As a young Gunggari/Kunja woman, Heather Ferris observed her family navigate the legal system with little knowledge or guidance.
Heather said she quickly learned that systemic disadvantages were apparent for many others who faced the legal system, which instilled in her a desire to somehow make the process more comprehensible and inclusive for those who are disadvantaged.
She later decided to pursue a career in law, and as she now settles into her role as Queensland Law Society First Nations Legal Coordinator, the final-year law student has already started to bring a greater awareness to cultural advocacy, issues and events through increased dialogue.
Heather recently shared more of her story with QLS Proctor; some of the challenges she’s faced along the way, her experience so far of working in the First Nations legal space, and the legacy her grandmother Audrey Evans, an Elder of the Gunggari/Kunja tribal language group, left behind.
QLS Proctor: Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your cultural background/heritage?
Heather: I was born and raised in Ipswich and identify my cultural connections with the Gunggari/Kunja peoples. Growing up in a socio-economically disadvantaged background, I didn’t believe I had the ability to gain a higher education and it was not something I even considered as an option during my earlier years. I struggled throughout the end of primary and high school with my mental health and eventually attended an alternative school to complete my education.
After a few years of working in retail and hospitality I heard about pathway programs into university, and with a large amount of courage I took the opportunity. After completion, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and completed law subjects until I was eligible to transfer to a Bachelor of Laws.
The journey has been rewarding but frequently challenging, and often times I wanted to give up – but with the support of my mum who believed in my seemingly impossible dream and the trailblazer spirit of my grandmother, who left behind an inspiring legacy, I’m now less than a year away from graduating university.
QLS Proctor: Your grandmother was an Elder of the Gunggari/Kunja peoples and mentored many young Indigenous Australians – would you like to share some more of her story?
Heather: My grandmother was my inspiration – she was brought up being told she would never amount to anything worthwhile and wasn’t capable of learning beyond elementary level because Aboriginal people were not as bright as white people. She was made to sit at the front of her classroom so the teacher could overlook her.
After a lifetime of struggle with mental health, domestic violence and poverty, she refused to believe that this was the end of her story. She began her journey of obtaining a higher education in her 50s and graduated from University of Queensland with a Master of Arts, majoring in creative writing.
As part of her main thesis she wrote a book entitled Many Lifetimes, which entails a heartbreaking beginning and ends with a legacy that continues to inspire people today. Her legacy remains a powerful reminder that despite your disadvantages, with hard work and belief in yourself – anything is possible.
My grandmother went on to teach English, history and Aboriginal cultural studies. She lectured at Australian Catholic University and was instrumental in contributing to the growth of Indigenous students. She also recognised the importance of Elders in the education system and the significance they have in guiding future generations.
She reminded high-school students and youth in detention centres that their perceived barriers weren’t impossible to break, and mentored them to gain a higher education. Her legacy was so influential that there were many of her students at her funeral who she had mentored and inspired over the years.
QLS Proctor: You stepped into the First Nations Legal Coordinator role late last year – how has the experience been so far, and what excites you most about your future in law?
Heather: This role has increased my awareness to the barriers mob faces within the education and legal system, and the importance of increasing the number of First Nations solicitors in Queensland. I am grateful to be a part of the incredible advocacy work that QLS is involved in and its commitment to increasing awareness, implementing cultural education and supporting our First Nations peoples in the legal profession.
In addition, it has given me the opportunity to educate, provide awareness and support others by providing a platform to highlight ongoing issues affecting First Nations peoples in the legal system, and create more opportunities for advancement within the profession, for example through QLS Proctor. I am looking forward to continuing to foster my passion and build connections within the community, and with Elders, to advocate and support First Nations peoples to pursue a career in law.
Going forward, I am eager to be at the forefront of making a difference within the legal profession and adequately representing mob. I want to develop strong emotional intelligence skills to humanise the legal profession, break down barriers and make the process more inclusive and comprehensible to those who are disproportionately disadvantaged. While some barriers are difficult to manoeuvre, I will continue to attest that your adversities can inspire others and pave the way for future generations to break the cycle.
QLS Proctor: What are some key priorities for your team in 2023 and what would you like to see the profession do more of?
Heather: The barriers experienced by First Nations peoples are cyclical and compounded by the lack of funding and non-financial resourcing for programs, knowledge of rights and access to adequate legal services. The high number of First Nations children removed from their home, the high incarceration rates of First Nations peoples and the increasing number of deaths in custody are important historic – and sadly, current – issues that we are looking to address.
Further, we’re wanting to raise awareness for mob to know their rights and to also consider careers in law. We are looking to quadruple the number of First Nations solicitors in Queensland as sadly, throughout Australia, there is less than 1% of mob representation in the legal profession.
There is a critical need for non-Indigenous people to undertake cultural competency training and understand how to more effectively represent mob who come across the legal system. I would like to see an increase of First Nations internships programs, participation in community events and promotion of reconciliation in the legal profession.
I would also love to see more support and investment in Indigenous business – from IT services, restaurants and catering, to stationery, clothes, accessories and artwork. There are so many great First Nations shops and businesses to support – if you’re in Brisbane, keep an eye out for the Meeanjin Markets.