When I walked into the Redfern aboriginal Tent Embassy, I felt like I had been here before. A sacred fire was burning, elders were gathered, there was laughter in the air, and a familiar cause.
But this time I was on the other side of the globe, in Sydney, Australia.
My eye caught a sign reading: “Low cost housing for aboriginal families should be first not last.”
That’s what this camp is fighting for.
An affordable housing project is in the works by the aboriginal Housing Co (AHC). It owns the land where the protesters have set up camp. The protesters want to see people before profit. But the AHC says profit is needed to build the community housing. The plan is to first build commercial space and university housing, affordable, community housing for aboriginal families will come next.
That isn’t sitting well with Jenny Munro. The aboriginal elder told me she had had enough. She said they promised housing for aboriginal people would come first, and since that isn’t happening, she occupied the land to delay construction.
When I got home, it wasn’t long before I was in another protest camp. This one was for Missing and Murdered aboriginal women.
Halfway around the world, so much in common
Two countries. Two Camps. Both organized by women who felt their voices were not being heard. I was making comparisons with everything I learned about Australian aboriginal people to my people in Canada.
I was in Australia on a journalism exchange made possible by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.
I spent two weeks working with aboriginal journalists at SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) and ABC, which is the public broadcaster.
Last year, before I was even in Australia, I met Stuart Fergie, a musician who is an aboriginal Australian. We talked about the issues our community’s face and it really opened my eyes.
Fergie’s grandmother is part of the “Stolen Generation.” She was taken from her family and put into a boarding school. I too have a history of Residential Schools in my family. My papa’s (grandfather) siblings went; he didn’t because his mother took him out of Fisher River when he was five.
One of the first major events I covered in my career was the 2008 apology to Residential School Survivors. Australia’s Prime Minister apologized to the country’s Stolen Generation months earlier.
New Stolen Generation
During my week at SBS- I was working with Living Black, a weekly current affairs show. I should say that aboriginal people in Australia call themselves black. I had to ask about this because I assumed it was derogatory, but it’s actually a term of pride.
‘We are talking about more than 14,000 aboriginal children across the country now in out-of-home care on any given night in Australia.’– Paddy Gibson
Living Black did a special roundtable discussion on what is being called “The New Stolen Generation.” This is the issue of aboriginal children being removed from their families by social services at alarmingly high rates.
“We are talking about more than 14,000 aboriginal children across the country now in out-of-home care on any given night in Australia,” says Paddy Gibson, a researcher with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, in an interview with Living Black.
Living Black took their half an hour special into the community. They set up in Redfern and invited aboriginal families, social services and former child protection workers to discuss the issue.
The room was filled with grandmothers — they call themselves “Grandmothers against Removals.”
They talked about the impact the child welfare system is having on their community. These women say in many cases the removal is unjustified. The kids are taken from loving families because their homes are overcrowded. Either poverty is to blame, or visiting relatives piling into the home. The grandmothers say in these cases, the kids are not in danger.
Gibson sites neglect as a reason for removal in Australia, or he says a perceived neglect by child welfare workers.
“It’s basically their aboriginality being held against them in far, far too many instances,” Gibson told ABC News.
My mind immediately turned to home. How many reserves have I visited where there are 10 or more people living in a house? Visiting relatives, displaced relatives, lack of running water, mouldy homes: all realities in our First Nations communities.
Former National Chief Shawn Atleo compared the state of the child welfare system to that of Residential schools.
“The reasons for the removal today are different and relate more to poverty and social conditions on reserve,” Atleo said in 2013. “The removal appears not be driven directly by an intention ‘to kill the Indian in the child’ but the consequences are nonetheless the same.”
In Canada, the number of aboriginal children in care is nearly the same as in Australia.
A few weeks ago, the annual report from Manitoba’s family services department was released, showing 10,293 kids were in foster homes, group homes and emergency shelters as of March 31. That’s about 300 more than last year.
And almost 90 per cent of those children in care are aboriginal, according to the report. And those are just the numbers for Manitoba.
Following the Living Black special, all of the grandmothers headed over to the Redfern Tent Embassy.
They sat around the fire with Jenny Munro, talking about solutions. Again laughter filled the air.
‘This is something I see in our aboriginal community: a resilience, in spite of hundreds of years of trauma.’– Jillian Taylor
Despite the sadness over the last few hours, and the sadness these women live everyday without their grandchildren, they were all smiling and joking with each other.
This is something I see in our aboriginal community: a resilience, in spite of hundreds of years of trauma.
From boarding schools, to being displaced from our land, to poverty, over representation in jails, and even the prevalence of diabetes, we could be cousins.
But yet, we find reasons to smile.
Sitting with Jenny Munro was a special moment for me. It is very easy to get jaded as a journalist, but she showed this resiliency that was hard to ignore.
She told me, aboriginal people are fighting for what is ours, what we believe in. That’s what makes us strong.
And in that moment, there was no denying the strength in the aboriginal community, despite all of the preconceived notions and stereotypes out there.
A lesson I had to learn on the other side of the world.