Yoorrook truths light the path ahead

By Nerita Waight, Rueben Berg, and Ngarra Murray | 13 Sep 23
Aboriginal protest outside Parliament of Victoria.

Our people have lived on this land, now known as Victoria, for tens of thousands of years. We prospered because we worked together in harmony with our mother, the land.

Across Victoria, Aboriginal people built eel farms, cultivated crops, and found ways to make the most of the multitude of environments across this land. We designed complex governance systems that allowed our many nations to cooperate and we passed that knowledge on through our culture.

For the last 235 years, our people have faced massacres, slavery and oppression. Yet we have done the hard work to survive and rebuild.

Our own hard work has brought us a long way.

We have built our own community organisations to provide healthcare and legal services, to maintain culture, and to protect our children. We built our own grassroots political movements to fight for our human rights through petitions, protests and winning seats in parliament.

As part of our journey to Treaty in Victoria, our communities called for the establishment of a Truth-telling process which is now underway with the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

Yoorrook is something we had long wanted, but once again our people were called on to do the hard work. To share our stories. Our pain. Our grief. Our struggle but also our hopes, our aspirations, our ideas for building a better Victoria.

We rose to the challenge. Our people and our organisations have made dozens of submissions and spent many hours giving evidence to Yoorrook about the discrimination and oppression we face in the legal and child protection systems.

These truths are not easy to hear, they hurt your spirit but they also let it soar with wonder at the resilience and strength our people embody.

Truths like Uncle Ross Morgan’s story.

Uncle Ross, a Yorta Yorta man, was separated from his mum when he was three and raised by other family members because his mother was trapped in a violent relationship with a racist man. When Uncle Ross was seven, the Aunty and Uncle who were caring for him died on the same day.

He spoke of teachers who were racist to him, police who brutalised him, and turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma of his childhood. About 25 years ago, Uncle Ross began working at the Aboriginal health service cleaning the floors. He then became a drug and alcohol counsellor and has been working to help other Aboriginal people ever since.

Uncle Ross’ story is in many ways unique. But the resilience, strength and spirit he shows in the face of trauma and hardship is familiar to all of our people.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) spoke about an Aboriginal child who had been through at least a dozen care facilities and had indications of serious mental health and disability issues they were not receiving consistent healthcare for.

Instead of helping, the residential care facility chose harm each time by calling the police for things like throwing items around. The ‘care facility’ did this knowing that police would choose harm too.

This lack of care or affection is startling, but it has been a hallmark of our communities’ experience of the welfare system for generations. Many of the truths told at Yoorrook speak of the relentless ways our people are pushed around and kicked down, silenced and disappeared. But our communities resist the silence and do the hard work to make their voices heard, and their rights to be recognised.

Our people have made themselves heard at Yoorrook. We have told you what we want to change.

What we need now is for the Government and Victorians to work with us to make change.

We need words to turn into action, truth to mean justice, and we need to be able to see a truly self- determined future for the generations to come.

Yoorrook’s interim report makes just short of 50 recommendations.

Many need to be implemented urgently and all of them are achievable. Achievable if the Government and Victorians choose bravery over cowardice, truth over distortion and progress over stagnation.

They include implementing accountability mechanisms to ensure the cultural and human rights of our people, and creating new legislation dedicated to the safety, well-being and protection of Aboriginal children.

The overarching call is that decision-making power, authority, control and resources of the criminal legal and child protection system as it related to First Peoples, must be transferred to First Peoples.

This report by Yoorrook, and the ones that will follow in the coming years, shine a light on the path forward for the First Peoples’ Assembly as we negotiate Treaty and drive transformational change.

First Peoples will do the hard work negotiating Treaty so that we honour our people’s truth. We simply ask you to walk hand in hand with us.