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Fitzroy Valley Indigenous leaders unite to make history

Giovanni Torre -

Indigenous leaders in the Fitzroy Valley have made history by establishing a new representative body to tackle the key issues in the area.

The Council of Chairs brings together the elected chairpersons of each community in the Valley, in Western Australia's Kimberley region.

Bunuba Elder Patsy Bedford told National Indigenous Times that the initiative was in "the early stages" but had recently held its first full meeting, bringing together all the chairpersons of the communities in the Valley.

"There was nearly everyone in attendance, representing about 35-40 communities," she said.

"It was put to them that because they are chairpersons of their communities, we need to have the voices of the Fitzroy Valley from the chairs, from the people who live in the communities every day. They need to have a voice, when we have government representatives coming, when we have urgent situations like when the flood happened.

"They live and breathe the community. The whole idea is for people in their communities to lead … it is not about the land or Native Title, it's about people looking after their own communities and being responsible, and building their confidence up."

Ms Bedford noted that the chairs were chosen by their community members.

"That is where it starts from, the grass roots. They were given the option – if they wanted to be part of setting up the Council of Chairs, and they all agreed," she said.

"The next meeting will deal with terms of reference, governance – including cultural governance, which is what runs ourselves as Indigenous people and as members from communities.

"It is now time for the voices of the Valley to be heard. What better way to do that than to set up a council of chairs from each community?"

Ms Bedford said no one knows the needs of a community better than the community themselves.

"Hopefully we will be having meetings with them now and then, set up the Terms of Reference and governance, western governance as well as cultural governance, and putting it in place," she said.

"The Council of Chairs is about what they, the communities, want; It has come from the bottom up, not the top down – we have always had to respond to top down procedures and processes.

"This is about what they want to put in place. They did have a lot of issues; they talked about crime, medical needs, children and youth issues, what they can do in their own communities to solve issues."

Ms Bedford said the aim of the Council of Chairs is to come up with solutions to problems identified by community members.

"It's always government giving us solutions for our problems, government is holding the steering wheel while we are passengers in the car. We were never given a chance to put our solutions across. Hopefully the Council of Chairs will be the voice of the Valley."

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