This year's Reconciliation Week is a particularly momentous one. We mark both 50 years since the 1967 referendum included Aboriginal people in the population for constitutional purposes and 25 years since the recognition of native title in the High Court's historic Mabo decision.

For some, the 1967 referendum is just another date that sits on the pages of our history books. For others, including some of our staff members, this milestone is incredibly significant. It is a poignant reminder of an era separated only by a generation, when parents and older siblings were not counted as part of the Australian population.

In more recent memory, on the 3rd of June 1992, many of us joined together in celebration that the High Court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands in the hard fought Mabo case. While there is still much work to be done on native title, it was a big stride towards truth and justice as the fiction of ‘terra nullius’ – or land belonging to no one – was overturned. The original inhabitants were finally recognised by the highest court in the land.

While these wins began to unwind the centuries of injustices, dispossession and trauma – unfortunately, they did not bring us to a point of justice. We continue to see massive over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the prison system, in out of home care and amongst the homeless in Australia.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, there needs to be a new way forward that places Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre of policies and practice. We need an inclusive approach that empowers the traditional owners of the land to design and lead solutions to the complex problems facing their communities such as poverty, disadvantage and the lack of appropriate housing.

As CEO of Mission Australia, I have had the privilege to continuously learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history from our staff and from the communities in which we work. I have travelled to Mornington Island, Meekathara, Alice Springs and beyond – seeing both the devastating impacts of overcrowding and homelessness, and the inspiring resilience of people who continue to find hope in the face of so much hardship. I have seen first-hand the strength that comes from culture and family and how vital that is in daily battles against bureaucracy and entrenched disadvantage.

I am proud of the work we do every day to promote reconciliation in the communities in which we work. Recently, the Northern Territory Royal Commission visited our Supported Community Accommodation program in Townsville to see for themselves what can be done to best support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people who are exiting the juvenile justice system so they can avoid homelessness and pursue their life goals. They were also very interested to learn about our cultural camps where young people can reconnect with their culture and connect with elders as invaluable mentors on their journey to adulthood.

We are also very close to launching our second Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) which is our next important step on our organisational journey to reconciliation. We are currently at a stage where we are testing new and innovative approaches, engaging staff in the design process, and embedding the plan in our daily work.

Together we stand. And together, we can take the next steps towards a reconciled nation. A country where we cherish the culture of our First People, seek to heal the trauma of the past and move towards a just future where the custodians of this land have the same life expectancy, health and educational outcomes as those of us who are more recent arrivals to this land.

Catherine Yeomans

Catherine Yeomans
CEO Mission Australia


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