Dexter Smartt’s focus on equal access to justice for Indigenous peoples lands him prestigious Guardian Group Scholarship
By Lakhram Bhagirat
Although becoming a lawyer was never a priority for Dexter Smartt, he has now realised how he can make a difference in the lives of those who are greatly affected by acts of injustice or those who are unrepresented.
The saying “justice is blind” is one he takes very seriously, and he believes that every single person appearing in court deserves adequate and capable representation. His focus, however, is fighting to ensure that Indigenous peoples are adequately represented.
It was this emphasis that landed him a prestigious Guardian Group UPeace scholarship. Guardian Group in collaboration with the United Nations established the University for Peace Centre for Executive Education, and developed a scholarship programme under which winners earn a Global Leadership Diploma.
This programme encourages learners to explore their leadership potential and proliferate their world view. During this course, participants will learn concrete leadership techniques and competencies to foster creativity and innovation. Participants will also learn how to apply tools and frameworks to shape and grow an organisational leadership strategy and cohesive culture.
Smartt is the only Guyanese recipient of this year’s scholarship and joins 11 others from the Caribbean to pursue various studies.
The 28-year-old hails from Jonestown, Mahaica, and notes that his childhood is responsible for shaping his path. There were humbling times.
He completed his secondary education at the North Georgetown Secondary School after which he did two years of A Levels at School of the Nations after which he enrolled in the University of Guyana to read for a degree in International Relations.
He completed his degree after which he immediately applied to read for another degree – this time in law.
“Law wasn’t my first choice; actually, I wanted to do Political Science, but Guyana did not have a Political Science degree. The closest we had was International Relations and while doing International Relations I met with the then Head of Department of Law and he encouraged me to do Law.
“He highlighted the pros and cons of law and how law was all-encompassing and it reaches all length and the people I would be able to help – because I have been a volunteer for a long time. So he was telling me that I would be able to volunteer more if I have this kind of qualification and as soon as I finished International Relations the same year I applied to do law. I got in. I finished in 2018 and the same year I applied for law school and was one of the lucky ones that got in,” Smartt related.
He recently completed his studies at the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and is waiting to be admitted to the local Bar. Smartt, at the time, is also working with Attorney-at-Law Dexter Todd.
When Smartt saw the advertisement for the scholarship opportunity, initially he was not going to apply. However, he was encouraged by a friend and so decided to give it a shot. He did not think he would have gotten it, but on his 28th birthday, he received the call that he had been awarded the scholarship to pursue studies at the University of Birmingham.
“I am going to pursue multiple areas. Pertaining to the scholarship, I have a lot interest in Indigenous rights and access to justice. Outside of that, I am pursuing energy and environmental law and civil law. I will be at the University of Birmingham and will commence studies in March 2021,” he noted.
Smartt’s interest in fair justice for Indigenous peoples started back in 2015 after he was involved in a project on Guyana’s prison population – an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and University of Guyana project.
As part of the project, he got access to all the male prisoners housed at the Camp Street, Lusignan, Timehri and Mazaruni Prisons – and had the opportunity to interact with several Indigenous inmates. He found some worrying statistics.
Of the inmates he interviewed, he found that over 70 per cent were illiterate while over 80 per cent had little understanding of the English language.
“I got a chance to interview prisoners for a Guyana prison survey and it was during that time while interviewing many Amerindian prisoners it occurred to me that most of them were unrepresented, a lot don’t understand English. I also discovered that when they (Indigenous peoples) are leaving prison – especially Camp Street and Lusignan – they are just left outside of the gates.
“A lot of these Amerindian people come from villages outside of Georgetown and don’t even know where they are and how to get back home. They know their villages by call name and not the region it is in. Their families can’t afford to come and see them. A lot of them don’t have knowledge of where they are going, how they are getting back to their village,” he said.
That prompted him to do more research and he discovered that the issue was not only restricted to Guyana but there were several other territories where Indigenous peoples were severely underrepresented when it came to accessing justice.
He temporarily halted the project as the challenges of law school became greater and was now picking it back up.
“I am going to make it my duty in Guyana to find a solution to this, so that they could get proper representation, get representation in their own language; if they can’t, then they could get proper representation in English. I am going to make sure they are reintegrated and that they are assessed before they leave prison so that they can be able to get home,” the young man said.
It is his intention to partner with the Government through the Amerindian Affairs Ministry, as well as the Bar Association and other Non-Governmental Organisations to have tablets equipped with Internet access and solar chargers dispatched to these villages.
Additionally, he will be working with the Indigenous peoples to ensure they are competently represented in court.