By Claire Egan
The WA government’s decision to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities has sparked uproar with protesters camping on Heirisson Island in Perth and a social media campaign supported by celebrities like Hugh Jackman.
Perth Aboriginal elder Vicky Bandry left her home in Belmont to camp on Heirisson Island and join the Matagarup First Nations refugee camp which has been established to draw attention to the Barnett government’s plans.
An angry and frustrated Ms Bandry says the police raided the refugee camp three times in two weeks, confiscating tents, mattresses, barbeque gas bottles and personal belongings in an intimidating manner. The City of Perth cites local laws which prohibit the use of vehicles or lighting of campfires on Heirisson Island and says police were on hand to keep the peace.
“The police came and raided our camp, at the time there were only ten women and my granddaughter. My granddaughter and I stood in front of 50 police and said don’t come here, leave us alone. We are scared of the cops because they are trigger happy, we are afraid of the police and we are afraid of going to jail,” said Ms Bandry.
Ms Bandry believes shutting down remote communities will only aggravate the problem and end with more homeless Aboriginal people.
“We are protesting so the communities don’t close down, there are a lot of areas that are at present closing down and in some communities there are elders calling us to say they are going to kill themselves because they don’t know any other life. If you live in a remote community you are used to being self sufficient, they don’t know what it is like to be in a township or in the suburbs,” said Ms Bandry.
Late last year the federal government announced it would no longer fund essential services in remote Aboriginal communities, with the responsibility lying with the individual states. In a controversial decision in November last year, WA Premier Colin Barnett announced the state government’s plan to close between 100 and 150 remote Indigenous communities citing funding and the abuse and neglect of young children in the area as the reasons.
While defending the state government’s decision, Prime Minister Tony Abbott caused widespread outrage among Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians when he told a Kalgoorlie radio station that the government couldn’t endlessly subsidise what he called ‘lifestyle choices’.
The hashtag ‘SOSBlakAustralia’ started trending online with people from all walks of life posting photos and statements on social media in support of the Aboriginal community. The campaign gained further momentum when Australian actor Hugh Jackman posted a photo of himself holding a hand written sign supporting Indigenous Australians on his Instagram account.
Ms Bandry is originally from York and Beverley in the wheatbelt region of Western Australia and believes the planned shutdowns will damage the cultural identity of Aboriginal people. Her four year old granddaughter camps at Heirisson Island on weekends and is learning about the Aboriginal culture.
“I am thinking of the future of my granddaughter but also the future of all Aboriginal people, of young Aboriginal people growing up and understanding what life is really about being an Aboriginal person,” said Ms Bandry.
“We are pushed around by the government, why can’t we be a free people? We are not a free people, that’s why we are standing. I want to see change for the Aboriginal community,” she said.
Indigenous leaders say Aboriginal people have a sacred connection to the land, a value which lies at the heart of their culture. The closure of remote communities will create significant challenges for the people being pushed off their land.
“We don’t own the land, we belong to the land. It’s very precious to us,” said Ms Bandry.
Another major concern for many critics of the government’s plans is where people from the affected remote communities will relocate to. They believe surrounding towns are likely to be put under increased pressure as they already have insufficient resources in housing and services – creating new problems for the state government to deal with.
“One of the first communities to shut down was right here in the city, the Lockridge Camps. The people had nowhere to live and ended up on the streets, some of them dying. We are standing for the homeless too,” said Ms Bandry.
Kevin Fitgerald, an Aboriginal elder and Cultural Counsel at the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, the native title body representing the Nyoongar people, is against the closure of remote communities.
“The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) and Nyoongar people stand united with the Aboriginal people whose right it is to live on their country and be provided with government services. Right now they are under threat by the Barnett Government’s push to close isolated Aboriginal communities in Western Australia,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
“SWALSC calls on the Barnett Government to honour the spirit and intent of Article Ten of the United Nations explanation of rights of individual Indigenous peoples which states ‘indigenous peoples should not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories and no relocation shall take place without free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous people concerned, and after aggreement of just and fair compensation and where possible, with the option of return,” he said.
Mr Fitzgerald believes there will be a significant number of families from closed communities relocating to other towns in the region, potentially causing problems among other tribes in the area.
“They should be compensated, when you kick people out of a community who have a strong bond with the land and the people it’s like combining water with oil, it doesn’t mix well. We call them communities now but it’s like taking one tribe and putting them with another tribe, it just does not work,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
“The tip of the iceberg was the Lockridge tenants when the camp was closed down, that was so horrific in Nyoongar country and now they are finding a lot of childen in other areas,” he said.
Mr Fitzgerald believes the shutdowns will severely impact Aboriginal cultural identity because culture, language and way of life are already a challenge, the loss of land and home will further affect the culture and everything that surrounds it.