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On the personal toll for Indigenous advocates and people when governments fail to act

The Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory laid bare systemic and shocking failures in the treatment of  mostly Aboriginal children and young people in detention.

Since its findings were handed down last year, however, there have been continuing concerns that its lessons will go unheeded.

In April the Northern Territory government announced more than $229 million to implement its recommendations but conceded that it cannot afford to cover all of them.

Last month former Don Dale detainee, Dylan Voller, was among many to be appalled that no criminal charges would be laid as a result of the Royal Commission’s investigations.

In this moving and deeply personal article below, leading Indigenous legal advocate Eddie Cubillo writes about the hurt inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when governments and systems continue to fail them, particularly when they are promised that justice may finally eventuate.

Cubillo, who was Director of Engagement for the Northern Territory Royal Commission, also reveals the personal toll that many Indigenous people experience when they sign up to work for justice and equity but are seen to have let down their own community because of the failure of governments to deliver.


Eddie Cubillo writes:

Recently I returned home to Darwin to assist one of our community-controlled organisations. It was good to get the opportunity to get home to see family and friends as I hadn’t been back since my participation in the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory nearly a year ago.

My role with the Royal Commission had been as Director of Engagement, managing the team that travelled throughout the Northern Territory to prepare Commissioner visits, give advice regarding the hearings, legal processes and protections available, taking statements and overall engagement with the community on various requests and information dissemination.

I had only been home a matter of hours this time when I was confronted, subjected to a whole lot of obscenities and physically threatened in relation to that role.

This individual was drinking when he let loose on me but was not intoxicated and informed me that they still didn’t have their children who had been taken away by child protection and that they don’t see any indication of real positive change as a result of the Royal Commission’s investigation.

This incident deeply hurt me which made me angry and upset and I laid my hurt on a few close friends and family. This is something I own and have apologised to those who I hurt.

Whilst working at the NT Royal Commission we were provided with counselling and debriefed with fellow staff, particularly the other Indigenous staff, to work through some of the stories we heard. I can’t stop hearing and thinking of many family and others who experienced similar treatment to the people we listened to during the hearings.

I did expect to receive critical feedback when people don’t know what is going on with the recommendations and how it will affect them and their families. But when it happens it cuts deep. Real deep.

The second day I was in Darwin I was taking an early morning walk along the esplanade and was confronted by a group of Indigenous people living rough who came over and made small talk and then recognised my family name and then me as a former school colleague, lawyer and someone who had worked on the NT Royal Commission. They were very sad, telling me they still don’t know where their kids are, and the longer they are away they are losing connection to family, culture, language and country.

I heard this for a year during the Commission’s hearings and travels to communities for statements and felt the pain that families feel.  Felt their fear of their kids losing all of those deep cultural and kinship bonds which make them who they are. I have to say that I was tearful after hugging that mum and her family on the esplanade.

“We all appear to be lost”

I’m at the crossroads about where this country is going when we talk about Indigenous people’s rights. We all appear to be lost, particularly our mob as we keep hearing promises but no real implementation of those promises to meet our needs.

These incidents are personally distressing for me, not that I was threatened or called a liar, but there seems no end to this punitive behaviour from governments towards Indigenous people. I take pride in my commitment to my people so being questioned about that commitment of course hurts.

Many of our mob are faced with such harsh realities. I too have moved away from country for work purposes to advocate for my people, as well as to equip myself with skills and qualifications that non-Indigenous Australia respects, such as an LLB, LLM, and now a PhD.

I have also sent my kids away to arm themselves to become better educated (both have tertiary degrees) so they can be prepared for the treatment our people confront daily and educate others on the realities of being Indigenous.

But what we gain in a non-Indigenous education from such institutions sees us lose extremely valuable learnings from our families, country, culture, language, and so on. We are always giving, with not much in return, except for a few trinkets or hollow promises.

I have grandchildren now. I am obligated to make sure they know their place in family, their connection to country and their cultural obligations. It’s not easy in the current environment for Indigenous people to keep up with these challenges, to make sure that our kids learn the importance of our people, land, culture, language when there is so much unjust negativity towards us and no willingness to respect our values.

Most of my former workmates at the NT Royal Commission will tell you I was very vocal and passionate internally, putting forth an Indigenous view point. Maybe even a little unreasonable at times but I personally know the pain our NT mob are feeling.

Many of the non-Indigenous staff working on the NT Royal Commission have, as a result of that work, a greater respect for Indigenous people and have better understanding of the harsh realities we face. Some will be long-time friends.

What’s at stake for Indigenous people?

Our peoples have endured the historic policies of extermination, assimilation and, of late, the Northern Territory Intervention, introduction of the welfare card and the highest incarceration and child removal rates per capita in the country.

But there appears to be little or no communication with those most affected in regard to the implementation of the NT Royal Commission recommendations.

I am aware that the Federal Government has published its response to 28 of the 226 recommendations but did not mention any commitment of funds.

The Northern Territory Government says it supports either in full or in principle all 227 of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Youth Detention and Child Protection and appears to be working towards change with recent Bills put forth in Parliament and so on, but those on the ground are not seeing any improvement in their situations.

This year, I enrolled to do a PhD at UTS (University of Technology Sydney) as I was mentally exhausted, not only from the NT Royal Commission but also from decades of working in Indigenous affairs. After working at the grass roots and hearing sad stories with the Royal Commission, many that reflected my own family’s experiences with the Stolen Generations, I thought I needed to get away and enrolled to up-skill and become a better advocate for my mob.

Indigenous people have a lot at stake when participating whether as a government representative or as community-control advocates. You have your people who are the most disadvantaged in this country who have high expectations of you when they see mob advocating for their rights. Meanwhile governments have their own expectations, which usually doesn’t resemble the Indigenous expectations. So, when you as an Indigenous person commit to such roles you have to really consider what lays ahead and what the long-term outcomes mean for you and your family.

We have huge responsibilities to our family, extended families and those Indigenous people that we meet through our lives who experience the personal inequalities of being Indigenous Australians. It’s not a game for us, it’s our family’s and kids’ lives that are at stake due to poor policies and poor respect and lack of trust towards our peoples. Trust that we might actually be able to manage our own affairs without paternalistic red tape to keep us in check.

We need to talk about the toll our work takes on us

It is hard working for change within the system when that system is so stacked against our people. No one sees the long hours, mental strain and time away from your family and all those other sacrifices you make. Nor do they appreciate the emotional toll of the work – of hearing stories we can’t un-hear or that trigger our own trauma. I spent a year away from my wife whilst I worked on the NT Royal Commission, which put a huge strain on our relationship.

I fear that not much will change as a result of the Royal Commission but what I can say is that I hope it made a difference to the people who got heard and who otherwise would never have had a voice. Perhaps, one day, they will not only be heard but have a positive, real response to their pleas for justice.

I recently had a discussion with a confidante who said one thing to remember for those of us who are Indigenous ‘boundary riders’ between our peoples and governments is not to take too personally the frustration that people have with the system (even though that is easy to say and not so easy to feel – especially when you have given so much of yourself to make changes).

I think that it is important that as Indigenous people we keep writing about the personal incidents I have related in this article, capturing the emotion of such events but not letting those events stop us from our necessary work.

For despite all of the pain and empathy, I hope relating these stories helps others by reassuring us that the frustration and anger we feel, that is such a big and unavoidable part of the work we do, is shared. And maybe there is something in that; the need for us to talk more about the toll the work takes on us as Aboriginal people. Many of us are saying the same thing in terms of asking other Australians to stand with us and our non-Indigenous allies need to understand the cost to mob of working in this space.

Indigenous Australians have always tried building bridges to build a better society for everyone. We have always been committed towards sharing our stories, culture, knowledge of country.

Earlier this month was the 30th anniversary for the Barunga Statement, a set of Aboriginal political objectives given to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke who was visiting the Barunga Festival.

Some of those objectives  were for the right to self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue our own economic, social, religious and cultural development in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and  international covenants on economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, and the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, as well as rights to life, liberty, security of person, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and employment opportunities, necessary social services and other basic rights. The Prime Minister responded by saying that he wished to conclude a treaty between Aboriginal and other Australians by 1990, but this is yet to be fulfilled.

Stand up, like you did for marriage equality

It’s time, for the majority of Australians to learn more about their Indigenous people. It’s your responsibility to do so.

Your symbolic gestures such as walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge, attending Indigenous football rounds and so forth are heartfelt but Indigenous people need you to stand up like you did for marriage equality.

It’s time, time for you to give Indigenous Australians the same respect and equality that you are so fortunate to have. Give us the respect that we are the First Peoples of this country. Stand with us like you did to vote Yes for marriage equality.

We are not going anywhere, we are connected to this land physically and more so spiritually. We want respect and trust so that we can sit as equals and achieve great things together. So, it’s time, time to leave your old colonial values about us at the door and accept that Indigenous Australians are here and want to get past ignorance and move forward together.

Eddie Cubillo is an Aboriginal man with strong family links throughout the Northern Territory. His mother is of Larrakia/Wadjigan descent, and his father is Central Arrente. Eddie was formerly the Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).