The Southern Cross : September 2011
September 2011 Page 7 www.thesoutherncross.org.au The Southern Cross news | They have protested, petitioned and pushed debate with high-level pollies for the past eight years. They have watched Reconciliation and NAIDOC weeks pass without too much complaint. So too have they witnessed the fourth-year anniversary of the announcement of the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention -- which has forced "detrimental change" on Aboriginal Australians, has raised eyebrows worldwide and was recently condemned by the High Commissioner of Human Rights. They are the Sisters of St Joseph South Australia Reconciliation Circle and Friends -- a group of about 20 Josephite and Carmelite nuns and lay women who have met regularly since 2003 to fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. "It's just magic," says Dr Alitya Rigney, Aboriginal mentor to the Reconciliation Circle. Each month the women gather at the South Australian Province of the Sisters of St Joseph headquarters in Kensington, where Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop once lived and established her pioneering legion of remarkable Australian nuns. Nuns who went out bush and educated the nation's poorest and most disadvantaged children, including Aboriginal men, women and youth. "We want to stand with Aboriginal people and support them in their struggles," says Sister Marie Faulkner rsj. Sr Marie worked with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley in the late 1970s. "It's an opportunity to do something; to help the Aboriginal people of Australia," says Sr Mary Robert rsj. People, she says, who sometimes feel "like refugees in their own country". A teacher, Sr Robert has visited Aboriginal people in the Adelaide parklands and hospitals for the past 20 years and for the past decade has been a board member of Aboriginal community centre Kura Yerlo (in Largs Bay). All the women in the circle have meaningful connections with Aboriginal communities scattered across the nation, or a deep sense of wanting to learn and do more for Australia's first people. "We want to walk the talk," says Sr Michele Madigan rsj. "We want to act as a group," she says. "There is power in numbers and you get courage from each other and that tenacity to keep going because things are so difficult for Aboriginal people." Mentored by Dr Rigney, Australia's first Aboriginal principal and a well-known Kaurna elder, and Northern-Territory- born artist and educator Pilawuk White, the Reconciliation Circle originated from informal meetings stemming back to the 1970s. The circle advocates and acts on behalf of, and in partnership with, the local Aboriginal communities. "We offer our support to them in their struggles for recognition and equality and regularly lobby government on their behalf," says Sr Michele. "We also endeavour to raise awareness of the issues faced by Aboriginal people through education of our own sisters and others involved in our ministries." Michele lived for more than two years with the community of Yalata, near Ceduna. She helped support local Aboriginal women campaign against a national radioactive waste dump proposed by the Federal Government on their lands. For the past four years the circle's attention has been heavily focused on opposing the Australian Federal Government's Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation introduced by the Howard Government in 2007 following a report outlining sexual abuse of children in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The NTER included: the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the NT Anti-Discrimination Act 1993; bans on pornography and alcohol; forced leasing of land; restriction of Aboriginal law; and income management under which half of the welfare payments made to Aboriginal community residents is quarantined for spending on food and other essentials. The Government recently initiated a round of consultations with Aboriginal communities in the NT over the Intervention. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders, including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the Josephite, Mercy and other congregational leaders, have condemned the community talks and discussion paper for its lack of translation into Aboriginal languages and for the community meetings being hastily organised within days of being announced. Dr Rigney said everyone deserved the right to protection, but forcing archaic and humiliating practices on Aboriginal Australians without consultation was "dehumanising". "Aboriginal people have been denied the freedom of choice; they have been told what to buy and where," she says. In June last year, the Reconciliation Circle submitted a report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and has made numerous submissions to various government and non-government bodies over the Intervention. Earlier this year members of the group raised their concerns at a meeting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Adelaide and more recently with Senator Don Farrell. The women have lobbied Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon and various state MPs. Last June they helped organise a protest against the Intervention on the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide and in 2009 Sr Margaret Kenny rsj obtained hundreds of signatures from Norwood parishioners for a petition to national political leaders. In May, Reconciliation Circle member Sr Susan Pollard rsj heard United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay lambast the government's poorly executed Intervention. "Judge Navi Pillay observed that measures had been wrongfully implemented and left Aboriginal people worse off than before the Intervention," says Sr Pollard. But she says the most encouraging sign of the meeting in Sydney was the large number of Australian youth listening and wanting to be a part of change. "That's where the future lies," says Dr Rigney. "It's in the hope of our youth." The murder of Japanese student Megumi Suzuki in August 2001 was remembered by parishioners at St Margaret Mary's, Croydon Park, at Mass last month. Prayers were offered for the Eynesbury College student on the 10th anniversary of her death and the college's principal Mr John Warren and his wife Shannon attended the Mass. The idea of honouring Megumi was suggested by a parishioner who came across a certificate of appreciation to one of the participants of Operation Recovery -- the name given to the extremely difficult search for the student's remains amongst the rubbish at Wingfield dump. Her parents and other family members were "eternally grateful" that her body was located, according to SAPOL, who received the highest of praise both nationally and internationally. Parish secretary Mr Peter Mase said it was good for the parish to have concern for people beyond its own boundaries. A photo of Megumi, flowers and 10 candles were displayed on the altar and a photograph was presented to Mr Warren. Father Maurice Shinnick prayed for Megumi's grieving family and for the safety of all overseas students in the parish and across South Australia. Megumi remembered Round and round and round... A tight-knit group of South Australian nuns led by two Aboriginal women want to give our moral compass a wake-up call and put indigenous rights at the top of the national agenda. The women tell Rebecca DiGirolamo they are tired of political rhetoric and are clinging to the hope of real action from a new generation. EPICENTRE: (L-R) Reconciliation Circle members Sr Michele Madigan, Dr Alitya Rigney and Sr Susan Pollard at one of the group's recent meetings in Kensington. Photo: Stephen Gray Photo courtesy of SAPOL.