March 2024

We must walk with Indigenous people on the journey towards justice

Although the Indigenous Voice to Parliament might have been silenced, I believe we need to listen to the many and varied voices of our Indigenous neighbours, writes Congregational Leader Sister Catherine McCahill.  

I grew up on the lands of the Wulgurukaba people. On International Women’s Day this year, I was privileged to spend the day with the local Aboriginal Cooperative, Tranby, on Gadigal land (now known as Sydney). In the more than 60 years between these bookends, I have learnt much about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first and continuing custodians of this land that I call home, Australia.

Wulguru, now part of Townsville in North Queensland, was named after the local people and is the suburb of my childhood. I don’t remember how I knew that, but I did. However, it was more than 50 years before I met a Wulgurukaba person. I knew a couple of the Indigenous families who lived nearby, but it never occurred to me, or to anyone else I knew at the time, to ask about their place, or language or symbol.

Dr Evelyn Scott AO, the late North Queensland Indigenous activist, was the first to open my eyes, to enable me to see my homeplace differently. My English teacher invited her to speak to our class. I was shocked and saddened to hear of the discrimination Evelyn faced daily in Townsville. I remain indebted to Aunty Evelyn (and my English teacher) for beginning my journey into knowing the reality of the people among whom I lived.

Years later, and again I recall the incident vividly, I read of Henry Reynolds’ first visit to Palm Island in the late 1960s. Two girls, aged 13 and younger, were locked in the police cells for the day because they had sworn at their school teacher. To this day, I remain appalled and angered at the treatment of these girls.

I echo the question that became the title of Reynolds’ book, Why Weren’t We Told?  Whether deliberate or not, the truth of colonisation and its ongoing consequence in this country are not well known. Nor are the current realities of our own time for our Indigenous neighbours.

Last month, Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, released the Commonwealth Closing the Gap 2023 Annual Report and the 2024 Implementation Plan. This report, compiled by the Productivity Commission, reports on the National Agreement reached in 2019 between Australian governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations. The agreement “commits governments to greater efforts to overcome the entrenched inequality faced” by Australia’s First Nations People.  

The report summary is sobering:

Progress towards the 15 targets that can be assessed has been limited, with only four on track to be met. Despite this, outcomes are improving for most targets. Of the four targets that are on track, three have had annual improvements close to double what is needed. Moreover, seven of the targets that are not on track are nevertheless improving. However, outcomes are getting worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in four target areas. Rates of adult imprisonment, children in out-of-home care and suicide have all increased, and children’s early development outcomes at the start of school have declined. (p. 5)

This report and its sad statistics made headlines a couple of times in the 24-hour news cycle and then we moved on. Are these facts no longer newsworthy? What are we doing about the women and men dying too early, about the children in out-of-home care, and the dislocated families behind these statistics? What are we doing about the disproportionate incarceration rates of our Indigenous neighbours?

I know and understand the problems are generational and complex. But in the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, these are recent realities, the complex consequences of arrival and dispossession that began in 1788.

In October last year, 60% of Australians voted No in the referendum to amend the Australian Constitution so that Australia’s First Nations People, those who lived, worked and cared for this land for more than 65,000 years before the arrival of Europeans just 235 years ago, might be recognised. Instead of being a time of national unity and affirmation of those ancestors whose land was not ceded but taken, the issue was politicised, badly planned, and poorly explained.

A week later, the Open Letter from a group of Indigenous leaders to the Prime Minister and all Members of the Australian Parliament reflects the pain of that day. These women and men write of the shock and grief, of their collective silence for seven days after the result was announced. They write also of hope and commitment to the ongoing journey towards justice:

We will maintain the vision of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. … It is evident that many Australians are unaware of our cultures, our histories, or the racism imbued in the Australian Constitution. … We have faith that the upswelling of support through this Referendum has ignited a fire for many to walk with us on our journey towards justice. Our truths have been silenced for too long.

For now, the Voice about which we voted has been silenced. In this silence, I believe we have to listen to all the voices of our Indigenous neighbours. There are many and they are varied. They are politicians, authors, poets, academics, sportspeople, parents, children and neighbours in our local communities. We all make choices in our reading, for information and leisure, in our listening, and in our conversations.

Perhaps it is time individually, in our workplaces, communities and families to allow the voices of our Indigenous neighbours to be heard. Maybe the author of the next novel I read will be Indigenous. Maybe I can be intentional about the podcasts, radio and television programs that I choose. Likewise, I need to be intentional in my conversations, in my words and in my listening. What are the messages and whose voices will I amplify?

On International Women’s Day, the main speakers were leaders and participants in the Yanalangami: Strong Women, Strong Communities program. As I listened to their stories and their testimony to the impact of the program and had conversations with some of them, I knew that these are the stories I can choose to amplify.

Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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