Royal commissioner Margaret White (left) and Sister Anne Gardiner, a 63-year veteran of the Bathurst Island convent. Photo: Hasnah Harari Royal Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White with Tiwi totemic statues. Photo: Hasnah Harari
When Sister Anne Gardiner arrived on the Tiwi Islands, she met the women who, as young girls, had been brought out of the bush nearly 40 years earlier to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart’s then new convent.
The convent is still there. So too is Sister Anne, 85, who arrived on Bathurst Island in 1953 and has seen the community changed almost beyond recognition.
“The girls who came in 1915 were still close to the old ways but since then certainly everything has just happened too quickly,” Sister Anne said.
“Change has been thrown onto a group of people too quickly. They weren’t helped, they just had to grab and run. We’re dysfunctional now.”
On Monday, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory held a community meeting at Wurrumiyanga, the largest Tiwi settlement, and it was Sister Anne who set the tone.
Rising to her feet, the diminutive nun stopped the meeting, telling the story of a young Tiwi teenager sent to the controversial Don Dale Youth Detention Centre for stealing a car, after going to the mainland with his parents who disappeared into alcohol.
“There is only one path ahead for the Tiwi people. When are we going to take responsibility to help our kids here?” she said, to mounting applause.
Commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda are on a fortnight trip around the Territory addressing community meetings after conducting their first public hearings last week in Darwin.
The Monday meeting heard claims about children roaming the streets at night and into the early hours, of children under the age of 10 carrying out break and enters, of an absence of child welfare facilities, and a lack of help for young people returning to the islands after being released from jail in Darwin, among other systemic failures.
Many people – black and white – said the scandal surrounding the Don Dale centre proved the urgent need for Tiwi islanders to run their own affairs, free from government interference, with the same autonomy that had been extended to Torres Strait Islanders.
“White fellas haven’t got it right for 200 years so why not give the Tiwi people a go,” said Tiwi Council adviser Brian Clancy.
About 3500 people live on the Tiwi Islands. They lie about 80 kilometres north of Darwin and comprise Bathurst and Melville islands and a group of smaller uninhabited islands.
Christianity has been a strong influence since Catholic missionaries arrived in 1912. Now Australian rules football is big too.
Champion Michael Long was born there; Maurice and Cyril Rioli came in courtesy the stolen generations. The biggest sign at the airport proclaims AFL club Essendon supports the local team. Unfortunately the Tiwi Bombers went down to Nightcliff on Sunday.
The royal commission followed revelations last July by the ABC programme Four Corners of tear-gassing and youths being shackled with handcuffs and fitted with spit hoods at the Don Dale Centre and other NT Correction Services facilities. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a royal commission the following day.
Tiwi elder Marius Pirrawayyingi, who established the Elders Visiting Service to Don Dale in 2005, told the meeting he felt betrayed by the Corrections Service and the Territory government.
“The things that went on in Don Dale happened right under our nose and we were none the wiser,” he said.
“I feel guilty and cheated. It was all about protecting themselves and they ignored their duty of care to the children.”
The principal of Wurrumiyanga’s Xavier Catholic College, Tess Fong, said Tiwi people would be far better at solving their own problems, and that should start from early parenting.
“You do need to fix the top level but you’ve got to fix the foundation,” she said.
“We white people can only do so much. We love kids, but we’re not Tiwi.”