*** This article was updated with more material after publication ***
More than 250 people attended a powerful healing ceremony on Yinggarda Country in the remote Western Australian town of Carnarvon yesterday, as part of a centennial commemoration of the Bernier and Dorre Island lock hospital histories.
Central to the event was a cultural ceremony held to release the spirits of prisoner-patients who were buried on the islands during the period of the lock hospital scheme from 1908-1919.
It was a day for “remembrance and release”, Shire President Karl Brandenburg told the gathering, which included descendants of the prisoner-patients, community members, politicians, Shire of Carnarvon staff and representatives, health professionals, police and researchers.
Musician Peter Garrett, whose grandmother was a nurse on Bernier Island, also sent a message, which was read to the gathering.
The ceremony, held 100 years to the day since the final remaining prisoner-patients were returned to the mainland, launched a year of activities in Carnarvon to ensure wider acknowledgement of this traumatic history. This will include the unveiling of a memorial statue.
WA Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, spoke strongly of the importance of historical truth telling, and said the lock hospital scheme was “a really horrific piece of West Australian history” and “absolutely inexcusable”.
MacTiernan said she had been involved in Aboriginal affairs in WA for “many, many decades” without knowing about the lock hospitals. She recalled working in Carnarvon for the Commonwealth Government in Aboriginal employment in the 1980s, but not hearing about them.
“When I tell people around the State about this story, people don’t believe it. This has been a story that has extraordinarily escaped attention,” she said.
One of the lessons, the Minister said, was that “we need to much more deeply understand about the colonisation of this country and the price that was paid by Aboriginal people in that colonisation”.
Another important lesson, she said, was the strength and resilience of the Aboriginal community.
A delegation from Palm Island in north Queensland, where the community has a shared experience of medical incarceration, participated in the event, and the Minister said their presence indicated the significance of the day.
Mrs Magdalena Blackley, a member of the delegation, suggested that a sister city relationship be established between Carnarvon and Palm Island communities to acknowledge their shared history and aspirations for historical truth telling.
Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, which supported the event, said it was a great honour and privilege to be at the beginning of a healing process around the lock hospital histories.
Healing does start with truth telling…the truth of the lock hospital story is not a pleasant one; it’s very confronting; it’s painful, it’s traumatic and there’s still much hurt that’s carried within our communities.”
Weston acknowledged Brandenburg, the Shire of Carnarvon, and MacTiernan “for getting behind this really important story”.
“I also want to acknowledge many of the children that are in the audience today,” he said, “because you kids are hearing something that we didn’t get when we were growing up; we didn’t get the truth of history. And you have an opportunity now to take this forward.”
Later in the day, he tweeted: “It was a very moving day & seeing the community support for healing (non-Indigenous & Indigenous) was extraordinary.”
Dr Robin Barrington, a Badimia Yamaji researcher, said she hoped the memorial, to be unveiled in coming months, “will be a place for people to come from all over this state to reflect and remember and to heal”.
Speaking at the end of the day, Barrington said she felt a profound sense of peace. “I do feel that sense of release, from the ceremony.”
She encouraged families to undertake further research if they have any connection to this history. “We still have a lot more research to do to add to these histories Aboriginal perspectives,” she said.