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Islands in the Sun Beckon Canada

Times Staff Writer

This 40-island archipelago is surrounded by the aqua-blue waters of the Caribbean, but some leaders here and in Canada see a brighter future as part of the Great White North.

In pursuit of a winter escape, Canadians have been eyeing this sun-drenched diving paradise for decades. Some politicians looking for new markets think the Turks & Caicos would make a fine regional springboard.

Never mind that the world’s most powerful country stands between Canada and the Caribbean or that with no direct flights from Ottawa to Grand Turk, the island chain’s capital, the journey can take the better part of a day. Year-round sunshine for the frozen northerners and First World government services for the far-flung islanders have both sides warming to the notion of a federation.

No polls have been taken nor any referendum held, but talk about becoming an outpost of Canada, an idea that dates to 1917, has become more animated since a new government took power here a year ago.

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“It certainly is still an issue we are interested in pursuing with the Canadians,” says Chief Minister Michael Misick, leader of this colony, one of the British Empire’s last footholds in the Caribbean. He planned to travel to Ottawa during the parliamentary session to discuss the possibility of merging the islands with Canada.

Misick says Turks Islanders -- TIs for short -- want to be equal partners.

“We’re certainly not interested in trading one colonial master for another,” says Misick, who dismisses the notion of the islands becoming a mere province. Examples abound, he insists, of two independent states loosely linked for mutual benefit but able to retain their unique identities. He cites Serbia and Montenegro.

Ralph Higgs, deputy director of the Turks & Caicos Tourism Board, is among those who are more enthusiastic about becoming part of North America.

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“We envision the benefits to be enormous. Having a G8 country as a partner would be a tremendous help in moving us forward,” says Higgs, referring to the Group of Eight industrialized countries, the club of the world’s richest nations that includes Canada.

“We believe Canadians will invest in the Turks & Caicos and visit in even bigger numbers than they do already and we would have access to Canadian colleges and universities. It would give our people the possibility to qualify themselves in every possible way.”

Canada’s national healthcare system, pension program and modern security forces would also enhance the islands’ public services.

Turks & Caicos became a crown colony of Britain when it was detached from Jamaica and the Bahamas -- after those Caribbean states gained independence, respectively, in 1962 and 1973. In the last decade, Turks & Caicos, with a population of 25,000, has grown from a tropical backwater to a leading tourist destination.

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With pristine coral reefs and some of the world’s best diving venues, hotels and condominiums have sprung up by the dozens across this most developed of the islands. The growth boom provides jobs to support not only working-age TIs but also about 5,000 Haitians who have made their way here illegally to find work in the construction bonanza.

Britain neither pays subsidies to nor receives tax revenue from the islands, Misick notes. Although British courts and defenses extend to overseas territories, the absence of any financial pressure to shed or keep these islands makes it easier to unhitch from Britain.

Britain offered Turks & Caicos independence in the 1980s, when it was little more than a string of fishing villages among the low-lying mangroves and mossy bogs. TIs then approached Ottawa with a proposal for annexation, which the Canadian government spurned after a Foreign Ministry study decided that the prospect would be more drain than gain for its taxpayers.

“Nobody likes to be told ‘no,’ so there is some hesitancy now,” says Peter Goldring, the Edmonton lawmaker driving the latest campaign for alliance. “What we are doing is building a case for the benefits for all concerned. It has to be a win-win situation or it’s not going to fly.”

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Goldring insists that Canadians will get more out of the venture than escape from the winter doldrums, despite the campaign’s slogan and Web address, www.aplaceinthesun.ca.

“It’s not just about sun and sand. It’s about creating a better platform for transshipping our products,” says the opposition lawmaker. He notes that Canadians make up as much as 40% of annual visitors to Caribbean countries stretching from Trinidad and Tobago to Cuba, yet Canada accounts for less than 2% of the region’s imports.

Goldring’s group outlines various alliance scenarios: a tripartite arrangement with Britain, special territorial status within the Canadian Confederation like that held by Quebec, entry as the 11th province or constitutionally linked -- like New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

Local entrepreneurs and residents express both interest and uncertainty at the prospect of joining Team Canada.

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“I just don’t see the mutual benefit at this point,” says Stan Hartling, a Canadian developer who has settled here after building two of the islands’ most exclusive resorts.

“The islands are very strong economically and well governed. To me, it would be a sin to dilute that.”

Cheryl Strand, one of the estimated 7,000 native-born “Belongers” -- as they call themselves -- long outnumbered by foreign residents, says she hasn’t given much thought to the idea despite its perennial emergence. “We’ve been a British dependency for so long, and I try to stay away from all things political,” she says, invoking a widely held resistance to fixing what isn’t broken.

“It’s never been put to the people, and they won’t start thinking about it until it’s put forward in a referendum,” says WVI Radio reporter Yasmin Rigby-Blues. She predicts that public opinion will turn on the issue of whether union with Canada will increase taxes.

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Goldring, the Canadian lawmaker, acknowledges that some islanders will be concerned about their pocketbooks, because TIs pay only 4% income tax, painlessly taken directly out of their wages. But a 10% excise on all goods and services plus annual fees on developed property and business license charges are thinly veiled taxes, Goldring says, arguing that the islands’ flourishing tourism industry would probably negate any need for a tax hike.

Canadian visitors also waver on the proposed merger.

“We have enough to deal with in Quebec with the separation issue,” jokes Jean-Francois Chabot, a French Canadian charter boat skipper who has lived aboard his 100-foot diving boat here for a decade.

He turns serious and says that Turks & Caicos would probably draw even more investment and patronage if the northern visitors were spending vacation dollars in their own economy.

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Rix Graham, a Vancouver eye doctor who has been coming to the Turks & Caicos for 18 years to dive and examine paying patients, says the islanders would benefit from Canada’s healthcare network but he remains unconvinced that Canadians would get much out of the bargain.

“The appeal vacation-wise would really be limited to people who enjoy diving,” he says, adding that his sun-seeking fellow citizens would probably go to California, Arizona or Florida, destinations to which they can drive.


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