From the dirt roads of regional WA, to the streets of Perth’s CBD—Carol Innes has dedicated herself to bringing people from all walks of life together.

Ms Innes is the current Manager of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Arts at Landcorp, as well as co-chair of Reconciliation WA.

She grew up in a small wheat and sheep producing community where racism was ever-present.

Her family was one of the very few Aboriginal families in town and it wasn’t until she left to attend university in Perth, did she realise the effort her Mum and Dad had made to shelter her from some of the realities of living as an Aboriginal person in Australia.

“In the city, I was more exposed to the injustice of what happens to us as a people. A high point for me, was when I was at the rallies for land rights in early in the 1980s. I came down [to the rally] thinking that this was what we needed to do … but Mum and Dad were telling me to stop, because police would throw me in jail,” Ms Innes said.

She can’t deny the good friends she made growing up and is determined that moving forward doesn’t mean letting the positives go and focusing solely on the negatives, it’s about realising progress and moving forward together.

“I think we were born into reconciliation, when you think about it. The big part of the 1967 referendum was that it was the biggest reconciliation acknowledgement in this country. But it’s never been spoken about in the broader sense of what it could be to celebrate this.”

“People in our mob can get a bit angry and ask, why do we have to reconcile? But I think it’s a word that is so inclusive and it has many and numerous benefits. I think that’s where the opportunities we are getting as Aboriginal people are coming from, the movement of reconciliation.”

Fast track to now, and reconciliation has enabled Innes to reconnect to country and her family.

“My mum was a Stolen Generation child and I was introducing—when at my job— Mum to family.”

“I didn’t realise how … [people from the Stolen Generations] would reach out to real family, because the only family they ever saw were the children of the mission who were in there with them. I think a lot of people don’t understand that.”

Ms Innes said that after losing her parents, she became aware of the state of change which occurs in Aboriginal families. She began to realise that there were elders within her own generation and that there was a silent changing of the baton.

“We learn a resilience that you don’t talk about … [and it’s] because we have the old people with us, and they never left us, and we are working through a journey that they’ve taken.”

“They had a much harder life.”

Ms Innes said she’s had an incredibly fortunate life. She’s worked alongside Aboriginal elders who have shaped the person she is, and she’s worked in places that have connected her with people who share her vision for reconciliation.

“You’ve got to understand when working with our people, that there is a history. They will not tell you, but they are feeling it, and they live it. Our mob, against the odds, and not even recognised as citizens of country, defended this country because it was still theirs. There’s a whole lot that stuff that we don’t share and don’t talk about.”

She urged non-Indigenous people to think critically—to question laws and behaviours that oppress Indigenous people, to ask, ‘If this happened to me, how would I feel?’

There has been a lot of discussion about Indigenous representation in politics and media. Ms Innes said these issues need to focus more on people and less on policy.

“I can’t ever talk for all my mob, I can only share the experience I’ve had. I think that’s what we have to remember – the protocol, the lifestyle and the cultural resilience of our people, is unbelievable, it’s never been broken. We’ve still got it.”

She warned that the media plays an immense role in how non-Indigenous people engage with Indigenous people in Australia, with Indigenous achievements often only featured in the back pages of the sporting section.

Ms Innes called for more inclusion of Indigenous voices in the media.

“For too long, they’ve gotten away with the way they refer to us as Aboriginal people and the way they speak about us. It becomes more of an opinion of that person . . . We have to be a big part of the change in the media, and how it portrays us.”

Ms Innes said non-Indigenous people could also contribute to reconciliation by simply controlling their space: stopping the ‘BBQ’ conversation at parties, engaging people in educational conversations, and shutting down talk they don’t want to hear.

At the end of last month, Ms Innes was extended an invitation to be a guest at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) breakfast where Rio Tinto and BHP announced their support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“I think Andrew McKenzie BHP, on that day, showed gutsy and courageous leadership and said, we not going to sit on the sidelines anymore.”

“I was waiting for that day, for someone to do what was done . . .”

“For me, it was a very historic day … to think, someone is listening to us.”

“I thought too of the Prime Minister’s comment about mining companies needing to work hard to work with Traditional Owners on the land. I am more concerned with the suicides of young Aboriginal girls and I hoped he could turn that $3m for a statue of Captain Cook into a suicide prevention model . . . I think Rio Tinto, on that day, showed gutsy and courageous leadership and said, we not going to sit on the sidelines anymore.”

Ms Innes recently had the opportunity to return to her home town to speak at a local reconciliation event. It was a bittersweet experience. She marched with 300 people, mostly Aboriginal, through the town.

The experience opened old wounds, but also began a deep healing process.

She’s embraced a new meaning of home and cemented her passion for reconciliation.

“It made me think about what I’m doing and its meaningful purpose to life. If I’m doing it for me, if I’m doing it for my children and my grandchildren and if it makes a difference, I will keep doing it,” Ms Innes said.

By Rachael Knowles