How a small campaign snowballed to force a referendum

Members of CPR Cayman joined a protest Friday afternoon. – Photo: Courtney Platt

The movement started in Katrina Jurn’s living room: six people gathered together after work because they didn’t like what they were hearing about a proposed cruise ship berth being built in George Town Harbour. They munched on potato chips and talked about what they might do to stop it.

“We knew a petition for a referendum was the only choice,” Jurn said.

They wondered what to call their cruise port referendum group, until the correlation with a lifesaving procedure suddenly struck them.

“It was like, ‘CPR, oh my God!’” Jurn said. So the movement’s name became a metaphor – life support for the reefs.

Johann Moxam, a partner in a corporate financial services company, said it was clear the battle would not be won on the political front. The make-up of the Legislative Assembly meant government was always likely to get its plans through the House.

“It had to be a people-driven initiative,” he said.

Some members had experience in activist causes. Jurn had previously co-founded Sustainable Cayman and led several other environmental groups, one of which was Save Cayman. That organisation was formed in response to the government’s actions in light of the environmental impact report on the cruise berthing project. The group organised demonstrations against the project.

CPR members huddle during a recent public meeting. – Photo: CPR Cayman

“A lot of us were involved in the 2015 movement in different ways,” Jurn said.

She said photographer Cathy Church helped connect her with other activist-oriented people, such as Mario Rankin. All of them knew the territory. It was a matter of mobilisation. How many people could they convince to come along?

Humble beginnings

Within a week, they had printed petition forms and were setting up a table and canopy at Hurley’s supermarket. They asked shoppers coming and going from the store if they were registered to vote and, if they were, would they sign a petition for a referendum to stop the port project.

“We didn’t even have a banner,” said Shirley Roulstone, a tour operator who was not at the initial meeting but joined soon after. “We only had a poster board.”

Members chipped in to pay for materials.

“We mostly all contributed similar amounts, whatever we could afford towards our startup costs,” Jurn said. She estimated those costs were “under $1,500 in total”.

In addition to petition booklets, they spent money on banners, T-shirts bearing a ‘Have Your Say’ logo, tables and canopies. A week later they held a meeting to recruit volunteers; 25 people showed up.

The long, slow process of gathering more than 5,000 signatures took around nine months. The core members of the group insisted they never had any doubts they would succeed.

Founders: The referendum campaign started with a small group of people.

“We were all optimistic,” said Rankin.

Week after week, they staffed the table at Hurley’s. They also stationed themselves at other places around the island, including Hell gas station, Countryside Shopping Village and Books and Books in Camana Bay. The University College of the Cayman Islands’ Ecology Club set up a table on campus.

Children dragged their parents to sign

Some people were eager to sign. Some had to be cajoled. Roulstone said many times children dragged their parents over to sign the document.

Moxam said a number of civil servants worried about putting their names on the petition.

“There was a senior civil servant who told me I had to come to his house because he didn’t want anyone to see him signing,” he said.

Katrina Jurn

Jurn said the group wanted to make sure the signatures they collected were going to be valid in the eyes of the Elections Office. They painstakingly compared the names on the petitions with those on the Official Register of Electors, verifying addresses and signatures.

They were operating largely in the dark. Although the Cayman Islands Constitution provides for a referendum process, there are no detailed guidelines as to how it should work.

“Hundreds of people had changed their addresses,” Jurn said. There were duplicate names and signatures. If they were to do it over again, she said, “We would have collected phone numbers and email addresses.”

But many people were wary enough just providing their signatures, she added. Asking for personal information likely would have scared many prospective supporters away, Jurn believes.

Momentum

Shortly before submitting the final signatures to the Elections Office, CPR held a public meeting in George Town’s Town Hall, now Constitution Hall. Members said they were surprised when about 300 people showed up.

“I’ve been involved in other environmental movements,” Jurn said. “Never have I experienced the community coming together like this before.”

Moxam said the group’s actions have changed Cayman politics.

“We couldn’t understand that it would become this,” he said. “CPR represents every colour and type of Caymanian that exists: rich, poor, black, white, it doesn’t matter. Everybody is a hardcore multi-generation Caymanian. The support we have is from every type of Caymanian.

“People are paying attention because this is unprecedented,” he added. “This is the first time that the feasibility of a people-initiated referendum has been shown and I think that strikes fear in the hearts of some in the government.”

Mario Rankin speaks at a meeting.

Rankin said he thinks it has changed the tenor of how people look at governance.

“We changed the mindset of a lot of Caymanian people who thought, ‘No matter what we do, it’s not going to change government’s mind,’” he said. “We haven’t converted everybody, but we’ve converted enough.”

And, Moxam said, the group has established a guideline.

“I think people now have a clear example of what’s possible,” he said. “This is the model for grassroots politics going forward.”