“Courage comes with actually taking a good, hard look, without blame and without guilt, and accepting that this was Australia”

“What’s the story? What’s this all about? How does it touch me? How does it affect me in the future as a graduate?” are some of the questions, Professor Dennis McDermott, La Trobe’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), is asking students to reflect on this National Reconciliation Week, as he urges students to move beyond any ceremonial obligation. The answers, he says, may well be more complex and challenging than they first appear.

Professor McDermott is a Koori man from north-western New South Wales (Gomeroi country) with connections to Gadigal country (inner Sydney). He was appointed as La Trobe University’s inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) this year, and he’s taking action to increase Indigenous success and support at the University, while building a culturally safe environment for the benefit of all students.

He is a psychologist, academic, and poet, who has written and lectured extensively in the field of health and Indigenous education, in addition to being a member of numerous academic and government advisory committees.

Courage and truth – the drivers of National Reconciliation Week 2019

The official theme of National Reconciliation Week 2019 is ‘Grounded in Truth, Walk Together with Courage‘. The 2019 campaign aims to foster positive race relations in Australia, but to do so, it acknowledges our relationships must be grounded in a foundation of truth.

“It’s a matter of saying ‘how can we reconcile and acknowledge the past in a way that doesn’t accept the guilt or blame, but acknowledges the reality – and it is a pervasive reality – today? And then we can move together,” says Professor McDermott.

“One of the things that struck me, is that although it’s Sorry Day on the Sunday – a day of participatory sorrow – Reconciliation Week runs between Monday 27 May – 3 June, and is book-ended by the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo decision. In a sense these two events are tied, because the theme of this year is ‘Grounded in truth, walk together with courage’ and that statement for me arises from the Stolen Generations.”

‘Why don’t you just get over it?’

“I think certainly with reconciliation, some people would shrug their shoulders and say why don’t people just get on with their lives? Get over it. Get over colonisation,” said Professor McDermott, noting the same stereotypical questions can be heard the world over. And that’s because they stem from the same root cause: colonisation. The process occurred in countries across the globe – Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland, are the first to spring to Professor McDermott’s mind.

So, why are these stereotypes so prolific?

“It’s an ignorant comment more than even a malevolent one, because the consequences of colonisation still live with us. When you understand that dispossession, the grief, the Stolen Generations, frontier violence, laws, identity, past laws, lack of employment, marginalisation – a thousand and one things – then you realise, these are intergenerational effects. So, reconciliation will still be important, as we reconcile with the past, but it’s the contemporary consequences of that past that we’re seeing today.”

The consequences of colonisation still live with us.”

La Trobe University Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Professor Dennis McDermott

The traces of a colonial past

As a psychologist in the 90s – one of an estimated 40 Aboriginal psychologists in Australia at the time – Professor McDermott witnessed the lasting impacts of colonisation.

Working in community health in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, Professor McDermott was approached to supervise counsellors at Link-Up NSW – an organisation tasked with assisting with the reunification of Indigenous families and communities impacted by the Stolen Generations and government policies.

“It was quite eye-opening,” said Professor McDermott. “About five years ago, if you take the people who had been affected directly – that is people who had been taken away and people who were the second generation – Link-Up still had 7,000 people on their books in New South Wales alone.”

During his time in the Blue Mountains, Professor McDermott had the chance to work directly with thirty-five survivors of one particular home on the north coast of NSW, the Kinchela Boys Home.

“We interviewed thirty-five men, and their stories then informed an action plan and a strategic plan for what services they needed and what they wanted to do,” said Professor McDermott.

“I learnt so much about the personal accounts of what had happened, from men who’d been in Kinchela Boys Home, subject to horrible abuse and institutionalisation. This is where it connects with the slogan for Reconciliation Week, ‘Grounded in truth, walk together with courage.’ They said to us they saw it as their life’s work for the truth to be told. That’s it. If they could pass one thing on, they’d want the truth to be told.

“So, I think that’s interesting given this Reconciliation Week’s approach. It’s about ‘Can we tell the truth? Can we deal with the truth? Are we adult enough as a nation to deal with the truth?’

“I went to Germany for the first time, and what struck me was how the next generation were grappling with the Second World War and the Nazi experience – they weren’t shying away from it. Elements of Germany wanted to cover it up, you know, business as usual. But this generation was saying ‘no we’ve got to face this and what happened in our nation’. It was really grown up. They’ve acknowledged it in a way that perhaps we haven’t done in terms of our colonial past. People think it’s about guilt and blame. It’s not about blame,” said Professor McDermott.

Rather, it’s about having the courage to face up to the truths of our shared history, says Professor McDermott.

Our shared history

It’s not Aboriginal history, it’s our shared history as a nation, that Professor McDermott would like students to reflect upon.

“You know, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can have two things in your mind at the same time. This is a great country, and a great wrong happened. Australia is an absolute multicultural success story. There’s no doubt about it. We’re leading in terms of the way we have multiple cultures and nations living side-by-side and informing our nation. And we’re also racist. Both things are true,” said Professor McDermott.

“I often say to students, it’s not about dissing on your own country,” said Professor McDermott, pointing out that this is where we need to have courage in facing up to the past.

“The courage comes with actually taking a good, hard look without blame and without guilt, and accepting this was Australia. And it wasn’t just Australia.”

In the spirit of Reconciliation Week’s theme, Professor McDermott urges students to ask themselves one question, to be considered with empathy, to begin the process of understanding.

“Can they imagine what it would be like if a sibling or a child of theirs was taken away? What would be the effects on them, on the child, the extended family, and the whole community? And again, this isn’t an exercise in blame, it’s an exercise in empathy. Not sympathy, empathy. Because if you can imagine yourself in that situation, you begin to understand what I mean. This affected nearly every Aboriginal family in the land in some way or another,” said Professor McDermott.

Courage comes with actually taking a good, hard look, without blame and without guilt, and accepting that this was Australia.”

La Trobe University Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Professor Dennis McDermott

Professor McDermott knows how challenging it can be to put yourself in another’s shoes.

“I think the problem is, that people struggle often with the dark side of our history. The pioneers went through great hardships to build farms and mines and so on, there’s no denying it. But that was also built on the back of frontier violence. And if we don’t acknowledge the dark side, we can’t accept the good.”

If we don’t acknowledge the dark side, we can’t accept the good.”

La Trobe University Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Professor Dennis McDermott

Cultural safety – what is it, what are the benefits and how can you contribute?

Building a culturally safe environment at La Trobe is the top priority for Professor McDermott, as part of the University’s Indigenous Strategy. So, what does a culturally safe environment look like?

“Sure it’s important to know aspects of Aboriginal culture, but it’s not about being an expert in Aboriginal culture because there are 200+ individual language groups,” said Professor McDermott. “Cultural safety is more about recognising that if I’m interacting with you, I bring a worldview. It’s about self-reflection, it’s about developing critical thinking so I can look at something and really evaluate it; and realising there are always power relationships going on. That’s what cultural safety is about.

“It’s also called cultural humility – being humble enough to say ‘I really don’t know what’s going on with you, because I can’t get inside your life experience.’ There are things I’ve learned about Maori culture and I respect their culture. I’m not Maori and I can’t get inside that world view. The best I can do is know where I’m coming from, and then I can tune into them and let them guide me as to how they want me to see them. That’s the principle of cultural safety.

“We plan to roll out that from the top down, so that it becomes a core principle of the University and a culturally safe environment. That means that when Indigenous students come here, they see themselves in curriculum, and we make it a welcoming and belonging environment. That’s one element. The second is, we turn out graduates that are ready to deal with a multicultural Australia. It’s not just Aboriginal Australia, the same cultural safety lens actually equips students to work across any cultural divide.”

Professor McDermott provides the example about how cultural safety embedded in coursework and the University environment will benefit students studying health-related courses and the immediate skills they’ll attain to benefit their careers.

“If you know something about how colonisation went and what its effects were, you can be a much more effective doctor, nurse, psychologist, social worker, and so on. Any situation you’re in, if you’re dealing with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, if you have digested this country’s shared history, then you’ll be able to [be more effective working in your role] with the Indigenous people you meet.”

The University offers a variety of support services and programs for Indigenous students, including the Indigenous Academic Enrichment Program (IAEP).

It’s an exciting time to be a student at La Trobe, as the University continues on its journey grounded in truth, ready to walk together with courage.