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A moment of truth: Indigenous nurses and midwives welcome long-awaited apology

Introduction: The Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery of Australia and New Zealand has delivered a national apology acknowledging the role of nursing and midwifery in contributing to the harm and ongoing suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives and their communities.

This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as part of a series of sponsored content covering the recent Congress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) annual meeting, which celebrated the organisation’s 25th anniversary. See the campaign portal.


Croakey Professional Services writes:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives have welcomed an historic apology from Australia’s peak body for nursing and midwifery education and research for the harm and trauma caused by the profession to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since colonisation.

The apology from the Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery (CDNM) was delivered amid deep emotion on 19 August 2022 at the 25th anniversary meeting of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) in Sydney, on the lands of the Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nation.

Founding CATSINaM members and others at the milestone event hugged each other, held hands and shed tears as CDNM Chair Professor Karen Strickland acknowledged the role played by non-Indigenous nurses and midwives in racist policies and practices in Australia, often under the guise of care.

Professor Strickland said the CDNM, as national leaders, “apologise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for the past harms and injustices” and acknowledge “the profound hurt and harm nurses and midwives have caused through their practice in the professions, and we say sorry”.

The apology acknowledges that nurses and midwives have acted as “agents of the government” in harmful policies, such as those creating the Stolen Generations.

It also acknowledges their roles in creating culturally unsafe workplaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues whose cultural practices and contributions to the professions and healthcare have been ignored or minimised through the privileging of colonial approaches.

Professor Strickland, who is Executive Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Edith Cowan University in Perth, told conference delegates there is widespread agreement in Australia that “the wrongs of the past should never be repeated”.

But, she said, “for nursing and midwifery, there still needs to be truth telling, historical acceptance, acknowledgement of professional and institutional racism, and justice before we can begin on the road to healing and building the future”.

Flanked on stage by Deans of Nursing and Midwifery from across Australia, Professor Strickland said the apology itself would “not erase the pain of the past nor the intergenerational trauma that has occurred”.

But she said it was a “vital first step in our future, a vital first step towards healing”, with the CDNM committed to working with CATSINaM to support culturally safe spaces for education and research and enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and students to flourish and take their place as leaders in nursing and midwifery.

“This is our moment of truth, this is where we make our stand to stop repeating the wrongs and make space to build a new way,” Professor Strickland said, ahead of a standing ovation.

Audience members at the CATSINaM 25th anniversary event: photo CATSINaM

Dr Lynore Geia (left), Professor Roianne West and Professor Karen Strickland: photo CATSINaM

Watch the apology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMTdWqHfYO4

Read the apology: https://irp.cdn-website.com/1636a90e/files/uploaded/apology_signed.pdf

Movement of change

The CDNM apology was formally accepted on behalf of CATSINaM at the Sydney event as both “welcomed and long-awaited” by Dr Lynore Geia, a Bwgcolman woman from Palm Island, a leading nursing and midwifery academic, and member of CATSINaM’s Elders Circle.

In a powerful speech in response, Dr Geia evoked the role of “our Old People” as watchers for change in the spiritual and natural worlds as she called on nurses and midwives to be alert and responsive to “a quickening…a movement of change” being birthed for the professions through the apology.

Dr Lynore Geia

Dr Geia said it was right and fitting that the apology was made in Sydney, “at this place where so much has transpired spiritually, cognitively, and physically over thousands of years for the Eora nation, and just over 200 years ago for descendants of Britain’s First Fleet who settled in Australia”.

“This was the beginning of contact, clashes, convergence, and the colonisation of Country. It was the beginning of profound change for Australia’s First Peoples,” she said.

It was also where the first five Western-trained nurses to the colony, trained by Florence Nightingale, disembarked in 1838, she said, marking the beginning of the Australian nursing profession, which has long included strong First Nations nurses and midwives.

The professions developed over time, to where nurses and midwives held positions of authority. Regrettably, she said, many became part of government mechanisms of control, and were complicit in harmful policies and practices including the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities, and racial segregation in hospitals and health services.

Dr Geia, who is Academic Lead of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health in the College of Health Care Sciences at James Cook University in Townsville, said there are oppressive behaviours and systems in mainstream nursing and midwifery towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nursing and midwifery students that have often stopped them pursuing or furthering their careers.

She said the apology must result in “purposeful action which includes working together in real partnership for reform, recognising the unique knowledge and skills that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nurses and midwives bring to the professions in developing reforms for better education, research, and clinical practice outcomes”.

Watch the response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IdgVUlS1r0&t=164s

Read: CATSINaM – Response to the Apology

Powerful emotions

Dr Lynore Geia (left) and Professor Karen Strickland reflect on the CDNM apology at a recent meeting

Two months after the apology was delivered, Dr Geia and Professor Strickland attended a two-day CDNM meeting in Naarm/Melbourne. Afterwards, they talked with Croakey Professional Services about their combined efforts to bring about change.

They came close to tears as they recalled the powerful emotions present on the day of the apology and take heart from the strong relationship that has been built between CATSINaM and the CDNM over the past year.

Videos of the apology have already been shared widely, Professor Strickland said, across disciplines and tertiary settings, used in nursing and midwifery teaching, and attracting global attention – “capturing that moment in history”.

Professor Strickland said being able to stand in an Indigenous space to deliver the apology on behalf of the CDNM was “an incredibly humbling experience”, made more profound by the presence of some of the founding CATSINaM Elders, including Aunty Emily Marshall, a Kaurareg woman and Lifetime Achievement member of CATSINaM.

Many had shared their stories in CATSINaM’s In Our Own Right exhibition, which opened the day before the apology ahead of a national tour, documenting their successes in the face of daunting and distressing interpersonal and institutional racism.

“I could see when I was [delivering the apology] the strong emotions that this was invoking and it just felt like it was such the right thing to do”, Professor Strickland said, noting that it was a powerful moment also for non-Indigenous professionals there, with a number of the Deans “sobbing as they came off the stage”.

Strickland remembers CATSINaM Chair Marni Tuala, a proud Bundjalung woman, coming up to her after her speech and saying “hold on to how you felt when you did that”.

“Even talking about that now, it does bring back the emotion because you could see that this meant so much to the people that were there in the room,” she said.

Dr Geia was struck by the total silence of the conference room as Professor Strickland spoke, with “everyone hanging off every word because it meant so much”, a sense that “something profound was going on”, of it being “a critical time, a spiritual time”.

“For the Elders who started CATSINaM — they experienced a lot of that trauma from their non-Indigenous nursing colleagues and through the system, so for them to hear Karen stand up there, representing the non-Indigenous sector, and say sorry to them, it was a balm,” she said.

Photo: CATSINaM

For Dr Geia, it was equally moving to have been invited to make the formal response, “carrying generations of wounded people” with her, to say “yes, we are going to accept this apology”.

She was honoured to present two sets of message