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Commissioners share their stories

Updated: May 31, 2021

International human rights at the heart of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission

This month we saw the appointment of the Commissioners for the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission selected to examine and match evidence provided by members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community here in Victoria who will be bringing forward their testimonies on the historical and contemporary injustices carried towards them and their families since first settlement and colonisation.

The Commission is scheduled to hand down an Interim Report next year in 2022 and Final Report with key recommendations in 2024.

Through the work of the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria this Commission will be supported by the state government as they move towards developing frameworks for Treaty in Victoria.

Image: First Peoples Assembly of Victoria Co-chiars Geradline Atkinson and Marcus Stewart with Commissioner Professor the Honourable Kevin Bell AM QC and Commissioner and Chair Professor Eleanor Bourke. Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

Yarra Bend Park Woiwurrung Nation.

The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission will be based on transitional justice models giving consideration to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (UNDRIP).

Here is the link to Balit Dhumba's interview with Mutthi Mutthi First Peoples Assembly of Victoria Representative Jason Kelly who has been instrumental in bringing forward support for a truth telling process in Victoria.

Some of the model will be new and some will be based on similar models like the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.'

Commissioner Kevin Bell AM QC says the outcome of that Commission 'gave rise' to victims being awarded compensation and support towards self determination.

The commission shed light on the historical injustices towards First Nations children who were forcibly removed from their parents and extended families and placed in residential schools.

"Over 60 000 people were taken from their families which was investigated with the truth being told from people coming forward with their/and or family members stories," he says.

As a newly appointed Commissioner for the Yoorook Justice Commissioner Professor the Honourable Kevin Bell AM QC is the Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and a former justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Commissioner Bell AM QC says he has been committed to Indigenous human rights and self determination his entire working life and is the only non Aboriginal commissioner appointed.

"We have the opportunity to work on something really special, really substantive, really meaningful."

In this podcast Commissioner Bell AM QC provides a legal breakdown on the process of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

With the announcement of the appoint of the Commissioners on May 14 also came the drafting of the Letters Patent. Commissioner Bell AM QC explains the legality of the Letters Patent.

"Letters Patent by the meanings which the sovereign 'The Queen' in countries like Australia can order the highest form of inquiry in the law. It's a formal instrument issued by the Governor Ms Dessau and sets up an independent commission, in this case the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission to inquire into the matters specified."

He says the matters include: Armed conflicts where there has been violence from a settler state and colonisation whilst being over-run and encapsulated. Systemic injustices since colonisation and the impacts that it has had and still has on Aboriginal people in Victoria. Dispossession and the possibility of genocide. The existence of massacres and the discrimination within the legal and broader systems.

Can the Crown can be prosecuted for acts of genocide based on the findings of this Commission?

The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission is a civil inquiry and the findings and recommendations don't have legal consequences if the findings conclude to acts of genocide.

"We are not a criminal court, the International Criminal Court has the ultimate jurisdiction on this matter, although we can recommend that certain action be taken,' he says 'what we can do is open up the difficult question on colonisation and how it was done and give Aboriginal people the opportunity to speak the truth about it and then use that narrative to set the foundation for Treaty making."

Image: Professor the Honourable Kevin Bell AM QC

Grandmother's legacy an important link to her story

Wergaia Wamba Wamba Elder Professor Elenor Bourke isn't a stranger to the law and justice space here in Victoria, and is ready to take on her new appointment as Chair and Commissioner on the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

Her experience includes working in land justice and native title for the Wotjobaluk Native Title Claim and the Cultural Heritage Act that looked at giving traditional owners responsibility to care for their own cultural heritage on their land as well as the Traditional Owners Settlement Act.

Commissioner Bourke worked as the Chair on the Treaty Working Group with the Treaty Advancement Commission in Victoria and she says this has led her to this truth telling process which is an important foundation in the prospects of Treaty making.

She says working on the Yoo-rrook Justice Commisson is a very logical step in her journey.

"Everything seemed a preparation for the next thing in some way."

Growing up in North West Victoria Commissioner Bourke says she was always surrounded by her mother's family.

The legacy that her Grandmother and mother has left her has been her inspiration to work actively in the justice and legal space for her people during her life.

"My Grandmother was very strong and proud of her Aboriginality and she imparted that to some of her grandchildren and made us strong and able to make a contribution."

She says she feels good about being selected and understands the level of responsibility needed to carry out her role.

"This Commission has the powers of a Royal Commission which invest power in the Chairperson until those that are delegated to other parties or other Commissioners or other people within the organisation, I am still discovering things about that."

She says she hopes the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission develops a model or models that are productive in moving forward in a different way because it is clear that other models haven't worked.

The Commissioners are working on creating a safe space where they hope community members will feel emotionally and socially supported where there are trauma aspects and this also applies to staff and the Commissioners themselves.

Image: Professor Eleanor Bourke

Cultural safety and support a key focus for Yoo-rrook Justice Commission

Wurundjeri Ngurai-Illum Wuurung woman Sue Anne Hunter joins Balit Dhumba.

Sue-Anne is one of the Commissioners appointed in the Yoo-rrook (truth) Justice Commission and brings an extensive skill set in leadership in trauma and healing practices.

"One of the things at the forefront of my mind is that everybody is safe and that everybody is supported. It's going to bring trauma up for people telling stories and that we are able to facilitate that in a really safe process. Where even after they've told their stories that the support is still there."

She says that they have been looking at other commissions and inquiries and at what has and hasn't worked and they will bring in experts in that field and Traditional Owners and Elders to provide cultural support.

Commissioner Hunter has worked as National Sector Development Manager for the National Voice for our Children (SNAICC) and Co-Chair of its Family Matters campaign.

She says she is honoured to be appointed this role and she says she doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.

She is a direct descendent of Annie Borate who is William Berek's sister.

William Berek was an instrumental voice in the Coranderrk Inquiry in 1881 and one of the first inquiries where evidence was given in Victoria with a focus on self determination and land rights and exposing the truth on the injustices and atrocities of the British settlers colony.

She says it is not lost on her that so many years later that she is able to come and work on the Commission.

"I hope I can carry out this role with the same poise and dignity that was shown in that commission."


Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter

Ancestors an inspiration for truth-telling commission

Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Elder Dr Wayne Atkinson joins Balit Dhumba as a newly appointment Commissioner for the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

With a history of working for the rights of his community and family he was a principal claimant in the Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim and says it was the leadership of his Elders and ancestors that has inspired him to apply for this role as a Commissioner.

"I come from a strong family, I've also been inspired by some rather outstanding and admirable leaders of the calibre like Uncle William Cooper who's my direct Uncle my great Grandmother's brother and other great leaders of that generation, men and women who were instrumental in achieving justice and advocating human rights and setting up the first political organisations in Victoria in the 1830's.

With this knowledge under his belt he pursued his studies in history and archeology and taught 'On Country Learning' on the Yorta Yorta Nation taking university students out of university and up on country to learn about the history and culture from the Traditional Owners.

With his strong background in history, archeology and politics Commissioner Atkinson says that the truth telling of his peoples history is something he has been doing for years and he would like to see the injustices that his people have endured be brought to light after surviving forced removal of his people on country and the desecration of country for resources during the time of the Gold Rush in Victoria and the commercialisation of water and agriculture on the sacred Murray River.

"I call it the underlying cause and effect of colonisation that reflects those statistics that we are dealing with all of the time in the present context."

He also refers to the British Government's select committee inquiry in the 1800's in Victoria that Sue-Anne Hunter referred to looking at the atrocities and shameful events that had taken place as a result of British colonisation.

He says that was the beginning of inquires that was mandated to report on these atrocities then make recommendations similar to the basis of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

Image: Dr Wayne Atkinson

A hard and freeing challenge to do truly spectacular work

Newly appointed Commissioner Professor Maggie Walter is a Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) woman and descendant of the Pairrebenne People of the North East Nation.

She too feels honoured to have this opportunity and brings a particular skill set to the Commission that will be of great value when collecting evidence and research.

"I know my place as a Palawa woman in Victoria. We have a very big job to do, we obviously start with community. We have to work out how we are going to do everything which is quite hard but is also very freeing.' she says 'It also means we can do truly spectacular work. We really hope the community in Victoria come on board and feel safe to tell their stories."

Commissioner Walter was nominated as a facilitator of the 2017 Referendum Council Tasmanian consultations and attended the Uluru Convention as a Palawa representative.

Her skillset is based on her experience in research and writing for structural and embedded inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and global Indigenous issues.

This includes quantitative sociology, challenging and finding evidence to show how First Nations people portrayed in the data is misinformed.

She is also the co-founder of the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement Maiam Nayri Wingara and on the executive for the Indigenous Global Data Alliance to change the way Indigenous data is done.

"I've used my data skills to write a different narrative and develop different theoretical explanations for why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are so disadvantaged."

Commissioner Walter says she is a very grateful to be a visitor to Victorian Country and she says she will respect and always defer to her Victorian Aboriginal colleagues in matters of culture and country.

Image: Professor Maggie Walter


Commissioner Dr Wayne Atkinson, Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter, Deputy Premier James Merlino, Commissioner and Chair Professor Eleanor Bourke, Commissioner Professor the Honourable Kevin Bell AM QC, Commissioner Professor Maggie Walter.

Yarra Bend Park Woiwurrung Nation.

Feature and podcasts produced by Senior Journalist Kirstyn Lindsay


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