Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia
Many years ago, I worked in a country town. I was somewhat startled by some local attitudes towards First Nations inhabitants – attitudes which wavered between open disinterest and openly racist. I was concerned at the social distancing between European and First Nations communities, and attempted to bridge the gap within my personal and professional spheres of influence. As a young, naïve, relatively uninformed but idealistic first-year teacher, I made an effort to learn and implement indigenous culture within my subjects.
I took aside my indigenous Year 9 students and apologised to them that the Australian History curriculum that I had been mandated to teach actively excluded the existence of their communities after 1788, and I invited them to contribute ideas or to put me in touch with local adults who could help me make the subject more inclusive. They shrugged casually and remarked, “Nothing personal sir, but we’ve been putting up with this shit of being overlooked all our lives”. Naturally this encouraged me to redouble my efforts – working with the union to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the curriculum; seeking counsel from a local Koori Liaison Officer; incorporating indigenous stories, perspectives and culture into my classes; taking my younger students onto the school oval to throw boomerangs and spears under the guidance and direction of appropriate local First Nations elders.
After I left the town, I bumped into one or two of my former First Nations students in other social settings, and we maintained a positive relationship until life took us in different directions.
I did not find out until some years later, however, that the year before I had arrived in the town, there had been a death that would ultimate feature within the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. During my time there, I had not heard a word – not amidst the social gossip, not within otherwise snide racist innuendo, not even in the context of professional concern at the social isolation of individuals with whom I worked – nothing. This man’s death had been invisible and ignored and unheralded in the town, like dirty laundry that nobody wanted to air.
One First Nations perspective regarding this same Royal Commission expresses profound human disappointment:
The Royal Commission produced many reports, including individual reports for each death investigated. The Royal Commission found that First Nations people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody. Almost 30 years later and First Nations people are still far more likely to be incarcerated than the non-Indigenous population. The final report was signed on 15 April 1991 and made 339 recommendations. The recommendations focused on health and safety procedures for people in custody, liaison with First Nations community groups, police education and improved transparency of records. According to the Federal Government’s own measures, most of these recommendations have either not been implemented or only partially implemented.
This human catastrophe continues today:
Since the Royal Commission handed down its findings in 1991, at least another 455 Indigenous people have died in custody, according to the latest-available statistics from the 2018-19 National Deaths in Custody program.
And so it is now, some thirty years after that Commission – its recommendations largely ignored; the societal discrimination that it attempted to address still remaining unresolved due to a continuation across Australia (and beyond) of the same attitudes I observed in my local country town all those years ago – a marriage of open disinterest and open racism.
We should all learn from Gamilaraay Kooma woman Ruby Wharton: Where is the outrage? In the name of our humanity, we need to do more than read (or write) blogs. There is a need for tangible and real action. People are dying; do we care? It is time – nay, it is a time long overdue – to take action, as individuals, as arbiters of humanitarian laws and standards, and as a community.
There is a saying: I used to wonder why somebody didn’t do something, and then I realised that I was somebody.
What can YOU do?
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn