Joseph Richardson, head of the Guave Farmers Association spoke at length of Noel's assistance to the Association in their own struggle to retain their lands in the face of the Chaguaramas Development Agency's recent efforts to evict the farmers from their lands, and in so doing, deprive them of their livelihoods. He vowed that even though Augustin was gone, they would not give up; the struggle would continue.
Augustin Noel's Send-Off in pictures: