Sharp, witty, fierce yet sensitive and patriotic were some of the words used to describe former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Deborah Backer who died early yesterday morning at the Davis Memorial Hospital following months of illness.
An attorney-at-law by profession, Backer was mostly remembered for her wittiness in the National Assembly and as a quick thinker on her feet.
The 54-year-old mother of two fell ill late last year and subsequently resigned from the National Assembly where she had been a member since 1998 serving as a PNCR and later APNU member.
Stabroek News was told that she complained of pain sometime during Thursday night and was rushed from her Meadow-brook home to the Davis Memorial Hospital where she later died.
Her family requested privacy when approached, but APNU had announced her passing early yesterday morning saying that it was shocked and saddened.
Known for her quick responses during parliamentary sessions Backer, who would have entered political life during the tenure of the late president Desmond Hoyte, was also remembered for her vast knowledge of the Standing Orders. Many spoke about her commitment to the party and to Guyanese as a whole and the fact that many times she represented persons free of cost and found it hard to say no to someone in need.
In 2012, APNU put her name up to become the first ever female Speaker of the National Assembly but eventually she withdrew and the party instead supported the AFC’s candidate, current Speaker Raphael Trotman.
Backer had later told this newspaper that while she was disappointed at a personal level at not being elected Speaker, “… The bigger picture is if you are talking about shared governance you are going to have to yield sometimes when you feel you are right and know you are right, and sometimes even have the greater… numerical strength,” she had said during that interview.
She had noted that politics was a “difficult thing; you have to give and you have to take and you have to yield at times, and many times yielding is the person who is in the stronger position.
“I would hope that the message that it should send to people is that one, the sky is the limit for women and two whatever career… you take you will have stumbling blocks along the way but the important thing is to stick to it and keep pressing forward.”
‘Indomitable and beautiful spirit’
Trotman, who joined the PNCR together with Backer, said in a statement in his capacity as Speaker, that Backer, a longstanding Member of Parliament, served in various capacities from 1998 to 2014. Apart from being Deputy Speaker when she resigned, she was also Chairperson of the Foreign Relations Committee, member of various Standing and Special Select Committees, and the main opposition’s spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Public Safety and National Security.
“She has made an indelible mark on the political fabric of Guyana and her monumental contribution in the fight against injustice, inequality, and intolerance will be everlasting,” Trotman said.
“Hers was an indomitable and beautiful spirit and her passing will leave a void that is irreplaceable,” the Speaker further stated while expressing condolences to her relatives on behalf of himself and the parliamentary staff.
Speaking to Stabroek News, Trotman later recalled that it was in 1994 that the PNC asked him and Backer to be candidates at the municipal level and while they would have been around the party for years it was at that time that they decided to take up membership. They were councillors of the Georgetown Mayor & City Council and he said, a “friendship and bond was knitted in that time.”
They campaigned for the party during the 1997 elections and were both appointed Members of Parliament in 1998.
“We have always been good friends, she has been like a big sister,” Trotman said recalling that she was there for him even during his time of “personal stress.
“We had this brotherly/sisterly relationship that I would always treasure,” he said.
Trotman said she had the ability to make you laugh and cringe at the same time but through all of this she was “a good person.” She was very protective of her family and friends and was a woman in every sense, Trotman said.
Trotman said he had only recently spoken to his friend and her voice sounded stronger and more resolute and he had hoped it was the turning point for the better.
Meantime, Trotman is advocating for Backer’s death to see the laying of legislative groundwork for a structured mechanism for assistance to be given to MPs and other public officials in their time of illness. He said he knows Backer’s family did not approach government for assistance during her time of illness, but said even without that the government should have offered to assist the former MP.
The Speaker said while he is aware that whenever requests are made to the government for assistance they are never turned down, there should be a “more structured footing” for MPs and other officials to be assisted. He said he expects the government to offer to offset what he would assume is the “horrendous” medical bill that Backer’s family now has to pay.
Former member of the PNCR Supriya Singh said that she and Backer had shared a simple philosophy formed on the basis of their friendship, which was “service to others is the rent we pay for our time here on earth…”
She said they had managed to spend “some precious days together recently, days that I will treasure forever.
“We laughed, we cried and we reminisced about all of the powerful and funny incidences we shared together while doing our political work, there are too many to recount.”
She described the fallen MP as having one of the sharpest minds in the country and that “almost everyone on the political stage at some time or other came under the hammer when she felt they were off track.” She spared no one.
“I will miss my friend deeply. I will remember her amazing sense of humour. I will remember her passing me tamarind balls under the table as we sat through long meetings, to ward off hunger pangs. She was real. She will always be my friend. The light she lit will keep on burning. The Guyana she wished for is in the making we will get there one day,” Singh said.
Public Relations Officer of the PNC Kim Chung was still in a state of shock when contacted yesterday. She revealed that she met Backer in 2002 when she started working at Congress Place.
Backer, she said, was someone you could sit and talk to about your problems and she always lent a listening ear.
“I admired her for her vibrant public speaking during campaigns. She was one of the best public speakers, who we would call fireball,” Chung said.
The last time she spoke to Backer was the day before she travelled to Miami for treatment and Chung said she sounded very ill and she asked her to pray that she got better.
“She was a very nice person, I am really heartbroken that she is gone because she was also one of our best parliamentarians,” Chung said recalling that she used to encourage Backer to run to become the first female leader of the party and that she would laugh and say “Maybe it will happen.”
The PNCR and APNU in a joint statement issued later yesterday, noted that Backer was co-opted to the Central Executive Committee of the PNC in 1997 and took new and fresh perspectives to the deliberations of that forum. “Because of her work and contributions among the rank and file members, she was elected to the Executive Committee at the Biennial Congress in 2000. In 2004 she was elected Vice Chairman of the [PNCR] at the Biennial Congress of that year and served until 2006,” the statement said.
Backer had undertaken the task of reviewing the party’s Constitution following a recommendation made by the 2012 Congress, but regrettably was sidelined by illness, the statement from the Office of the Opposition Leader said.
Noting that her death was a loss to the PNCR, APNU and the nation, the statement said, “We shall miss her infectious good humour, her unflagging commitment and her tireless pursuit of social justice. Unusually for such a vociferous parliamentary combatant, she was admired and respected across the aisle. As she was fond of saying whenever, as Deputy Speaker, she assumed the Speaker’s chair, ‘I expect that there will be order and silence in the House.’ This remark was always greeted with peals of laughter, an acknowledgement of her quick wit and ever ready repartee from the front bench, usually an invitation to counter heckling and disorder. She made heckling into an art form, sharp and withering though never personally wounding. The National Assembly has been a duller place for her absence.”
APNU and the PNCR have lost a cherished colleague, a friend for all seasons, a creative parliamentary and political leader, and a Guyanese patriot of rare quality, the statement said.
It extended heartfelt sympathy to her husband Steve and children Natasha and Nigel on behalf of the PNCR and APNU.
Meantime, Chairperson of the National Congress of Women—the PNC’s women’s arm—Cheryl Sampson said that while Backer was never on the executive of the women’s arm she always supported the group in various ways.
She recalled that she knew Backer since she was a little girl in school but it was after she joined the party they got closer.
“She was very down to earth and she loved field work,” Sampson recalled. She also mentioned Backer’s fiery speeches during political campaigns.
Sampson, who served for a short while as a parliamentarian with Backer, said she always admired her quick wittedness. “The party is going to miss her, she had a mind of her own. She really did good work for us. The comrades on the ground would miss her. We will miss her,” Sampson said sadly.
APNU’s Chief Whip Amna Ally said she had an “excellent relationship” with Backer noting that “she was a very hard-working party comrade, at the level of the party and at Parliament.” She was an ardent public speaker and many liked her on the platform, Ally said, adding that her fallen comrade was serious about her work even as she was loved by many.
“Her demise is a really a shock to us, we knew she was ill but she was recuperating and we were hoping that she would have come around,” Ally said.
The AFC in a brief statement said that Backer “served Guyana with distinction and her prowess as a Member of the National Assembly; the depth of her research, eloquence of delivery, quick wit, charm and knowledge, especially of the Standing Orders, will be held as a standard to which new members would aspire and to which members of long standing will hold themselves. Mrs Backer’s competence as an attorney was no less outstanding.”
Earlier this month, to mark International Women’s Day, Backer was one of several women honoured by Parliament. She was recognised for her 14 years of service as an MP. Her daughter Natasha Backer had collected the award on her behalf.
Backer would have celebrated her 55th birthday on April 14.