The need for non-Indigenous people to address racism and their contributions to the inequalities experienced by Indigenous people was highlighted at a high-level meeting in Canberra this week.
Another key theme from a Canadian-Australian Round-table on Indigenous Health and Wellbeing was the importance of providing young people with platforms and opportunities for having their voices heard.
As previously reported at Croakey, the Canadian High Commission, Australian Government, the Australian National University and the Lowitja Institute jointly convened the round-table meeting. It was also supported by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Summer May Finlay, who covered the event for the Croakey Conference News Service, reports below that participants are keen to see the discussions continue and further such collaborations between Canada, Australia and First Nations.
Below Finlay’s article are a selection of tweets from the event and video interviews with some of participants. The program included the screening of a Canadian film, Fire Song, and a Faceless Dolls workshop held at Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service, in remembrance of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
Summer May Finlay writes:
I was blown away by the Canadian-Australian Indigenous Health and Wellness Round-table. The minds, the passion, dedication and courage of the organisers and attendees created a space for frank and productive conversations.
Attendees included people from public services, Indigenous organisations, researchers and service delivery from both Canada and Australia. The intent was genuine and the desire for action palatable.
It was refreshing to see the faith that the High Commission of Canada had in the people attending.
At no time was a conversation deemed inappropriate or politically unpalatable. There were discussions about current racism and past racist policies, the role non-Indigenous people have to play in maintaining Indigenous disadvantage, institutional racism and the lack of youth voice in the round-table process. It was a brave approach and I believe was one the keys to its success.
Key themes to emerge from the discussions included:
- The existing capacity among Indigenous people (ie, the need to move beyond a focus on “capacity-building”)
- The need for a space to be created for youth so their voices can be heard
- Truth telling as a vital component of reconciliation
- A need to focus on the responsibilities of “the 97 percent” (non-Indigenous people), and their role in maintaining Indigenous disadvantage
- The need for ongoing dialogue between the two countries.
The round-table discussions made clear that there is a wealth of capacity among Indigenous people, who need to be engaged as equal partners and leaders in all activities affecting Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia.
The lack of trust that governments have in Indigenous people was discussed as one of the reasons that equal partnerships have not occurred.
Paul Maddison, the Canadian High Commissioner to Australia and one of the event’s organisers, asked: “How do we get our federal governments, our state and provincial governments to really and sincerely and genuinely seek to understand the cultural, the historical and traditional stories which really are at the heart of our Indigenous communities? To embrace the stories and seek to genuinely learn and ask, what is needed at the local level?”
By the second day, the message for governments was that they need to let Indigenous communities get back to the business of taking care of communities.
In Australia, we have been doing it for 60,000 years, and are the oldest living cultures in the world, we must have been doing something right. Let us continue doing what is right. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a space or role for non-Indigenous people. Our way forward includes working with non-Indigenous people; however, the solutions have to be led by us because we know our Culture.
Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, spoke of the need for “locally designed, developed and delivered services and programs that work best”.
Screening Fire Song
Youth were a constant focus of discussions, particularly with the screening of Fire Song, which was a challenging movie to watch but raised important issues around suicide and LGBTQI people.
At times, I felt physically ill watching the film. The pain on the faces and in the bodies of young people trying to figure out where they fit is something all Indigenous people can relate to. When one of our people is hurting, all our people are hurting.
The issues facing young people and particularly LGBTQI people are hurting our future leaders, and we have seen in both Canada and Australia an increasing rate of youth suicide. I doubt there is an Indigenous person who has not in some way been touched personally by these issues. I, for one, have not escaped unscathed.
After the screening of Fire Song, a number of panel members discussed what the movie meant to them. Dr Vanessa Lee from the University of Sydney summed up the film:
It was about one man’s journey of dealing with grief amongst a community that were dealing with their own personal grief and trauma. As a two spirited or sexuality and gender diverse or LGBTIQ young man, his mechanism for coping was to stay focused on the bigger picture of his life that is towards going to college while the rest of life is happening around him.
Indigenous culture is represented through behaviours, traditional healing and spirituality, belonging, and connection to the land.
In between scenes the movie showed wild flowers and for anyone who has connections to country, they would understand that they represent the cycle of life and certain flowering plants are medicine or notifications as to when certain foods can be obtained.
The main themes were identity, culture, community and love.”
The movie reinforced that the youth are our future. We need to be supporting them to participate in issues that affect them. We need to engage our youth and allow them to have a voice.
The lead actor, Andrew J Martin, discussed how all you want as a young person is a voice. Young people don’t need people to speak for them, but to give them the space to speak for themselves.
“The 97 per cent”
Another theme from the discussions was “the 97 percent”. There were numerous conversations about what non-Indigenous people can do to reduce some of the issues our peoples face, such as racism.
The sentiment in the room was that we, Indigenous peoples of the world, cannot tackle racism is the 97 percent are not willing to consider their role in maintaining racism.
What are the 97 percent doing to consider the way their privilege continues to maintain the power imbalance between Indigenous people in Canada and Australia? This point was made specifically about institutional racism and the insidious impact it has on Indigenous peoples.
As minority groups in our own country, there is only so much we can do to influence the attitudes, beliefs and actions of non-Indigenous people. Real change will only come when non-Indigenous people take stock of their contributions to Indigenous disadvantage.
What is also required of the 97 percent is a recognition of the true histories in our counties. One participant commented that in Australia, reconciliation is all about “the warm and fuzzies”, rather than looking to understand histories as told by Indigenous people.
In Canada, there has been a process of truth telling. This process has not been designed to make the 97 percent feel guilty, as is often claimed in Australia, but rather as a way of understanding the pain of past policies and impact that they have had on people today.
A national narrative that looks to be honest about its country’s history is a practical step to achieving reconciliation.
The round-table raised some important issues and discussed ways forward. We cannot do this alone. One way forward is continuing the dialogue between the two countries. This suggestion was well received by the attendees and the organisers.
Based on the experience of this first collaboration, there is great potential in an ongoing relationship seeking to improve the health and wellness of Indigenous people in our respective counties.
Romlie Mokak, CEO of the Lowitja Institute said: “I see this round-table as a beginning.”
• Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, a public health practitioner and a PhD candidate.
From the Twittersphere
Welcome to Country and opening discussions
The program, facilitated by Dr Gregory Phillips, included sessions giving an overview of international frameworks, cross-country comparisons of policy and health and social indicators, truth-telling, Indigenous knowledges and ethics, and on wellness, wellbeing and strength, services and systems and priorities for further work.
The Faceless Dolls workshop
Watch these interviews
Professor Jeff Reading
Professor of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University and First Nations Health Authority Chair in Heart Health and Wellness, St. Paul’s Hospital. He presented on behalf of the First Nations Health Authority (CAN).
In the clip below, he talks about the importance of international collaboration, which “allows us to look at old challenges in new ways and to share ideas”, and to optimise the opportunity of children and youth for healthy and productive lives, so they can enjoy the quality of life that Australia and Canada provide to most citizens.
Andrew Martin, lead actor in Fire Song
He speaks about the need that young people have to be listened to, rather than having adults speak over the top of them. “They just want someone to sit there, shut up and listen.”
Professor Rob McCormick
Dr Rod McCormick is Mohawk (Kanienkehake) and a full professor and British Columbia Government research chair in Aboriginal health at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. He talks about the strength of collaboration and of Canada and Australia learning from each other: “We’re stronger working together.”
High Commissioner of Canada to Australia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, and Ambassador to Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. He talks about the importance of truth-telling as part of reconciliation and the importance for non-Indigenous communities to listen and learn, and to put more effort into understanding the traditions of wellness of Indigenous communities. We are stronger as countries, when we harness what is best in all of the cultures that make up our countries, he says. “There is a journey between truth and reconciliation…” He stresses the importance of respect for First Nations communities and cultures in contributing to healing.
Dr Michael Hart
Associate Professor and Canadian Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledges and Social Work, University of Manitoba. He says the meeting was significant in bringing together service providers, academics, policy makers and politicians. For improvements in Indigenous health, non-Indigenous people need to step back to enable Indigenous leadership, he says.
CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service for 19 years. She describes the service’s roots in the Tent Embassy, the long-term stability of its leadership, and its great relationship with the Canadian High Commission, which donated mattresses to the service earlier in the year. She discusses concerns for Aboriginal people in Canberra, including poverty, the isolation of elderly people, incarceration, removal of children, intergenerational trauma, and housing stress.
Dr Vanessa Lee
A senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, Dr Vanessa Lee describes the layers of themes in the film Fire Song, and also stresses the importance of language. She says: “If we’re going to have a system of integrity, we need to change the language, we need to stop saying things like ‘vulnerable’ and start saying things like ‘valuable’. We need to hold the system accountable on the language change. We, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and international Indigenous people, we need to start making those steps; we need to change the language because our young people are suffering.”
Summer May Finlay
Discusses the key themes from the round-table, including the importance of Indigenous control of research ethics.
CEO of the Lowitja Institute. He describes the incredible intellect and energy evident at the round-table, and the potential for tangible pieces of work to be undertaken across the two countries. He describes the de-valuing of Indigenous peoples and identities since colonisation, and the importance of embedding Indigenous knowledges and cultures in ways forward. There are about 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD scholars at present. The key message from the Round-table is the importance of power-sharing, across governments, services and institutions, including the academy. He also talks about the importance of policy coming down to the ground.
A Wiradjuri man, he talks about the importance of learning from the lived experience from communities, and listening to the people. “Every community is different; there’s not one fix,” he says.
Thanks to all round-table tweeps who helped to share the discussions via social media, and contributed to the hashtag trending. The Symplur analytics site records 556 participants on Twitter used the hashtag, and almost 20 million Twitter impressions (from 10-15 December). Read the Twitter transcript here.
Thanks also to CBC journalist Duncan McCue for engaging in the conversation.