‘Changing people’s way of thinking’: the CWA members working for Indigenous recognition

The Country Women’s Association is finding ways to get Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women together to raise support for the Uluru statement

Aunty Thelma James came from a long line of strong women who she says were taught that there’s no boundary except the boundaries you put on yourself.

Although the Bundjalung elder recalls “a lovely childhood” and a university education, James says she witnessed how intergenerational trauma continues to affect First Nations people today.

“People have this view, ‘get over it, forget about, it’s passed now’, but it’s not, because it is generational trauma,” she told Guardian Australia. “It’s worse now than it ever was.”

James says the educational side of her community work has always focused on Aboriginal culture, changing attitudes within governments and breaking down barriers by introducing people to Aboriginal culture and history.

After she retired from teaching in February, James decided to join the Country Women’s Association (CWA) Lismore Day branch in February; she was a member of the Teachers Federation for 30 years and is not afraid to use her voice.

The CWA Lismore Day branch members meeting with the Gamilaroi elders in Moree
The CWA Lismore Day branch members meeting with the Gamilaroi elders in Moree. (L-R) Front row: Karen Williams (CWA), Margaret Sampson, Helen (Elly) Porter, Thelma James (CWA), Donnella Smith and Maria Slater. Back row: Helen Dargin (CWA) and Raquel Clarke. Photograph: Aliison Kelly

James is one of the CWA New South Wales members pushing for the association to support the Uluru statement and to establish an Indigenous voice to parliament.

She is particularly excited about a meeting the branch had with the Gamilaroi elders in Moree, in the NSW northern tablelands.

James organised the trip with a group of Lismore branch members and says the Moree pool is why the town is one of her favourite places to visit.

One of the Gamilaroi elders at the meeting was Aunty Margaret Sampson. “They didn’t allow us into the pool for so many years,” Sampson says. “I was married by the time it was allowed.”

Moree Artesian Aquatic Centre
Moree Artesian Aquatic Centre. Aboriginal people were banned from Moree’s pool until 1965. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Aboriginal people were banned by law from entering or swimming at the Moree pool until 1965.

Sampson spent most of her life advocating for equal rights and representation for First Nations people; she founded the state’s first refuge for Aboriginal women and children in 1986, and fought with the NSW women’s refuge movement for 15 years.

In the 2021 census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 3.2% of the Australian population – and 19.9% of the Moree Plains population.

Although the Moree Plains shire elected its first Gomeroi woman councillor earlier this year, the “racism still hasn’t gone away”, Sampson says.

“It’s very hard here in Moree. We’re still struggling.”

But after the meeting with the Lismore branch members, Sampson is hopeful things might change.

Lismore is one of the CWA branches that have put forward a motion that would see the association “accept the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and support a First Nations voice to parliament being enshrined in the Australian constitution”.

Charles Perkins in the pool with Indigenous children, who had been banned from swimming in the pool before he led a protest to overturn the ban in 1965.
Charles Perkins in the pool with Aboriginal children who had been banned from swimming in Moree before he led a protest in 1965 Photograph: Supplied

The president of the CWA Lismore Day branch, Aliison Kelly, says the motion was raised at the annual state conference in May but, due to the enormous response – both for and against the motion – it was “put aside” until the next conference in 2023.

She says the purpose of the branch’s meeting with the Gamilaroi elders was to show “recognition of how usually you behave when you’re going onto somebody else’s Country”, which is reaching out to the elders and paying your respect.

The vice-president of the CWA Bangalow branch, Janene Jelfs, says her branch also put forward a separate but similar motion in August at the Far North Coast group meeting. If successful at the group’s next meeting in November, this motion will progress to the next state conference, alongside Lismore’s.

“Basically, it’s supporting the Lismore motion. We just hoped that if enough motions went through and enough branches felt strongly about it, then it would have a stronger chance of going through state [level],” she says.

“I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t; and look, to be honest, if it doesn’t go through, I think it’s an absolute disgrace.”

A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart
A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Photograph: Richard Milnes/Alamy

It’s not the first time a policy for the CWA to support the Uluru statement has been progressed to state level.

According to a CWA member from the Illawarra group, who wished to remain anonymous, the Keiraville branch was behind a similar motion which was raised at the CWA of NSW state conference in 2021.

“There was a lot of discussion about whether the CWA should openly support it at that time,” she says. “We didn’t actually pass the motion that was put forward.

“It’s just that some members were not understanding what it really meant and therefore could not accept that we should accept the invitation to support it.”

The chief executive officer of CWA of NSW, Danica Leys, says the policy that did pass called for the organisation “to take active steps to increase the information available to all members … to actively seek and promote opportunities for increased and meaningful understanding of, and engagement with, First Nations people”.

“In doing so, the association will be guided by the feedback of its Indigenous members, and members of the wider First Nations community,” Leys says.

According to Leys, it is “highly likely” Lismore’s motion will go forward but all motions for the 2023 annual state conference are yet to be approved by the state executive committee, and will not be until the committee’s meeting in November.

Aunty Thelma James with some of the crafts she creates at home in Lismore
Aunty Thelma James with some of the crafts she creates at home in Lismore. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/The Guardian

“The main crux of it is that it is a discussion at an association level and we don’t have a position for or against it, but the other branches and groups are discussing it.”

Guardian Australia spoke to several CWA members off the record who were concerned about racist comments and a lack of understanding among other members towards the Uluru statement and First Nations people.

According to Jelfs and Kelly, the Bangalow and Lismore branches have Indigenous members and have been educating non-Indigenous members about Aboriginal culture.

“It’s not thrown in your face, it’s changing people’s way of thinking,” James says.


Fleur Connick

The GuardianTramp

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