Truth-telling was the focus when Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta representatives were Welcomed to Dharug Country during National Reconciliation Week. The powerful event, held on the site of the Blacktown Native Institute in Oakhurst, will have a lasting impact as Catholic schools in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains put Reconciliation into action in 2021.
Originally located in Parramatta, the Native Institution site is at the crossroads of Richmond and Rooty Hill Roads at Oakhurst. Aunty Julie Jones Webb shared the story of this place where a school for Aboriginal and Maori children operated from 1823 to 1829, one of the earliest sites where Aboriginal children were removed from their families and institutionalised. The land was returned to the Traditional Owners in 2018, a very significant decision for the Dharug people.
“Opportunities to have the wider community on site with us, like today, strengthens our spirit,” said Aunty Julie. As part of the Welcome to Country, there was a Smoking ceremony and a deadly performance from members of the Jannawi Dance Clan.
Principal John Spradbrow, who lives and works on Dharug land, was humbled to be Welcomed to Country. John leads Holy Family Primary Emerton, a caring Mount Druitt school that is very proud of its strong Aboriginal community.
“The Dharug people are offering me a generous act of forgiveness, a generous act of acceptance and it is a generous offer of Reconciliation,” John reflected. “The invitation to respond to the Welcome has sent my mind wondering to the significance of these words on a much deeper level than I have ever previously done.
“When I hear the words of Acknowledgement or Welcome to Country in the future, it will make me very conscious of the obligation that I have. An obligation to action, to work for Reconciliation and justice.
“My part in the Reconciliation needs to be to look at what I can personally do to heal the wound, work towards true Reconciliation between Aboriginal people and white Australia,” he said.
This event included a Yarn Up, with plenty of truth-telling from participants about opportunities to better meet the needs of Aboriginal students and their families. Key themes of the discussion included cultural awareness, resourcing and representation.
With 80 schools across Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, CEDP is working towards its first Reconciliation Action Plan. In 2022, CEDP will also host the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference.
Executive Director Greg Whitby felt very proud to be present and welcomed. He particularly enjoyed listening to Dharug Traditional Owner and Catherine McAuley Year 12 Student Shanaya Donovan who shared her experiences with him over a cup of tea, and later in the program as part of the Yarn Up.
“Reconciliation is important to us as a school because it shouldn’t just be only Aboriginal people trying to make amends with the wider community, it should be a joint effort,” Shanaya said.
The ‘Strong Sisters’ group for students at Catherine McAuley recently worked with Year 5 and 6 students at Mother Teresa Primary Westmead to help them understand Reconciliation and about history including the White Australia Policy and the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
The students created a ‘Sea of Hands’ together in recognition of Reconciliation Week. The first Sea of Hands took place in 1997 outside of Parliament House and has become an iconic symbol for reconciliation, hope and public support for Indigenous rights.
“We started to talk about what Reconciliation was, not oversimplifying it but trying to make it easier for them to understand,” Shanaya explained. “I grew up in my culture and didn’t understand about Reconciliation until about Year 9 so if I can help younger students understand then hopefully, we can see a better outcome in the future.”
Reconciliation Commitment Statement
As a community of Catholic schools in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, we stand alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, our First Nation People.
We know this is Dharug and Gundungurra Land – Sacred Land – Holy Land. We recognise the rich history, stories, and Dreaming of the Dharug and Gundungurra people.
We accept that the disadvantage experienced by so many First Australians is the product of dispossession, powerlessness and the absence of opportunity.
We pledge to bring healing and restore trust. We will be agents of change and renewal by providing great learning experiences for young people, removing barriers of division and addressing unfairness. We will be the face of Christ to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families.
We will work “for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination” (Uluru State of the Heart 2019).
With thanks to Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta.