In a remote Town in northern Australia a teenage girl learns of the death of her best friend in a motor accident. Within a few hours she too is dead and her body is found by her brother.
In another larger regional town a young man is drinking into the early hours of the morning with two male relatives. In between drinks they share some cones of marijuana, as they did earlier in the day, and pass the hours in small talk or sometimes in silence. Before dawn the young man, in his mid-twenties, leaves the room without a word. After some time one of the others goes out to look for the missing young man. He finds him and with the help of the third person cuts him down from the tree.
A clergyman, experienced in ministry to Aboriginal people in rural Australia, speaks to an assembled group of priests about the strains and stress often encountered in such ministry and the hurt that often emerges when faced with the senseless tragedies of self harm in rural towns and settlements. He emphasises that people who work in those environs need useful and carefully placed support, if they are to survive the rigours and sorrows of almost daily living.
As he speaks one of those listening to him begins to weep, first softly and then uncontrollably – so much so that his confreres help him from the room. He had been assigned to a township where death and self-harm were constantly at the forefront of his ministry and where loneliness was his regular companion.
Suicide, car accidents, violence, drugs, lack of good health, dangerous habits. All of these causes have taken their toll among Aboriginal people in Australia, to a degree that might be described as horrific, scandalous, a most critical state of affairs and nothing less than a national shame.
For too many Aboriginal people there is over them a pall of negativity, of failure and rejection. And those Aboriginal achievers who rise above the pervading feeling of low self esteem are themselves continually battling to stay positive, remaining as role models to their fellow countrymen, or working very hard at being supportive to those around them who struggle with addictions, poor health, and abject poverty.
For more than two hundred years, since the earliest days of colonial settlement, the newcomers to this land have failed to take into account the need for meaningful consultation with Aboriginal People. Since earliest times governance structures have been imposed on the country’s First Nations while their primary assets of land and culture were hurriedly stripped away in the name of promoting European settlement. By way of justification of such land occupation, the term Terra Nullius was applied so that settlement might expand unhindered under the banner of that now disproved legal fiction.
In recent times we have witnessed the spectacle of politicians continuing the colonial custom of utter disregard for the feelings and opinions of Indigenous people concerning their future on traditional home lands, mostly in the remote parts of Western Australia.
It was only forty years ago that Aboriginal people were being encouraged to relocate from townships to isolated villages on their tribal land as these townships were considered inappropriate, even dangerous places for traditional owners to live. It was thought a safer and more suitable environment might be established for traditional owners on their own land – something that would encourage their threatened cultural ways in the townships while at once nurturing their spirituality.
The threat of closure of remote villages without appropriate consultation by the Western Australian State Premier has been exacerbated by the intervention of the Prime Minister who, for whatever reason, decided that the term “lifestyle choices” could be gainfully used in this debate.
It is about time that governments at the State and Federal level got serious about the immense shortage of housing stocks in townships, instead of contemplating how they can make it worse by forcing more people from remote areas into town-zones already suffering from serious deprivations. The crime rate in townships is far greater than in remote areas, as is serious drug abuse. Needles are not found lying around in bunches in remote villages as they are in regional townships. Simply put, there is no evidence to suggest that leaving traditional homelands for life in towns will benefit the people presently living in remote villages.
No matter the enormity of the challenge before us, we Australians need to be convinced of the worth of self-determination. The present day neo-Assimilationist view offers no solution to the task of finding a way forward for Aboriginal Australia. We must stand in solidarity with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, who are called to be determined, not to falter, no matter the obstacles that rise up to make a just way difficult.
Christopher Saunders is Catholic Bishop of Broome. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Sunday is on 5 July 2015
You can read the official statement from the Bishops Commission for Relations with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander People.