In my view, every address whether to a small or large audience, delivered anywhere across the continent of Australia and its adjacent Isles, must always commence with the truthful acknowledgement that, irrespective of where we might be in situ, we accept that we continue to occupy the Stolen Lands of the First Peoples, the longest existing and surviving peoples on this planet today.
I must also pre-empt any comments I offer with the caveat that provides for my words only serving to represent my own experiences and opinions.
What obstacles you have encountered in the legal profession?
Challenges existed from the moment I began to expect and demand more for myself (and my family and the whole Aboriginal community).
The law and the frameworks of policing, justice and public service fail to understand and appropriately accommodate authentic First Nations realities. These frameworks create untold damage every day which remains unaddressed.
First Nations people are attributed roles (by outsiders) that do not align with our cultural obligations. The rules are foreign, the values weighted differently to our culture, the objectives fall short, the actors are most often self-centred (rather than community oriented) and the commentary delivered from the perspective of another (also not First Nations). The outcomes of this approach have been cosmetic, short term and generally ineffective.
In my early working days, it was made abundantly clear we needed to forsake our cultural learnings to make room for the western measures of success. Mid-career, in the public service, I began to fully appreciate that abandoning cultural identity and values created a deficit in our capability, communication and problem-solving perspectives. First Nations people are the original innovators, the first thought leaders and the great sustainers – why would the Australian mainstream not want to be a part of this?
Many of our younger generations are of the belief that to be cultural one must have been through traditional ceremony and hold sacred knowledge, story, song lines and have specific skills (law, healing, etc.) entrusted to you. Unfortunately, detrimental external impacts including stolen land, children, wealth, language and culture have created a different reality. In my view, being cultural includes the way an individual conducts themselves – their way of being, doing, interpreting, valuing.
Western society has limited (or no) understanding of the cultural expectations and the adherence to cultural principles which exist hand in hand with claiming our Indigeneity. Some First Nations people also need reminding of how this can be achieved. Government policy and legislation, corporate infrastructure and institutional mechanisms have not prioritised this inquiry.
What are the obstacles for First Nations people?
Accepting that being First Nations carries with it a heavy cultural responsibility, it is not simply percentage ownership or certified heritage. Success for First Nations is genuinely taking your brothers and sisters with you – not creating competition where it is wholly selfish, unnecessary and destructive to do so. Ensuring your wins are the successes for all your people and taking responsibility for making sure those successes are invited, respectful, actual, measured and sustainable. It is also about caring for our young people and taking responsibility for calling out destructive behaviour (when that is your role).
First Nations people need to continually seek counsel from our Elders, and respect their tenure, experience and real knowledge. Deep listening to both the words and the things they do not explicitly verbalise is required. Elders are most often not self-appointed and Eldership comes with experience and contribution rather than being determined by the western measure of a person’s age.
Our people need to reset our values and start by rejecting wasteful, disingenuous, consumerist, cosmetic wealth and status as the baseline of our individual worthiness. We have defined our own measure of success through sustainable existence for over 80,000 years.
How can we support and encourage First Nations people to be part of the legal profession
The legal profession is, on the whole, a very wealthy and powerful network. Legal professionals are entrenched in the upper echelons of western democracies – politics, justice, commerce and tertiary learning. This is where decisions are made, deals are done and large sums are allocated and spent. The resources undeniably exist. It is not that the money is not available to allocate. Simply, decision-makers choose not to allocate it to First Nations self determined advancement. This is the situation across all sectors at the highest levels.
The courage to consider that there may be a better way to progress our collective futures is in deficit supply. The fear of losing control or often even sharing some of the control is all pervading.
Too many First Nations people continue to believe that we are not as deserving as other humans on this planet. With good reason: we have not been returned country on freehold tenure, our international rights (UNDRIP) are regarded as aspirational, and many accept that a voice to parliament without the power to effect change is enough.
The promises to reset relationships have all been heard before. We have seen the many justice Inquiries, law reform reports, Royal Commission recommendations, the Government responses which miss (inter alia) the self-determination point time and time again. We have a sound judiciary doing a very difficult job, but it lacks any continuing authoritative cultural intelligence support to provide the full depth of understanding . It is a given that are too few First Nations judges across this continent.
We have held our young people out to career supporting initiatives (founded on another culture’s traditional mores); we have a range of Indigenous sector practices and First Nations internships managed by non-First Nations professionals).
Many black men and women are fulfilling professional roles, forgoing adherence to their cultural principles because these principles are not valued in those environments. Despite often being the lowest paid, and with fewer years tenure, First Nations professionals (including lawyers) contribute our perspectives and our knowledge in huge volumes via forums such as volunteer committees. However, the costs of professional memberships and development are often a barrier. This means decisions that matter are frequently made in our absence. Change, therefore, is glacial.
What we need is acknowledgement that we have not achieved the outcomes we truly deserve, including real, measurable self-determined action. The profession must accept that their historical perspectives and business-as-usual modus operandi does not equate to genuine access to the legal profession and thwarts equitable access to justice for First Nations people.
This is a situation that will not alter without the courageous commitment of the profession. Many First Nations lawyers have been waiting for society to reach this point of enlightenment for some time now. Let us in, listen to our story and work equitably with us so we can fix this together…please…
“A good head and a good heart are alwaysNelson Mandela
a formidable combination”
Linda Ryle is Executive Director at CALM (Cultural Advocacy and Legal Mediation) and is a member of Queensland Law Society’s Equity and Diversity Committee. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of Birrigubba (Bowen, Queensland) and Kamilaroi (Monaro, New South Wales).
This story was originally published in Proctor March 2020.