Bridging the gap between health and justice, proud Torres Strait Islander woman Donnella Mills is turning tides and rewriting narratives for mob.

Based in Cairns, Mills is the managing lawyer at LawRight Community Legal Centre, Chair of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), sits on James Cook University Council and is the project lawyer for the Wuchopperen Health Justice Partnership.

Mills has strong ancestral links to Masig and Nagir Islands but has lived in Cairns for most of her life. With a fire in her belly from a young age, she found Cairns provided her with a strong connection to culture and community.

“We are a proud space here in the deep north because we have such a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connection,” Mills told NIT.

“I kept seeing as a young child … the way we were treated and the struggles of my family and my grandparents. We’ve all grown up with those real stories around the protection act and the injustices.

“It is part of who we are as Blackfullas, we know those stories because we exist from that.”

“I dreamt big as a young person … wanting to study law, and it is hard to be what you don’t see. It is hard to think of reaching that when no one in my family had attended university. It was something I kept down low because I never thought I could be bright enough or get to that level.”

It wasn’t until her thirties that she took the plunge and applied for law school.

“I went through a really nasty divorce, survived domestic violence and had to think about how I would do things differently as a single parent,” Mills said.

“Going through the divorce led me to my own lawyer … she spoke to me in a language that made me feel safe.

“It was from that painful journey in my life … that made me think — I’m just going to apply for James Cook.”

Mills began to delve into a space she felt wasn’t made for her.

“It was really hard, it raised all those fears as Indigenous people around being the Other — not belonging, not seeing yourself,” she said.

“The institution of law made me feel more foreign than I’ve ever felt. I had to really dig into … that warrior strength of our Elders; that space has such power and it has kept me safe the entire time.

“I am constantly coming into contact with this institution that has no knowledge of me and the knowledge they have is a discourse, it isn’t me or my people.”

Mills was central to the establishment of the Wuchopperen Health Justice Partnership, a partnership between Wuchopperen Health Service and LawRight that sees lawyers provide free legal advice, referral and casework to clients of the health service.

“I kept seeing this missing link, we were talking about family wellbeing, child protection, youth detention, we were talking about issues around chronic disease and I just kept thinking how can we be delivering services when we are not connecting people to legal representation?” said Mills.

“Our people will go to their ACCHO and tell their doctor about all of their concerns because the trust is there. The trust is not in the legal institution.

“The legal institution has provided genocide, has provided enormous amounts of pain because it does not see our strength.”

Mills believes integrating lawyers into health services is the way to achieve early intervention and prevention.

“Having lawyers at the end of the game is so important, once our people enter the court system that is the end where they have limited support,” she said.

“We need to start talking about incorporating justice in the way we deliver primary health care.”

Mills noted that the legal support provided through the Wuchopperen Health Justice Partnership extends beyond criminal and into civil.

“It’s not just about criminal law or family law either. Those civil needs, things like housing, debt, wills and succession planning is so important. Mob doesn’t talk about those things, we don’t know they exist — so having safe access to legal information is powerful,” she said.

“As a Blackfulla, you have the same rights as a whitefulla.”

As Chair of NACCHO, Mills commended the courage and power shown by the ACCHOs during the response to COVID-19 in 2020.

“For all of its hardships and all the hardship we’re yet to go through, [COVID-19 has] provided a powerful example of what we know and what we can do when we lead front and centre. We have not lost one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander [person] through COVID,” she said.

“We are essential to this work because no one knows us better than us.”

After all this time and lessons learned along the way, the fire in Mills’ belly remains and will carry on burning into 2021 and beyond.

By Rachael Knowles