Friday 23 December 2016

By Isaiah Dawe

Pat Anderson is a strong Alyawarre woman, who has dedicated her life to advocating for Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people. Pat is recognised nationally and internationally as a human rights champion for her efforts in addressing issues of injustice and inequality within Australia.

Along with numerous awards and leadership roles, Pat is an Order of Australia recipient for her impact within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and was this year awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal.

A part of Ms Andersons lifelong commitment to restore the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia so the traditional owners can fully be accepted into society. “I want to be a part of the complex conversation and come up with a final settlement to heal the rift, we have some unfinished business.”

Pat Anderson’s start in life didn’t begin so smoothly.  Pat grew up in the Parap mission camp in the Northern Territory which was filled with mainly Aboriginal families.

Ms Anderson and her family experienced a lot of injustice in the camp and it was in her formative years in Parap that Ms Anderson started to stand up for their rights and inspired her to become the leader she is today.

“When I was in Sydney and received the human rights award standing on that podium, from that distance apart from Parap mission I could see how far I have really come and who influenced me to get here today.”

The type of life that she lived in Parap camp was tough and uncompromising. “We knew what was right and wrong, from the constant injustices we were exposed to and what we experienced, so we knew from very early that this wasn’t right and you did something about it, that was in my family to do so,” Pat said.

Her father was prominent in making sure their voices were heard. He did this by writing letters nearly every day to authorities pointing out the injustices they faced in the camp and these letters have since been found by Pat in the camps archives.

“It was the biggest file in the archives there by far” she said, having every letter her dad had ever written stored in a large pile.

The conditions in the camp weren’t very inviting either “We had no roof so when it rained we would huddle in the corner like birds, with no television or phones in those days.”

Racism was a constant daily experience. “It didn’t matter where you were, you had to wait until everybody else was served around you and then in the cinemas we weren’t allowed to sit in the cinemas seats. We would take in pillows and blankets and lay up on the ground to watch the movie, as the chairs were only for the white people.” The tickets also had to be purchased from a completely different area of the theatre to everybody else.

In those days discrimination was considered normal and racism was passed from parent to child. Other kids would say to Pat and her friends “my parents wouldn’t let me speak to you kids from Parap camp”.

But despite the difficult circumstances of her childhood, Pat has retained a positive mindset. “Even though we were poor, we lived a rich and flourishing life, we were always fed and clothed”.

There was a real sense of community within Parap camp and everybody knew where they had come from and felt a sense of belonging.  “A lot of the younger generation don’t know who they are and it breaks my heart to hear those stories of Aboriginal people not knowing where they come from or what community they belong to, it goes to show how lucky we were growing up” remembers Pat.

Pat says that the next step forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is their long over-due recognition as equal partners within Australian society.

The expected referendum on constitution recognition will be a chance for all Australians to vote on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as this country’s First peoples within the Constitution.

In relation to constitutional recognition, Ms Anderson has made it very clear that we must take action now. “If we don’t, we are going to have to wait many generations down the track to make this a reality.”  

This is the next big goal for the new Human Rights Medal holder.