LaVerne Furbert knows what it’s like to struggle — she was once out of work for a couple of years — and she says she brings the workers’ perspective to the Upper House. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
LaVerne Furbert knows what it’s like to struggle — she was once out of work for a couple of years — and she says she brings the workers’ perspective to the Upper House. *Photo by Kageaki Smith

FRIDAY, JULY 15:  If you regard loyalty as a dying trait, LaVerne Furbert might just restore your faith.

Never one to shy away from controversy, she stands up for what she believes in and few political figures can match her devotion or commitment to the cause.

A staunch supporter of the Progressive Labour Party for 40 years, she is also the editor and a writer on the Workers Voice — the newspaper of the Bermuda Industrial Union.

She is proud of her labour roots and enjoys her role as an administrative assistant to the BIU executive. She has held various offices in the PLP and was a candidate for Southampton West in 1982 and 1985, and for Pembroke South West in 2007.

Ms Furbert is also the “very proud mother” of two sons Vance and David Chapman, and five grandchildren.

Her commitment to her family meant she was a mature student when she enrolled for an Associate of Arts degree at Bermuda College at the age of 50: “I said that when my sons were out of school I would go back to college,” Ms Furbert said. “It’s something I’m very proud of, that I stuck it out and got my degree.”

Ms Furbert, 64, was last year chosen by Premier Paula Cox to represent Government in the Senate. Eight months on, she reflects on her experience and takes the pulse of the country.

How have you found the first eight months in the Senate?

It’s going very well. I was nervous in the beginning because even though I’ve sat in on House of Assembly debates on many occasions, I had not sat in on a Senate debate. I thought I would be intimidated, but the fact we sit around a table makes it more comfortable for discussions and debate.

What do you bring to the role of Senator?

I was very surprised when Ms Cox asked me to sit in the Senate. I’d always said that I never saw my role in the frontline, but more in the engine room, even though I’ve run for the PLP on three occasions.

I bring years of experience, having been involved in politics at the grassroots level. I also bring the experience of interacting on a daily basis with the general public, in particular the workers of this country. I bring their perspective to the situation, because I too am a worker. Also, being a mother and a woman.

What do you see as your successes so far?

I’m the Junior Minister for Education and for Children, Youth, Families and Community Development, and so I’ve helped to put a few Bills through successfully.But I feel my most significant contribution thus far was to the SDO [Special Development Order for Tucker’s Point] debate. Bermudians needed to know that Tucker’s Point is just one area of Tucker’s Town, and that CURB (Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda) had misinformed the people.

CURB intimated and insinuated that there were only black people who lived in Tucker’s, and that those who lived in Tucker’s Town lived on the property that is now owned by Tucker’s Point and this is the area from which the people were relocated.

My research tells me that the majority of people lived in the area that is now owned by the Mid-Ocean Club. So to just target Tucker’s Point is unfair.

At Sonesta Beach they bought property from some black people in the area to build that hotel. So black people have been moved from other areas in Bermuda to make way for development for profit.

Does the Senate have power, or is it more a vehicle for rubberstamping legislation from the House of Assembly?

It can have power. There are three Opposition members and three Independents — the six of them together can outvote the five Government members.

Does your position with the BIU bring a potential conflict of interest with your role as Government Senator? Has it caused any difficulty so far?

No, not at all. BIU president Ottiwell Simmons was also an MP, as was Derrick Burgess. Current president Chris Furbert has also run for Parliament.

Bermudians have been losing jobs in a country which usually has over-employment — is the recession forcing a change of attitudes among people and are they taking on more menial roles than in the past?

For me and others like me, I am so used to going without and struggling, I don’t find this [situation] any different. About six or seven years ago, I was out of work for about two years and did whatever I could. I had a cousin who owned a guesthouse and so I cleaned the rooms.

When my younger son [David] came back to Bermuda after his first degree, his first job was as a pot washer at the dinghy club. That was all the work he could find at the time.

At the moment the people feeling it [the recession] the most are business people, because their profits are down. But I don’t think the average working-class person is feeling it, unless they’ve been laid off.

There was a similar number of people out of work in Bermuda in 1973. The Government has asked people who are out of work to contact the BIU or Department of Labour and Training, so we have a lot of people coming here [the BIU] to fill out a form.

I like to interview people to see what they bring to the table. Most have lower skills or no skills and they are willing to do anything, to wash dishes or do cleaning — anything. I don’t think Bermudians have a problem with being housekeepers or cleaning.

But you won’t see Bermudians applying for live-in staff positions as housekeepers and nannies, as they want to be in their own homes with their families. A lot of Bermudians work in those homes, but from nine to five. They don’t tend to live on the property.

I have publicly stated on many occasions, and long before 1998, that the average black family — whether they are headed by women or not — does not benefit from the wealth that exists in Bermuda.

I have been vilified for making such statements, but it appears that it’s okay for some people to say black families are at the bottom of the economic barrel in Bermuda, especially now that we have what some people call a ‘black government’.

Blacks have been at the bottom of the economic barrel since 1609, and little has changed since that time, although there are some blacks whom I would describe as wealthy. But their wealth does not extend back to generations before them.

In the Senate last week you were reported as saying there was ‘nothing new about poverty’ in Bermuda. You spoke of the struggles of being a single parent raising two sons and how it felt to have your electricity disconnected. You said poverty had been recently highlighted but it was no worse now than in the past. Please explain.

I began my presentation in the Senate with a quote from the Bible: ‘For he have the poor with you always, and whensoever he will ye may do them good: But me ye have not always’ (Mark 14-7). I understand that to mean that poverty has always existed, not only in Bermuda but everywhere on the planet.  

As an example, I read from Rays of Hope by Carol Hill, the written history of the Sunshine League which was founded in 1919.  

On Page 15, it says, ‘….Government officials had, for years, been very much aware of the plight of a large number of jobless migrants and, also, Bermudians with no means of caring for their children.  

‘Lengthy debates continued to take place in the House of Assembly. Few members could agree on how to bring relief to those persons in unfortunate circumstances. Although churches, friendly societies, lodges, and the Salvation Army had for many years worked diligently to assist people in dire need, much more help was essential. Until the inception of the Sunshine League in 1919, there had been no locally organized institution in Bermuda devoted entirely to social welfare.’

I then fast-forwarded to 1946 when Dr EF Gordon and other members of the Bermuda Workers Association documented their concerns in a White Paper that he [Dr Gordon] took to London… It showed that in 1946 Bermudians were “suffering” — a term that the OBA [One Bermuda Alliance] love to use.  

I further illustrated how the PLP has been concerned about those in our community from its inception, and in 1963 the PLP founders included in their ‘Statement of Policy’ the following: ‘The Bermuda Progressive Labour Party, newly organized, has set as its goal the political education of the people of Bermuda and the attainment of social and economic justice for all.’

It is no secret that the face of poverty in Bermuda is black, in spite of the fact that Bermuda is a multiracial society. That is not to say that there are no poor whites in Bermuda, but they are in the minority. While others talk about an ‘invisible underclass’, which is described by some as the ‘undeserving poor’, I see no real evidence of that in my day-to-day work.

I watched Dale Butler s film on the homeless in Bermuda and each homeless person interviewed stated that they did not have to live on the streets, but chose to do so, even though their families had offered them food, clothing and shelter.  

In my opinion, the recession is affecting the wealthy more than it is affecting those of us who have always struggled.  

History has revealed that during recessionary times, more wealthy people commit suicide than poor people. The PLP continues to give Bermudians a hand-up, rather than a handout.

Here are some of the initiatives that the PLP has put in place since 1998 to help our people who are less fortunate:  

• Removal of death tax/inheritance tax on the primary homestead;

• Increased pension benefits for seniors;

• Increased doctors’ visits for HIP clients;

• Increased prescription drug allowance for HIP clients;

• Elimination of the vehicle licensing fee for seniors;

• Establishment of three Economic Empowerment Zones (Hamilton, Somerset and St George’s);

• Construction of the Sylvia Richardson Care Facility and the Rockaway Seniors’ Facility;

• Implemented ‘geared to income’ housing for BHC clients;

• Introduced further education awards for mature students and couples, in addition to increasing further education awards across the board;

• Introduced the Environmental Awards programme;

• Allowed competition in the telecommunications industry;

• Gave war veterans an increase in benefits, and for some benefits that they never had;

• Introduced childcare benefits for those who qualify.

As I said during my presentation in the Senate, the antidote to poverty is education, hence the PLP’s continued focus on the improvement of the education system and the provision of more education awards, which also include partial tuition fees at Bermuda College.

Are race relations improving?

I don’t think it’s getting better. Racism in Bermuda is a very big problem. The effort made by Dr Brown to have a ‘Big Conversation’ — if more people, black and white, would have participated, then we would have had fewer problems.

I hear people who work in offices complaining about the attitude of the white people they work with, in particular white foreigners. It’s just the way those people talk about black people and the way they disrespect them.

A lot of people blog anonymously. Some people have told me, ‘I’ve found out the person who sits next to me is such and such on the blog’. That’s disturbing because you’re sitting next to and working with someone who is doing this.

A lot of the opposition to the PLP is because the PLP is seen as a black party, so you have a lot of people who have a problem with the PLP, even though they won’t say it’s because they are a black party. You just hear people complaining about them [the PLP].

What do you think of the UBP/BDA morphing into the One Bermuda Alliance?

It takes a long time to make your mark and to be considered a viable opposition party. What has happened between the UBP and the BDA is more of a reunification than a merger when one considers that all of the players, other than Craig Cannonier, were originally involved in the UBP prior to the formation of the BDA.

I do find it interesting though, if I am to believe what I read, that neither party had discussed the ‘merger’ with their membership. That would not happen in the PLP as it is the Delegates’ Conference that would make such a decision, not just the Central Committee. But as I have written in my latest opinion column, the UBP has ended the way it began, by stealth and deceit.

The PLP, Bermuda’s oldest political party, proudly celebrates its longevity. Each year we hold a Founders’ Day Luncheon to remember those five men who founded the party and the other men and women who worked tirelessly to bring democracy to Bermuda.

I wouldn’t expect the Democratic or Republican party in the US to fold simply because they lost a few elections. We have a very young executive, with many members under 40. The PLP remains in Government because the party continues to attract young, bright Bermudians.

What is the most pressing issue facing us today?

Crime, gun violence, gang activity. I don’t understand people wanting to shoot somebody just because they don’t like them or they don’t live in their neighbourhood. I can’t wrap my head around that.