The lands where the University of Melbourne campus sits in Parkville are very different to how they were back in 1853 when the University was first established.
The 1850s were a time of rapid growth in Victoria following the discovery of gold, and Melbourne quickly attracted people from other parts of the world.
During this time, many of Victoria’s First Peoples were displaced or killed and their land stolen.
In 1860, the Sale of Crown Lands Act was passed – the first in a series of laws enabling farmers to obtain land. For First Peoples, this meant being forced off traditional lands, which were divided up and sold off to white people.
In 1863, Coranderrk was established, the first of a number of Aboriginal reserves across Victoria. But Coranderrk’s proximity to Melbourne made it different to others.
John Green, the Presbyterian Scottish preacher who oversaw the reserve, believed Aboriginal people had the right to decide their own needs. He believed in First Peoples’ right to self-determination.
First Peoples farmed the land, raised livestock and carried out cultural practices. Coranderrk residents formed an assembly which decided on the rules of conduct for the station, as well as the punishments for breaking those rules.
There was enough healthy food, shelter and clothing, and a level of trust with Green.
In 1872, hops farming was introduced, and was regarded as successful. But this success was to be the downfall of Coranderrk.
The Board for the Protection of Aborigines wanted to close Coranderrk, move its residents up near the Murray and sell the valuable land. But there was resistance, led by William Barak, the leader of Coranderrk at that time.
Under Barak, First Peoples wrote letters and signed petitions, and used their connections to appeal to more progressive politicians and journalists. Their advocacy forced the government’s hand, and an inquiry into life at Coranderrk was called.
In total, 22 First Peoples witnesses courageously gave evidence during the two-and-a-half-month inquiry, putting their wishes forward about the future of the reserve.
Their testimony created a public record, for us to read some 140 years later. The inquiry enabled Coranderrk to stay open and conditions improved.
However, in 1886 the Aboriginal Protection Act, often called the ‘Half Caste’ Act, came in, enabling the separation of families of First Peoples, who had some European blood, from others.
Gradually the population of Coranderrk declined and portions of the land were carved off for settlers.
The story of Coranderrk is important for two reasons.
First, at Yoorrook we are inspired by the bravery of those First Peoples who gave evidence back in 1881 – when the foundations for change were very different to today.
Second, it reinforces the need for truth telling to be part of a bigger process to create transformative change for First Peoples. Truth telling on its own is not enough.
The truth is, the colonial system has concentrated on maintaining power by controlling and legislating the Indigenous population and taking the land for wealth over a very long period of time.
If there has been progress, it has not addressed the systemic inequalities that maintain this status quo.
In Victoria this century, however, we have seen the foundations for transformational change slowly being built in the land justice area.
From 2005, we saw the first of four successful Native Title determinations in Victoria. In 2006, the Aboriginal Heritage Act became law, allowing for registered Aboriginal groups or Traditional Owners to nominate particular intangible heritage for registration.
The passing of the Traditional Owner Settlement Act in 2010 enabled the State Government to recognise Traditional Owners and make agreements. Then in 2018, we saw the establishment of the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission, chaired by Commissioner Jill Gallagher.
The following year the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria – the representative body for Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – was created.
And just last month, a landmark framework for Treaty negotiations was signed by the Victorian Government and the First People’s Assembly. This will see the start of negotiations for state-wide and individual treaties in 2023.
As we work to make this happen, the rest of Australia – and parts of the world – are watching with keen interest.
The Yoorrook Justice Commission
The Yoorrook Justice Commission was established following the tireless advocacy of Elders and Aboriginal organisations.
For those who might not be aware, Yoorrook is a Royal Commission, established by Letters Patent in May 2021.
Yoorrook holds all the powers of a Royal Commission – the most powerful form of inquiry in this state – including the ability to compel witnesses and issue notices to produce. It’s the first and only truth telling process in Australia – among about 50 in the world.
It has a broad, historic mandate to investigate the systemic injustices experienced by Victorian First Peoples in all areas of life – from invasion and colonisation to the present.
Through the truth-telling process, Yoorrook will create a formal record by putting the testimony, voices and stories of our Peoples on the public record for generations to come.
Yoorrook – meaning ‘truth’ in the language of the Wamba Wamba – will also make recommendations for healing, system reform, and changes to laws and policies.
At the heart of everything Yoorrook does is the enduring spirit and guiding voices of Victoria’s First Peoples. The Elders of our communities have led the way through their tireless advocacy to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.
Yoorrook has a broad and detailed Terms of Reference outlined in the Letters Patent which also specifies seven objectives. These have been used to describe an overall approach to the Commission’s work in three words.
· To create a lasting public record based on First Peoples’ experiences of systemic injustice since the start of colonisation; the consequences of those experiences and who, or what, is responsible.
· To bring all Victorians with us on this journey of deep listening and learning about our shared past; its impact; and the strength and resilience of First Peoples culture, knowledge and traditions that have survived against all odds.
· To recommend changes to laws, institutions and systems, which can then be taken up through Treaty negotiations. This requires building the foundations for a new relationship between First Peoples, the state government and all Victorians.
One point I do want to address is the fact that Yoorrook is a Royal Commission, which is inherently a colonial system of investigation.
This has some benefits in being a powerful form of inquiry. But there is also an irony that a colonial institution is being used to investigate injustice dating back to colonialism.
But Yoorrook is also inherently a very different type of inquiry because it is, above all, about truth telling and justice.
“There is no Treaty without Truth” has become a mantra.
The coming months will see our investigation focus on the impact of the child protection and criminal justice systems on Victoria’s First Peoples.
It is a challenging time for many of our people.
This historic process has taken more than 200 years. We must build a shared understanding based on the inclusion of First peoples voices as part of a foundation for truth and justice.
This goes to the heart of why Yoorrook exists.
We want all Victorians to understand the true story of colonisation and the settlement of these lands, and the devastating – and lasting – impact this has on First Peoples. This was no empty land.
We want all Victorians to learn about the history of our people and lands. We need all Victorians to join us on this journey for truth, understanding and transformation.
We are on the precipice of significant change in Victoria. First Nations people want to share this journey together, working for a better Victoria for all of us.
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