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Australia trustbuilding project launching soon

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The trustbuilding project in Australia is launching! On 19 March there is a launch event, including a traditional smoking ceremony, that you can join the in person or online. But what exactly is the issue being addressed by the trustbuilding team in Australia?

Announcing the program, Initiatives of Change Australia (IofCA) Executive Officer Margaret Hepworth said the project seeks to address the wrongs of the past and the incomplete history of Australia. ‘At the same time, it aims to promote greater understanding of current inequities and injustice,’ she said. This project is IofCA’s way to respond to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which urges ‘a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.’

Confronting a legacy 

The legacy of dispossession and harmful past policies, such as the removal of Indigenous children from their families, have contributed to Indigenous people being at a disadvantage in many areas. Indigenous Australians have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and are imprisoned at a far higher rate than the Australian population at large. Despite efforts, large gaps still remain between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in child mortality, life expectancy, school attendance, and educational achievement.

‘The first phase of the program is about engaging non-Indigenous Australians in building relationships with First Nations people and communities,’ said Mike Brown, part of the IofCA team that crafted the program proposal. ‘The activities will include national education forums about Indigenous issues. Non-Indigenous people who wish to engage with these issues will then be encouraged to research, build relationships and organize local activities wherever they are. This initial phase will take place through mobilizing IofCA’s network and partners to initiate and participate in a whole range of actions for truth telling and truth hearing.

The second phase, he explained, will be a small number of projects to be co-designed with traditional owners in two to three specific localities, where there is both interest and commitment to work in trust together. A Partnership Steering Group of First Nations Elders will help advise and guide the projects.

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A journey towards understanding

To help set the context of the need for this trustbuilding project, on 30 January, a group of 22 visitors, including trustbuilding project members, came to Cherbourg to meet the community. Their purpose was to understand better the legacy of past policies against Australia’s First Nations, and begin a conversation about what can be done in the present day. The Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, 270 km northwest of Brisbane on the lands of the Wakka Wakka people, became a site for forced resettlement in the early 20th century, under the 1897 Queensland law on Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. Under the policy of forced removal, by the 1930s there were 28 different First Nations represented among Cherbourg’s population of 900 people. This meant those who were not Wakka Wakka people, the traditional landowners, were disconnected from their culture and language. The men were sent to clear land and do farm labour for pastoralists and nearby property owners, while the women were hired out as domestic staff, in conditions akin to prison work. Many children were further removed from their families to live in school dormitories, where punishments were severe and living conditions poor.

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Recognition and healing

On 26 May1999, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie apologized in Parliament to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, expressing ‘deep sorrow and regret’ for its past policies of separating Indigenous children from their families. The apology recognised the impacts of these policies have continued in the form of intergenerational trauma in the Cherbourg community.The Queensland government also acknowledged past wage discrimination against Aboriginal workers, and provided some compensation.

'While the government apology recognised that the impacts of these policies have continued in the form of intergenerational trauma in the Cherbourg community, more follow-up practical action is needed.'

Barbara Lawler, IofC Elder