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Truth telling has never been more important than it is right now

Professor Eleanor Bourke -

Truth telling has never been more important than it is right now.

In the past, history has been told by colonisers, including through the celebration and memorialization of early settlers and explorers who were responsible for massacres against Aboriginal people.

Truth telling is about understanding the full history of our state.

First Peoples' stories have power because they help us to understand cultural perspectives, understand the antiquity of first peoples and see another side of the history of this country.

For First Peoples, story-telling has long been how we share our history of place, and pass knowledge and traditions down to younger generations.

We need all Victorians to learn the complete story of this place now called Victoria so collectively we can shape a new path forward together. As more people understand how injustice against First Peoples has and continues to be perpetrated, there is greater momentum for change.

Yoorrook commenced three years ago. Since then, hundreds of First Peoples have shared their story with the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Victoria's formal truth telling process and the first of its kind in Australia. Yoorrook is sharing these truths with all Victorians.

Commissioners have heard heart-wrenching stories of harm and injustice caused by the state against our people. Many have been as a result of racist or discriminatory "protection" and welfare laws, policies and practices for over 150 years.

We have heard stories of children being put into a pipeline into the child protection system and the criminal justice system from before they were born.

We have heard stories of police brutality and the deliberate targeting of families and Aboriginal young people, and how one harmful interaction with police can create a fear of authority for life.

We have heard stories about the systematic destruction of culture and language going back to the beginning of colonisation.

We have also heard stories of incredible strength and resistance of our people – too many to share.

Through the truth telling process, these stories have reached millions of Victorians through traditional and social media. They have become front-page articles or stories on the evening news. Every truth that is heard helps change the hearts and minds of Victorians for the better.

It is not just First Peoples engaging in truth telling, however. Truth telling is a two-way process so that many more Victorians can learn about the history of our state.

Recently, Suzannah Henty, a sixth generation descendant of James Henty, one of the first European settlers in Victoria, fronted Yoorrook to share some of her family's story.

Henty acknowledged her family's role in establishing Victoria's first European settlement in Portland, and how this marked the beginning of the harm that continues to be inflicted on Gunditjmara peoples and their country today.

Henty talked about how she began researching her family's involvement in massacres after a Gunditjmara man gave a lecture while she was an undergraduate student.

"I was never told while I was growing up that the Henty family were involved in an organised ethnic cleansing of First Nations peoples. Yet, if needed, I was encouraged to distance myself from the Henty legacy," she told Commissioners.

A day earlier, Dr Bill Pascoe, from the University of Newcastle, gave a presentation to Commissioners about his research into the use of massacres by settlers against First Peoples, particularly during the 1830s, 40s and 50s.

"Some of the things I've encountered in this research are the worst things I've ever heard of anyone ever doing to anyone in human history," he said.

Yoorrook heard evidence that during this time, Victoria's Aboriginal population fell from around 60,000 to around 2,000, primarily because of violence and diseases brought in by White people.

Throughout the commission's hearings, Yoorrook has questioned government ministers and bureaucrats, and will do so again starting next week. To date, seven government representatives who fronted Yoorrook have formally apologised to First Peoples for harm caused by the state.

These apologies are welcome, but they mean little if not accompanied by action and meaningful reform.

Last week, the Victorian Government released its disappointing response to the Yoorrook for Justice report, which was the result of a 12-month inquiry into systemic injustices facing First Peoples in the state's child protection and criminal justice systems.

The report detailed extensive failures within both systems, which have caused, and continue to cause, harm to our people.

The government accepted four of the 46 recommendations in full. Another 24 were supported "in principle", while 15 are still under consideration.

Three recommendations were not supported, including vital justice reforms to prevent the ongoing over-incarceration of First Peoples.

This is change at a snail's pace. It has very real consequences for First Peoples.

Today in Victoria, our children remain 11 times more likely to be under youth justice supervision than non-Indigenous children. As adults they are 18 times more likely to end up in prison.

Commissioners intend to call accountability hearings in the latter half of the year to ensure transparency about the implementation of Yoorrook's recommendations.

With just over a year to go before Yoorrook's mandate ends, and with Treaty negotiations set to commence in the coming months thanks to the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria, truth telling has never been more important.

All Victorians have a role to play.

All Victorians can make a submission about systemic injustice experienced by First Peoples, including by providing information, artifacts or other evidence around pieces of land one's family may have acquired. Every story has power.

I urge you to watch the hearings, listen to the stories and learn about the true history of the lands upon which you live.

When we understand the past and how this connects to the present, we have the power to create real and lasting change.

Professor Eleanor Bourke, Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission

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