Still got a long way to go

January 28, 2017

FIRST PEOPLE: Max Jackson with Shepparton indigenous elders June Murray and Irene Thomas, and Robert Nicholls.

It’s been almost half a century since a national referendum granted civilian rights to indigenous Australians, marking a time when our nation’s first people would be recognised equally as citizens.

Days of forced assimilation within indigenous communities are long gone, but the impacts still linger in a generation plagued by the past, according to a group of Shepparton Aboriginal leaders.

After being forcibly removed from their tribes and into missions in the early 1900s, many aspects of indigenous Australians’ lives were controlled by the government, including their language, what they ate and wore and even who they could marry.

Shepparton Aboriginal leader Bobby Nicholls said many of his people were discouraged from practising their traditional culture and denied basic rights.

‘‘To live in the conditions that they had to live in, all I can say is I can’t praise them enough,’’ the nephew of reconciliation campaigner Sir Douglas Nicholls said.

‘‘I’m amazed at how they survived and the resilience that they had to keep on going, and that’s one of the biggest things we talk about now, that we survived.’’

While the 1967 referendum and the 2007 apology were the first beacons of acknowledgment by the government for its wrongdoings, Mr Nicholls said there was still a long way to go in regards to land rights and constitutional acknowledgment.

‘‘When we finally became Australian citizens in 1967, from that referendum time the movement did start better relations between the different cultures,’’ Mr Nicholls said.

‘‘I think the referendum gave us something and there has been a lot of good things done, but when it comes to equality, there are still people out there who are suffering.’’

Reconciliation Group Shepparton co-convener Dierdre Robertson said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were still waiting to be recognised as the land’s first inhabitants.

‘‘In some ways we need to change our constitution because the way it is at the moment, there is nothing that would stop this government making a law for a particular racial group in the community and it could be a very negative thing,’’ Ms Robertson said.

‘‘I have a sense the last referendum was a big achievement, but in terms of those real, everyday things, it was just a slip of paper and, ultimately, the goal has to be treaty.’’

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