Learning about the past
On 30 January, a group of 22 visitors came to Cherbourg to meet the community. Their purpose: to understand better the legacy of past policies against Australia’s First Nations, and begin a conversation about what can be done in the present day.
Uncle Eric Law, AM, Murri Court Magistrate and Wakka Wakka Elder, hosted the visit, which was organised by Rwandan-Australian law graduate Amiel Nubaha, and IofC Elder Barbara Lawler. The visitors included two people from the Catholic Justice Commission, a lecturer in public health from the University of the Sunshine Coast, the steering group chair from IofC International’s Trustbuilding Program, and the author of Riding the Black Cockatoo, a book about one family’s First Nations reconciliation experience. The group included Anglo-Australians, Muslims, and people from the Burundian and Rwandan communities.
Their day began with morning tea and a tour of the Ration Shed Museum, for a glimpse of Cherbourg’s past. ‘It was fascinating, moving, and thought-provoking,’ said Barbara. ‘For some of us non-Indigenous, the treatment of First Nations people who were brought or sent to Cherbourg from all over Queensland was a shameful act that was painful to hear.’
A bitter history
The Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, 270 km northwest of Brisbane on the lands of the Wakka Wakka people, became a site for forced resettlement in the early 20th century, under the 1897 Queensland law on Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. (South Africa would later model their own apartheid legislation on this Queensland law.) Tuberculosis, heart disease, dengue fever and measles were rife in the community. When the global ‘flu virus swept through in 1919, the dead numbered so many that they were placed in mass graves.
Under the policy of forced removal, by the 1930s there were 28 different First Nations represented among Cherbourg’s population of 900 people. This meant those who were not Wakka Wakka people, the traditional landowners, were disconnected from their culture and language. The men were sent to clear land and do farm labour for pastoralists and nearby property owners, while the women were hired out as domestic staff, in conditions akin to prison work. Many children were further removed from their families to live in school dormitories, where punishments were severe and living conditions poor.
By 1950, wages received by Aboriginal workers had ‘improved’ to reach 25% of the comparable non-Aboriginal wage, rising further by 1972 to 58%. As late as 1975, the Queensland Government was arguing that it was beyond the state’s resources to pay Aboriginal workers at the award rates that other Australians received.
Despite its bitter history, the mixed community at Cherbourg gave birth to some famous Australians. The tenor Harold Blair came from Cherbourg, as did football great Frank Fisher (grandfather of Olympic runner Cathy Freeman) and cricketer Eddie Gilbert. Members of the community served proudly in World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.
On 26 May 1999, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie apologized in Parliament to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, expressing ‘deep sorrow and regret’ for its past policies of separating Indigenous children from their families. The apology recognised that the impacts of these policies have continued in the form of intergenerational trauma in the Cherbourg community. The Queensland government also acknowledged past wage discrimination against Aboriginal workers, and provided some compensation.
'While the government apology recognised that the impacts of these policies have continued in the form of intergenerational trauma in the Cherbourg community, more follow-up practical action is needed,' said Barbara. That, in a nutshell, was what the group hoped to hear about on their trip to Cherbourg.
Take a tour around Cherbourg
‘This is not about making people feel guilty’
Despite some efforts at restoration, Cherbourg is still a hotspot for many social issues associated with generational trauma. Amiel came to Cherbourg in 2019 to work with young people after graduating from his degree course at Griffith University. Himself a product of a UN and Australian Government resettlement program, Amiel grew up in a refugee camp in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and came to Australia as a 14-year old refugee. In Cherbourg, he met Wakka Wakka Elder, Uncle Eric Law, and the two began to swap stories, with Amiel joining the weekly Men’s Yarning Circle.
Uncle Eric was part of an early cohort of fully-trained Aboriginal teachers, serving in schools around Queensland and in the Torres Strait. He returned to Cherbourg as a government-appointed superintendent of the then-Aboriginal Reserve, where he oversaw its transition to having a locally-elected, independent council, which he later served as mayor. In 2018 he was awarded the Order of Australia, in recognition of his community work.
In discussions with the visiting group, Uncle Eric noted that ‘the time is right’ for truth telling and truth hearing about Australia’s Indigenous past. He emphasized that this is not about making people feel guilty; rather, it’s about ‘going forward together and working it out.’
The group discussed the current issues and struggles in Cherbourg, as a result of the dislocation and disconnection of First Nations peoples. Uncle Eric stated that reconciliation and trust building need to take place at a local level, and that the notion of ‘respect’ needs to be practiced amongst all people. One recent outcome, he noted, has been the introduction of education in children’s mother tongue. Starting in 2021, the local Wakka Wakka language is being taught in school, where it will be mandatory for First Nations children, and optional for others.
The day’s highlight was an invitation to take part in a Yarning Circle in the afternoon. These circles are about building respectful relationships, through giving all participants equal opportunity at participating and sharing their stories. At the close of the Circle, the visitors shared what the visit had meant for them, and what they would take away.
‘The pain of history confronts us. It has the potential to heal us and set us all free to be our best,’ said one participant. Another expressed a wish ‘to face our fears and push a little further.’
‘There is much more to be done to heal relationships,’ said Amiel. ‘But our visit felt like the start of creating a trustbuilding team in Queensland.’ - Delia Paul
See more photos of the day
 H. Bambrick, 2003, ‘Landscapes and legacies: Cherbourg past to present’, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University, p. 96, ANU Open Research Repository, https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/46071/31/05chapter4.pdf