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Health organisations show solidarity, as experts examine treaty and First Nations justice

On 26 January, some health organisations expressed solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and acknowledged the ongoing impact of colonisation (see some posts from social media below), while the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) commended the leadership of 15 Victorian councils, and 80 nationally, that have chosen to cease holding citizenship ceremonies on that date.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) convened a webinar providing perspectives on treaty and First Nations justice from Victoria, Aotearoa and Canada, as Alison Barrett reports below.


Alison Barrett writes:

Treaty processes in Victoria remain in a strong position, despite the state’s Liberal and National Parties withdrawing their support for a state-based treaty, according to Gunditjmara man and Co-Chair of the First People’s Assembly, Rueben Berg.

The Treaty Authority – an “independent umpire” established to oversee negotiations – and the Treaty Negotiation Framework – the “rulebook” about how treaties will be undertaken – are strong agreements and processes in place for the next phase, Berg told attendees at a Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) Invasion Day webinar last week.

In reflecting upon lessons learned from early generations of Aboriginal advocates and Elders, Berg said “there is no element of treaty that’s worth compromising our principles on – we can never lose sight of our principles”.

Nerita Waight, a Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman and CEO of VALS, said in her opening statement at the webinar that the Victorian Opposition’s decision is reminiscent of Howard-era politics using cultural heritage and land rights as reasons to withdraw support.

She said the decision could cause significant damage, similar to that caused by the Federal Opposition leader and some of his colleagues during the Voice to Parliament referendum.

“We saw last year how much damage can be caused when the Liberal National parties oppose reforms to give Aboriginal people a fair go,” she said. Their behaviour last year “amplified and emboldened the worst forms of racism in this country”.

The racism and hate directed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people means that children aren’t able to get the education they deserve, people can’t access healthcare, or employment they’ve earned, she said.

Waight – also First People’s Assembly member for Metro – said her door is always open for the Liberal and National Parties to come and hear from community. “They need to do that if they want to participate in treaty genuinely.”

The webinar’s discussions are timely given concerns over reports of the Aotearoa’s ACT Party’s election commitment to redefine Te Tiriti o Waitangi – Treaty of Waitangi and restarted treaty talks in the Northern Territory.

Aspirations for Treaty

For Waight, treaty is a pathway to ensuring better decision-making for communities and recognition of sovereign agency and self-determination.

“Through treaty, we can lay the groundwork for dismantling the structures that have disproportionately impacted our people since invasion,” she said.

Waight hopes transformative change occurs and her children won’t have the same experiences in the education, justice and child protection systems as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have in the past.

For Berg, the long-term aspiration is that treaty provides an opportunity for self-government at a state-wide and local-traditional owner level – “to be able to take control of decisions that directly affect their communities”.

At a traditional-local level, Berg said this means being able to make decisions about land, water, heritage, language and cultural protocols.

At a state-wide level, these decisions should flow across to a “variety of different things that have a direct impact on First Peoples”, he said.

Treaty will provide an opportunity to hold government to account and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to Berg.

Monitoring and accountability

Lessons were shared about Aotearoa and Canada’s experiences with treaties by Dr Carwyn Jones, a member of the Māori iwi/nation, Ngāti Kahungunu, and Andrea Hilland KC, member of the Nuxalk Nation on the Pacific coast of Canada.

Jones said it is important to have mechanisms in place to monitor accountability and ensure the terms of the treaty are adhered to.

It is also important to consider the ways in which First Nations languages may reflect concepts from traditional law and legal systems, according to Jones.

In terms of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi and how historical breaches are settled, Jones shared an example where a nation included traditional statements in legislation about how they relate to and view a river as a guiding principle for further settlements.

The Te Tiriti o Waitangi – written in both Māori and English text – established a bridge between the two legal systems, Jones said.

According to Jones, the Treaty provides a useful framework for considering how to engage with many of the issues facing us, including climate change, where we need to include different voices and systems of knowledge to address.

Trust

According to Hilland, trust in the other party involved in the treaty process is critical. It’s important to question why they are involved, what they are set to gain – “what is the motivation, and do you trust this is a good place to set things in stone?”

Canadian treaty making has gone through various phases from peace and friendship treaties between nations to land transfer treaties and most recently, tripartite treaty negotiations between provinces and nations.

In British Columbia, where Hilland is from, “First Nation sovereignty was not on the table, and any acknowledgement of self-government or self-determination was watered down”.

Hilland said it is important to consider what nations are being asked to give up in the treaty process.

In Canada, treaties are still subject to consultation – “signing a treaty is not the end all, be all. You have to think about how it’s going to be interpreted,” she said. “A treaty is only as good as it is interpreted.”

Further reading and viewing

Live music, community and politics – Treaty Day Out Naarm shows how its done by Alison Barrett at Croakey Health Media

Health and social inequities predicted to increase in Aotearoa/New Zealand under new government by Dermot Coffey at Croakey Health Media

Waitangi 2024: how the treaty strengthens democracy and provides a check on unbridled power by Adjunct Professor Dominic O’Sullivan in The Conversation

The idea of ‘sovereignty’ is central to the Treaty debate – why is it so hard to define? by Professor Jack Vowles in The Conversation

Watch previous VALS’ Invasion Day webinars here.


Not a date to celebrate

The VACCHO statement

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, January 26 is a day of profound pain. However, it is also a day to mark the unyielding resilience, determination, and strength of Aboriginal communities.

January 26 signifies a brutal and rapid colonisation, bringing with it massacres, the theft of children from families, contributing to Communities enduring grossly inadequate health and wellbeing outcomes.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities continue to suffer, experiencing disproportionately poorer health compared to non-Indigenous people. The 2023 Closing The Gap Annual Data Report found an increase in suicides, more children being taken from families and put into out of home care, a rise in adult incarcerations, and deteriorating outcomes in early childhood development.

The last six months have been particularly challenging for Aboriginal communities in Victoria many of whom are grappling with the health and wellbeing impacts of shameful instances of racism and abuse prevalent throughout the lead-up and aftermath of the October 14 referendum.

VACCHO expresses deep disappointment that January 26 remains a formal day of celebration for Australia. However, VACCHO commends the leadership of the 15 Victorian councils (and 80 across the country) that have chosen to cease holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26.

VACCHO CEO Jill Gallagher AO says January 26 is an important opportunity to mourn, heal, and learn about the true history of this country.

“I encourage the Community to connect with family and friends and to look out for one another on January 26, as it is a complex, challenging, and traumatic day for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“At its core, the January 26 Australia Day holiday celebrates colonisation and the genocide of our families and ancestors. From my perspective, it symbolises the beginning of the Frontier Wars and horrific events that changed the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the worse.

“For me, January 26 is a painful reminder of children being taken from their parents and families and the many, many inequalities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience today: a major gap in life expectancy and disproportionate health disa