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Dr June Oscar had an idyllic childhood in the Kimberley. Then it came "crashing down" in 1968. 

It took Australia 23 years to ensure that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was Indigenous themselves. That position currently belongs to Dr June Oscar AO, a Bunuba woman who grew up in Western Australia’s Fitzroy Crossing, in the Kimberley region.

Currently in her second year of a five-year term, Dr June is in charge of elevating the voices and issues of Indigenous peoples, and it’s a role that’s brought her to Sydney, 4,700 kilometres away from Kimberley, Western Australia.

Born in 1962, the 57-year-old describes her childhood as a time when the “ravages of alcohol hadn’t hit,” and the majority of men in her community lived and worked on cattle farms, alongside their families.

“It was very solid in terms of security for family,” she said, speaking to Marlee Silva on Mamamia’s Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast.

“It was a wonderful childhood.”

Everything came “crashing down” in 1968 when the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruled on equal wages in the cattle industry. The policy was a hollow victory which didn’t deliver higher wages as intended, but saw hundreds of Indigenous families forced off the farms and properties they had lived on for generations, as their positions were given to white workers.

“Many families were told to move off the cattle properties as workers, and ended up in fringe camps and missions,” she said.

Describing the conditions as “almost-refugee like”, multiple tribes were forced to live in confined areas.

“There were communal toilets, taps, showers, washing areas, and very little housing. There was no real plan for the numbers of people who would be affected,” she described.

However, it was there that she was also exposed to “impressive” and effective governance, in which cultural leaders, who all spoke different languages, met up to discuss how their tribes could live harmoniously. And they did.

“We all got along. We all lived and shared food, stories. Many, many things,” she said.

Marlee Silva sat down with Dr June Oscar AO on our podcast, Tiddas 4 Tiddas and talked about her community and how she’s trying to create change through her role as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Post continues after audio.

This admiration and respect for language and communication would become a central theme to Dr June’s career. At 17 years of age, she took a job as a telephonist and typist, before returning to the Kimberly, to work at the Aboriginal Legal Services as a relief person. From there, she would assist solicitors representing Aboriginal and Indigenous people in court, where a particular case caught her eye.

“There was a group of Aboriginal stockmen that had been discriminated against and treated terribly by white station workers in the Fitzroy Valley,” she said.

“I didn’t know anything about human rights then, but I guess I knew we shouldn’t tolerate this.

“It was then I realised as Aboriginal people we don’t have to put up with this. We can take action. It opened my eyes to the real way Aboriginal people could access justice, that we could secure legal support, that we could take action, have someone speak on our behalf, or we could represent ourselves in the courts.”

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It also helped solidify the importance of communication, especially as an “English-second-language speaker”. With her first being Bunuba, Dr June described the importance of language in Indigenous culture – something that can be difficult to convey to non-Indigenous people – as speaking to the “existence and connectedness to this country”.

“It’s important we do all that we can, to maintain and keep our languages alive, [especially since] so many languages have been impacted by the coming of white people to our country,” she said.

“I ensured in all the working roles I took on that people understood all the information I was giving to them, [so they could] respond in an informed way. I’ve seen too many examples of people abusing the right, and responsibility, to inform us.

“I’ve seen many terrible situations where people were in agreement, but they weren’t understanding what was being said. I thought that was something I could address, through my benefit of a Western education.

 

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Now in her second year as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr June has championed the project Wiyi Yani U Thangani (women’s voices project) which looks at advocating for and empowering Indigenous women and girls. Through this work, she’s visited 50 communities, held over 105 meetings nationwide, and met with 2,500 women and girls, all of which will culminate in a report to be presented to the federal parliament.

“It will carry the voices of all those women and girls… and [gives them the opportunity] to speak from their lived realities,” she said.

“I thought it was very important taking up this role as the first Aboriginal woman, to elevate the voices of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal girls on the issues that are impacting them on a daily basis.

“We provide some very clear guidelines about how we can enable governments to respond in a respectful way, engage with these young women, and create these spaces for [them to] share the successes we’re having.”

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One of the problems Dr June and her team continuously encountered was racism. “Systemic and institutionalised racism,” she said, listing examples like the surveillance of young people, to Indigenous people not being able to access services, which ranged from taxis to government provisions.

“For Aboriginal people, Torres Strait islander people, and people of colour, we know. We have felt the ugly hand of racism for so many years in this country, and it still is there,” she said.

“I don’t know what it’s like to live a life where I’m not being challenged based on the colour of my skin.

“I don’t know what that feels like, and I don’t think any other Torres Strait Islander, or Aboriginal person knows what that feels like.”

 

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Reflecting on her career, Dr June said that although she’s honoured by her running list of accolades – NAIDOC’s Person of the Year in 2018, WA Australian of the Year Award in 2017, and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2019 it’s her “training in community” that’s given her the most insight in her field.

“I come from training in community, through the lived experiences of people who are living with all sorts of challenges, but are succeeding because they’re absolutely focused, and committed and speak from a place of truth,” she said.

“You don’t have to be a lawyer, or an academic to be the next Social Justice Commissioner, keep doing what you’re doing for the betterment of all our people… and you never know where that might take you.

“I hope that I can send a message to every young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman in this country, that they can see themselves in this role.”

Read more Indigenous women’s stories: 

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