I pay my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, our First Nations People. Specifically I remember Queensland Elders, including Sam Watson and thank him for his support in my sharing with you today. On this Mothers’ Day, we also honour the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander mothers and grandmothers, many of whom continue to weep.
It was in 2010, a month after our son-in-law had died. I had retired from my principalship at Lourdes Hill. I knew that I still needed to work for a whole range of reasons, but I was literally drifting.
I was asked by one of the most inspiring women I know, Aboriginal Ngugi woman Cindy Shannon to take temporary work with the Qld Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation – QATSIF which had only started operation the year before. The Foundation, set up by the Qld Labour Government had commenced operations with a vision to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander families by providing scholarships for Years 11 and 12 students in Queensland secondary schools. It was hoped that these scholarships would encourage more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to complete Year 12 and put themselves in a position of being able to access further tertiary or work opportunities.
The second round of Years 11 and 12 scholarship applications were being submitted by schools and there was no one in the office. I said I would get “QATSIF over the hump.” With the help of a young Uni student, we were able to process submissions, enable them to be assessed by the predominantly Indigenous QATSIF Board, set up agreements with schools and roll out the scholarship program. It was a small fledgling program.
Three years and 1,500 scholarships later in over 140 secondary schools in Queensland, I am still with QATSIF. And so is the Uni student. We have run a very lean office to enable more money for scholarships.
I walked into our liturgy last week and saw the Union notice board displaying “Stolen Wages Room 4.” I have such mixed emotions about the issue. From the 1890s until the 1970s the Queensland Government controlled the wages and savings of Aboriginal Queenslanders who worked under the ‘Protection Acts ‘. Some workers lived on settlements and missions and their wages were paid in rations, shelter and some cash. Other workers were sent to work for employers and their wages were paid into a savings account held by the government.
The past practice of Governments and employers withdrawing wages from Aboriginal people was wrong, demeaning and disempowering. The fact that the Beattie and Bligh Government put money aside to try to make some form of compensation was way overdue. The process commenced in 2002. How some money was paid to claimants was complex and there are many old people still in great pain. The QATSIF Foundation was set up by the Labour Governments to be funded by the interest on unclaimed funds from this money the Government had set aside. I was torn in working for an organisation that seemed in the first instance to be at odds with the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people… There were two things that have influenced me to stay working with QATSIF:
- I know that my work with the students in these schools has resulted in better outcomes for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.. I have been able to work with others in creating the QATSIF Story so that our scholarship recipients as well as non-Indigenous young Queenslanders can learn about this sad and shameful history of our State and indeed the whole of Australia.
- I know that nothing was to be gained by saying “I won’t work with this organisation tainted by such a shameful history,” because if I did not do the work, someone else would and I knew that maybe the way I went about the work might make a difference. Let me take you into some of my experiences:
- Secondary schools as far north as Thursday Island, West at Mt Isa and Longreach and Cunnamulla and all the way down the Queensland cost, we now have 140 secondary schools with students on QATSIF scholarships. Our schools are in the State Education System, Independent Sector and Catholic Sector. What really saddens me is how much schools are now relying on QATSIF support because funding for previous education support programs from Government and education systems has decreased significantly and unjustly.
I can introduce you to Claudia Moodoonuthi, a young Bentick Island woman who left school last year. Her school Clayfield College helped her through Link Up to find her mother and staff from the school actually took her out the other side of Mt Isa to meet her mother. I am going to ask Marg if we can perhaps share her wonderful story in a St Mary’s Matters. Claudia is now doing Art at Griffith Uni and is a recognised national and international artist and it was with the QATSIF scholarship that she first enrolled in a photography course. This then led her in Year 11 to picking up a paintbrush for the first time.
- I can introduce you to Chinchilla HS students who had not been to Brisbane and who begged their teacher to bring them down for our New Scholarships Recipients Breakfast in February. The teacher said she would if they were up and ready by 2.45am. They were and here they are.
I can introduce you to Nykeea Raymond is the first female Indigenous student to hold a School Captain position at Longreach State High School. Nykeea only came to the school at the beginning of 2012 and never considered running for School Captain until she went on Leadership Camp at Emu Gully. There she shone like a bright star as her outgoing personality helped the group come together. She not only participated in all the activities but always led them, and came up with workable solutions that were often the ones which got the job done. Nykeea decided that she would like to have an influence over students at school and applied for the position. She won this comfortably, with major support coming from students. Nykeea has already demonstrated her leadership skills by working with a group of indigenous girls who were having issues. How great that a QATSIF scholarship supports Nykeea
I can introduce you to Emily Foster from Mary Mackillop College who creates her own songs. She wrote a wonderful song called Tapsticks. It is about her grandmother returning home after being forcibly removed….called by the sound of the tapsticks.This is what Emily said about her song:
Well, My Mum was taken for a little bit and she wrote about missing her mum and so forth, and I didn’t know my nan went through the same thing! So my mums uncle gave my mum some notes my nan left behind and mum gave them to me! I was reading through how she felt and what she went through and yeah, I wrote a song, Sadly those notes are lost, because we keep moving houses.
We will reflect with Emily’s song after communion.
I can introduce you to Elder, Aunty Ruth Hegarty,the author of three great books:
- Hegarty, Ruth, 1999. Is That You Ruthie? Brisbane: University of Queensland Press
- Hegarty, Ruth, 2003. Bittersweet Journey. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press
- Hegarty, Ruth, 2011. Jack’s Story: The Life and Times of a Cherbourg Dormitory Boy as told to Ruth Hegarty. Taigum: Yubuna Munya
- Aunty Ruth lives at Zillmere and had been on the original Stolen Wages Committee fighting for the return of all the allocated funds to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Last year, she accepted the role of Patron of QATSIF saying:
I am pleased to accept the position of Patron of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Foundation
As a member of the “Stolen Wages” our fight for justice (though not completely successful), and challenge to government fell on deaf ears. The loss of wages created considerable stress for our Elders who felt they had been robbed, considering the years spent in employment and sometimes far away from families. To be denied their full entitlement was a great insult.
In support of all unclaimed monies, I believe the move to set up the Foundation by Government is a way of making sure our children benefit and achieve greatness in higher education of which we, the Elders, were deprived.
If this (QATSIF) benefits the future of emerging Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers and Sporting Men & Women, the outlook is promising. I am an avid believer in the power of education plus the importance of learning from Elders who bring knowledge of Country, Culture and Community
I have learned so much in my work:
· I am reminded that if there are gaps in education of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander students, they can be highly intelligent but victims of gaps in their learning that can easily make schools and education systems think they can’t learn and consign them to ESL or Learning Support classes that don’t suit their learning.
· That it only takes one staff member in a school who engages with a child to motivate that child to succeed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander students are quick to identify the one staff member who believes in them and in whom they can trust – this applies to all children really.
· That more Aboriginal parents now often find a voice in their school community because their son or daughter has a QATSIF Scholarship and they can be more at ease within the school circle because our scholarships demand that schools consult the parents.
· Students can and do appreciate the injustices of the past in relation to stolen wages and many of them say that their ancestors are like spirits walking with them through school and they don’t want to let them down
· I am in a privileged position of having been my whole life in education, now able to walk with these young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their parents in not only the Catholic but the State and Independent schools and to see the dedication and commitment in so many especially with poor and in some cases disgraceful levels of resourcing.
· It is hard for Aboriginal people today to make progress when it seems that Governments can take advantage of their own varying views, dissent and fragmentation in Aboriginal communities. The Katter Party have recently joined the Council of Unions in calling on the State Government to hand over all of the funds to Aboriginal and State Islander people but it is not a simple issue. It seems to make for good publicity though.
· Real outcomes will come about in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education when schools have the opportunity to work with and across Government Departments to address issues of Housing and health and to overcome the corrosive poverty which can destroy any educational advantage that may be possible.
Our small office regularly takes calls from anyone who may have googled “Aboriginal” and QATSIF seems to come up. The calls that I most love are the many we receive from the grandmothers worried about their grandchildren’s education. I can often hear the grandmothers crying for their children and grandchildren and tirelessly exploring every avenue to have the young ones access the best in education. On this Mothers’ Day, many continue to weep
I am left with deep deep questions:
- Why is that an Ed Queensland teacher in country Qld is personally paying the bus fare for an eager young Aboriginal Year 10 student to get to school because in the family there is no money left for the bus fare? Thank God she is.
- Why is it that so many of our teachers are personally providing for a child to start the day learning with food in their stomach? Thank God they are.
- Why is that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who become teachers quickly move into higher paid office jobs and never get to teach?
- Why is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Education Counsellors have been appointed to schools to liaise with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander families but in the case of two Logan high schools with almost 3000 students between them the Community Education Counsellor is paid to work at one school for one day per fortnight and at the other school for 3 days per fortnight….and this person is the most significant port of call for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander students?
What I fear most is that this current State Government will not discern through Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander eyes what might be best for the future. I have learned that we must pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the point of asking and keep on asking for their wisdom….and there are many voices to whom we must listen. I fear that this current Government may take what it sees as its large mandate to govern as permission to make decisions not based on listening to the pain and the quiet wisdom of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders. Like Jesus did in today’s gospel, let Governments and we who elect them go to the outskirts and the margins. Let Governments, and we who elect them, recognise that maybe the message of Ascension Day is that power from on high has already been bestowed on our First Nations Peoples and that Aboriginal history demands that the Spirit, the Spirit of the Dream must speak….and we must listen
My hope is that philanthropy and corporate funding will replace the current funding for our scholarships. I hope this QATSIF scholarship program soon to open up its 5th round of scholarships will outgrow any potential political interference especially from cash strapped governments and that Aboriginal people will experience a sense of justice in regard to their Stolen Wages. I conclude though giving voice to one of our QATSIF scholarship students:
Flavien Broome – Alexandra Hills State High School:
QATSIF is great. QATSIF has taken the worry out of my school life and made my educational goals easier to achieve. Mum and I don’t have to worry about the expenses associated with education like uniforms, school fees and excursions. I would never have had the school laptop without this scholarship and now I’m just like everyone else. I also do a Certificate III in Business and work in the city one day a week. QATSIF helps to get me there each week and I hope this traineeship will turn into a job after I graduate with a QCE. The QATSIF kids from my school also get to go to Indigenous dance and theatre productions at QPAC is it’s a real chance to connect with my culture that I never had before.
My professional journey as an educator in Catholic Education was indeed rich in experience and opportunities but now in this unexpected journey with QATSIF I realise how limited I was by a seemingly narrow Catholic view of the world.
My spiritual journey is indeed richer for this experience and while the negotiations about unpaid Stolen Wages are out of my hands, I can continue to work with schools and young Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Queenslanders, that the legacy of the sacred toil of their ancestors can drive them towards education – education that will encourage a passion for justice and in Oodgeroo’s words, “a glad tomorrow.”
May we all be one infused with the Spirit in the great Temple of our land and in the hearts of our First Nations peoples.
“Gowrie Boys” Shine“Gowrie Boys – Brotherhood” from St Teresa’s College Abergowrie in 2011 won the Urban Youth Category Award at the Australian Indigenous Hip Hop and R&B Music Awards and demonstrate what QATSIF Scholarship Recipients can achieve. Through the QATSIF network, Mangu who starts in the video applied for a Bond University scholarships and is now there in his second year doing his Law Degree.