As we wrap up from celebrating NAIDOC Week 2023, I reflect on this year’s theme, For our Elders, a sensitive theme for me, having no parent or grandparents here with us who have sadly passed on.
I cherish my parents and grandparents and at times I may not have shown it, however because of them I am where I am today.
To say I am where am today because of them, in fact primarily my mother, is an understatement. My mum raised my brothers and I on her own, and many others who made our home their own as well. This is for my Elders who have sadly passed on, but I can persevere knowing their legacy will always be with me.
My brother acutely reminded me without knowing it. He said recently at a speaking event, our mother is the foundation of who he was and what he does, and by being a good human in life and at work. I am always trying to learn from anyone and everyone, especially from my siblings, even when my pride or ego doesn’t want to listen and gets in the way.
So here I am, finished a law degree and it is for our Elders, my elders who are no longer here. My mum was pretty firm in raising us, to engrain morals that are our foundation. If not, my life may have been exactly how I understood the justice system growing up, created to imprison First Nations people.
I suppose what underpins the thinking of a system that was created to disempower a people, is the only outlook for me, or perhaps for First Nations people generally, is either strive to play sport, or go to prison. We need and must change that narrative if that is the case. I am not here to blame, rather to understand the system that has prevented many First Nations people to ever rise above the impacts of colonisation or the systemic disadvantage that still exist today.
While working with the Queensland Law Society, I took up another role as Indigenous Advocate, with a Community Legal Centre which represents and advocates for specific people who find themselves requiring representation either for court, or tribunal matters, or advocacy in general.
I got the opportunity, to meet with a client – Ryan* (*not his real name) – a first for me to see a client in any capacity. The challenges he faces are not necessarily only from his own doing, despite what the many reports will say about him. Rather it is a combination of factors that have prevented him from socially interacting in society, and in effect, prevent him from ever having a positive outlook in life.
Systemic issues play a significant role in his demise and disadvantage, the misunderstanding in the way in which institutions treat people in his situation. The community more broadly exclude people like Ryan, and as a coping mechanism, he reacts and does not cope well in social settings. I know about being excluded, it’s very isolating, the feeling of hopelessness, or being made to feel unworthy, so perhaps offending is a consequence, quite like in Ryan’s life. However the difference is, Ryan has spent most of his childhood life institutionalised, and even now he says he will be back inside within a few weeks, upon his release.
What kind of outlook is that, and can we blame him for having this outlook? Of course not!
A system that has us think the best solution is incarceration is staggering. In addition, a system that underpins our own thinking as individuals, that being incarcerated is somewhat acceptable and it is what it is, kind of thing. It’s no place you would want anyone. His mental health had declined since my first visit with him. Not only that, if an individual thinks their future is only ever going to be incarceration, we have bigger issues then we think, and there needs to be a better response then what there is in the current climate.
Incarceration is not the solution
I was looking at time in prison, between two to five years. In this time, I completed a law degree, work experience with the Queensland Law Society, worked for a Commonwealth department, including a boutique law firm among other organisations. In part it was because of my mother and grandmother, my Elders. Our Elders play a huge role in our lives, even when they have passed away.
I think of Ryan, as his behaviour is (apparently) “unbearable”. All I know is from first-hand experience, incarceration is not the solution to respond to youth crime. Otherwise, it amplifies the thinking of that individual or group the only way through life, is a life of crime. We must do better for those, who may not know better.
We need to really look outside the box and do it for our Elders. Our Elders do not want to see our youth languish in detention, they want them to thrive and have a positive and healthy future. For Ryan, (who is well over half my junior), his future looks grim, and he said this week he has nothing on the outside to look forward to, no family, no friends. This is the legacy we will leave our next generation if we think incarceration is the solution.
It takes a village
Having the privileges I have now has taken a lot and the many people in the profession who have welcomed and included me. It has taken a lot of people to get to where I am today, and required a lot of work, coordination, and being on the same page of understanding, learning, and empathy.
The legal profession, I can comfortably say, is mine as anyone else who is in the profession. It has taken a lot for me to shift my own thinking, in contrast to Ryan, his disadvantage has not and will not in the immediate future (at least) shift to a positive outlook because of a system that has unfortunately failed him.
I know we can do it ‘For our Elders’. At least for those Elders we had the privilege to celebrate NAIDOC with this year. You know the quiet ones who just get on with it like Aunty Margaret Hornagold and Uncle Terry Stedman. These Elders inspire us in the profession and at QLS, and they are worth more than just a mention. They hardly look for praise, but I will for this special theme this year. Happy NAIDOC!
Josh Apanui is a Policy Officer at Queensland Law Society.