Yoorrook truth commission begins to examine ‘brutal ugliness’ of Australia’s treatment of Aborigines

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For the first time in Australian history, a truth commission has begun to investigate the nation’s brutal history since colonization, to lay bare systematic abuses against Aboriginal peoples.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission will begin hearing evidence in Victoria after holding a ceremony at Fitzroy in Melbourne.

The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people welcomed the commission to the country.

The commission opened with a moment of silence to remember Indigenous ancestors and acknowledge past wrongs against Indigenous nations.

Yoorrook means truth in the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba language, which is spoken in North West Victoria.

Yoorrook has the full powers of a royal commission, meaning commissioners will be able to compel government agencies and officials to testify and produce official documents.

It will provide an official account of two centuries of colonization and oppression in Victoria.

Wergaia/Wamba Wamba elder and Yoorrook chair Eleanor Bourke said Australia’s official record of the impacts of white settlement was “incomplete”.

“We want to change that,” she said.

Professor Eleanor Bourke, president of Yoorrook, says Australia’s record on the impacts of settlement is incomplete.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

She said Yoorrook’s work would seek “to underpin the rich history of [Aboriginal] tell the truth, in all areas since colonization”.

Tony McAvoy SC, the nation’s first indigenous silk scholar, has been appointed assistant lead counsel and said the commission’s work will reveal truths that “so far have been overlooked”.

“Since the day the new world came here, it hasn’t listened. But the whispers remain, and there is a whisper that will always be there.

“This is a historic event…and it will also set the benchmark for similar investigations.”

Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum Wurrung’s wife and vice president, Sue-Anne Hunter, said the commission would also highlight the “strength and resilience” of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous trauma can no longer ‘fall on deaf ears’

Truth is an overarching concept designed to investigate systemic harms and make recommendations for reparations and healing.

Internationally, there have been high-profile examples of investigations revealing human rights abuses, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa.

In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard testimony from residential school survivors and the investigation yielded disturbing revelations about the country’s dark past.

Mr McAvoy acknowledged that First Nations people across Australia would view the hearings with “hope and cynicism” because too often, he said, Indigenous peoples had been left behind.

Mr McAvoy said the Indigenous trauma uncovered in the inquiry “cannot fall on deaf ears”.

“That racism must be confronted in this inquiry, Parliament, government and the community must not be allowed to turn their heads away from the brutal ugliness that plagues First Nations people.

“While many people are learning, it is still true that there are large numbers of people in this state and this country who deny what happened.”

In 2017, speaking the truth was one of the key recommendations of the Heart Uluru Declaration, a call to action made by hundreds of Indigenous people at a historic summit in Central Australia.

The Uluru declaration called for the establishment of a federal Makarrata commission to oversee truth and agreement between First Nations peoples and governments.

Yoorrook will only consider evidence in Victoria’s jurisdiction, but Queensland and the Northern Territory are now in the early stages of a path to a treaty or treaties.

The commissioners said they hoped this would lead to a powerful official record of the dispossession of indigenous peoples, to encourage other states and territories to hold similar hearings to come clean.

There have been other high-profile inquiries and commissions in Australia which have investigated systematic abuses against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The Bringing Them Home investigation was also a form of truth, which led to the national apology to the Stolen Generations issued in 2008.

The Yoorrook commissioners said their mandate is broader than previous inquiries, as it will examine injustices in all areas of life, as well as recommendations from previous inquiries.

The commission was created after negotiations between the First People’s Assembly of Victoria and the Victorian government.

The start of the commission’s hearings was delayed last year due to the pandemic.

Victoria’s Aboriginal elders will be the first to tell their stories to the commission as part of ‘Elder spinning circles’.

The other commissioners are Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung, leading human rights defender Dr Wayne Atkinson Professor Kevin Bell QC and Palawa sociologist Professor Maggie Walter.

An interim report is expected in June, and a final report should be delivered in June 2024.

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