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PRINT EDITION
Martin testing waters on Turks, Caicos
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By DREW FAGAN
OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
  
  

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Wednesday, April 7, 2004 – Page A8

Canadians who shivered through winter shouldn't yet dream of domestic sun, sand and surf, but Prime Minister Paul Martin has grown interested in the decades-long campaign to turn the Turks and Caicos Islands into Canada's Caribbean sanctuary.

Mr. Martin was going through his in-basket recently and came upon a short memo outlining a few MPs' advocacy of a political and economic union with the island chain, now a British overseas territory. Previous governments viewed the concept as a pipe dream, but officials say Mr. Martin wasn't so dismissive, suggesting that, while the idea might turn out to have no merit, it doesn't deserve to be rejected out of hand.

A further examination is considered possible, although it remains unclear in what form.

And so, add to Canada's Caribbean efforts -- peacekeeping in Haiti and negotiation of free trade with the 20-nation Caricom organization -- the potential association with an eight-island chain known for rum punch and tax-free status. Annexation remains more theoretical than imperial; it might best be characterized as a low-simmer issue for Canadian officials.

Still, a proper fact-finding mission might be in order -- although the best time to do so likely was 10 weeks ago, when Ottawa's temperature dropped to -30.

"The advantage would be obvious. Canadians go south in the winter; why not have an opportunity to spend that money in the country and get a return on it," said Liberal MP Massimo Pacetti, who, with Conservative MP Peter Goldring, has led the charge for a Canadian tropical paradise.

"A lot of people want to invest in something that is local, " Mr. Pacetti said.

The latest campaign is the third in as many decades.

In 1974, New Democratic MP Max Saltzman proposed an association with the islands, but Mitchell Sharp, who was then external affairs minister, balked at the potential tax and immigration issues.

In 1987, leading citizens of the Turks and Caicos, hoping for investment to reduce the islands' double-digit unemployment rate, lobbied Brian Mulroney's government directly.

A parliamentary study rejected their entreaties.

Now, times are good on the islands, which have about 25,000 citizens. Yet interest in an association with Canada remains in the hope that it would further spur tourism and investment.

Those Canadians who advocate close ties point primarily to the advantage of visiting a Caribbean playground that would accept the loonie and not require customs documents. (For trade reasons, though, the U.S. dollar likely would remain the major currency.)

"We're trying to set up some more meetings," Mr. Pacetti said. "I'm not really sure where Paul stands on this," he added, referring to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Martin may not be sure either. He is known for being intellectually curious, officials note, and what ends up in his briefing papers can vary widely.

The British government need not worry, they say; there will be no October surprise sprung when the weather again turns cold.

Not that the British government would necessarily mind.

Westminster points out that it has turned plenty of other colonies loose and wouldn't stand in the way if islanders chose the Canadian club.


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