‘We had no choice’: the silver-haired nannas guarding Australia’s environment

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Property damage, midnight cement mixing, secret meetings with rogue public officials: in her new book, an Australian environmental protester has described the surreal experience of doing what she felt was right, only to find herself on the wrong side of the law.

As debate rages in Parliament over a bill to remove the historic ‘Roe 8′ road classification from Perth’s Beeliar Wetlands, West Australian writer Nandi Chinna has taken readers behind the scenes of the protests on the eve of the state’s 2017 election that won the wetlands’ eleventh-hour reprieve and stopped the clearing for the road.

Chinna, who has published four previous poetry collections and whose doctorate research documented lost wetlands, has just launched The Future Keepers, describing how ordinary people risked injury, confrontation and criminal charges as they wrecked fencing, chained themselves to trees and faced off with police horses; and how public servants risked getting the sack, to support the protesters.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth's last remaining large urban wetlands.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth’s last remaining large urban wetlands. BILLY AMESZ

It describes the lead-up: years of attempts to toe the line and work within approved Environmental Protection Authority and Supreme Court channels, and the eventual failure of these attempts leading to the last resort of physical protesting. One of the biggest Perth has witnessed, at its peak huge police teams were on site daily, protecting machinery the outgoing government rushed into action before election day.

Chinna’s poems flicker through images like a film: of official meetings at the EPA offices, conservationists and public officers poring over a 368-page report full of tea-stained maps; of clandestine meetings in anonymous cafes, where government workers against Roe 8, but afraid of losing their jobs, used cafe detritus – napkins, salt, sugar and water bottles – to demonstrate the scientific principles that would bolster the protesters’ arguments.

“How alienating it is to talk about nature in those terms, to have these graphs and statistics and offsets … if we take this we will give you something else,” Chinna told WAtoday following the launch of her book.

“They can measure the species, the flora, the fauna, hydrology, geology, but they don’t mention things like the experience and reality of it, the wonder and beauty, the extraordinary.

“To go through all these supposedly protective channels … then to find that there is no protection.”

Chinna reveals, after all else failed, the dislocation of being an everyday citizen – a longtime community volunteer, who saw herself as a good and law-abiding person – suddenly undertaking acts of civil disobedience in an increasingly hostile conflict that saw numerous injuries, arrests and charges laid.

Nandi Chinna

Nandi Chinna. FREMANTLE PRESS

 

Anxiety rises from the pages like steam as Chinna describes damaging fences by night, the local hardware store running out of spanners as the contractors repaired the boundaries daily.

So many older women took part that they had to cover their silver hair so it would not shine in the moonlight as they wielded their spoons – not over mixing bowls of biscuit batter, like good grandmothers, but over buckets of cement to be poured into the holes of the fence posts.

They recorded licence plates of utes driving in and out, even followed them, in their efforts to document gaps in the wildlife trapping process; and they donned armguards, thumbcuffs and even nappies, preparing not for admittance to a nursing home, but to trespass barriers and spend long nights chained to trees.

One passage shows protesters trying to stop the movement of a drilling rig, a mounted police contingent forming a line to drive back the people who tried to hold their ground.

“A friend held my hand, and they kept coming and came straight into us and knocking us out of the way with their horses,” Chinna said.

“We were stumbling and falling as this line of police and horses just kept pushing.

“We were just a bunch of people; of all ages, old ladies, older men and women and all sorts of people there just standing in the road.

The footage appears to show a police horse trampling on protesters at Roe 8.

“A lot of the police in attendance were very decent people, but there were just like in any crowd, people who were pretty rough.”

She described a young policeman, who confiscated her phone.

“He was only about 20, and being so rude and aggressive, I said to him: ‘You know, I’m old enough to be your Nanna.’ He snarled at me that I should start acting like a proper nanna. And I thought, I am! I am trying to protect this world for future generations. Isn’t that what a nanna should do?”

Chinna said the effort to attend repeatedly, as one poem puts it, to “the latest urgent request to bear witness” caused tension so intense it was at times nauseating.

“To watch a place you know intimately to be destroyed is a gut-wrenching, horrible thing,” she said.

“There were several times there when I suppose I lost it. I cried when I watched the tawny frogmouths being killed, the woody pears being torn out of the ground, the beautiful flowers that I had known from years of walking and being among them, weeding and planting.

The Future Keepers is out now.

“But … that was the only way we were going to stop this thing. We didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think the police enjoyed having to be there. But at the same time we felt that we had no choice.”

Meanwhile, government and media commentary painted them as ‘dole-bludging scum’, she said.

One morning, she stopped by the blockade about 7am on her way to work, and stood there with an elderly woman.

“People would do that; before work, or after, or some would get the day off work if they needed to,” she said. “Someone drove past and honked and yelled, ‘get a job, you bastards’. This lady turned to me and said, ‘I am a retired teacher. I am 80 years old. What do they expect me to do?’

“We were all sorts of people just asking the government for better solutions for transport. I know there’s been talk about putting Roe 8 back on the agenda and it seems to be the battle that is never won; but really I think people should learn from what happened in that suburb: that the community really won’t put up with this anymore.

“We want progressive solutions … to retain green spaces … not just ovals; places other species can live in. To have our shops and goods and transport and retain our natural systems as well.”

It was this hope that lay at the heart of her work, Chinna said; hope and celebration of conservation work taking place in Perth, such as at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, where Chinna was the first ever Writer in Residence in 2016, and which inspired a whole section of her book as well as its titular poem, The Future Keepers.

“The quietness of the work they do is such that I don’t think people know about it,” she said.

“They work all over the state and internationally working to revegetate old mine sites and preserve endangered species; they are at the top of their field and they are such amazing people.

“There is a metaphorical thread through this book that we can work together, respect Indigenous knowledge, and protect this extraordinary planet.”

The Future Keepers is published by Fremantle Press at $24.99

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Torn from two mothers: Perth MP’s 10-year labour brings stolen boy’s story to life

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

 

On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce Trevorrow’s father Joe was concerned about his baby son’s incessant crying. He knew little Bruce wasn’t well.

In bookstores now.

Joe was an Aboriginal man, who had no way of getting from his home in South Australia’s Coorong region to Adelaide Children’s hospital, a two-hour drive away. He walked in the blistering heat, cradling his feverish son, into the nearest town and pleaded for help. A relative of his wife agreed to drive Bruce to hospital, to the panicked father’s enormous relief.

That was the last time he ever saw his son.

Fifty years later, Bruce Trevorrow became the only member of the Stolen Generations ever to sue an Australian government for compensation – and win.

Tony Buti, now a member of the West Australian Parliament, was at that time a legal academic and expert on the Stolen Generations.

After reading the judgment on the Trevorrow case handed down in 2007, Dr Buti could not forget it.

“It was an incredibly beautifully constructed judgement; logical and at times poetic,” he said.

“I wanted to bring this story to life.”

Six years of interviewing and research followed, considerably slowed by the sheer volume of material and by his election to Parliament.

“I essentially did it over summer periods and weekends but I could never spend long stretches, because in this job there is always another commitment,” he said

“I considered giving up … but I felt an obligation to the people that I interviewed.

“I also knew this story should be given to a wider audience.”

Buti after a long road to publication.

Buti after a long road to publication. FREMANTLE PRESS

It took ten years to complete A Stolen Life, launched this month to a sell-out crowd just ahead of NAIDOC Week, an account of the ruining of a child that is all the more devastating for the careful precision of its language.

Joe and Thora’s home was a shack Joe had built himself. It was basic, with a swept dirt floor, but clean. ‘Native welfare’ officers had inspected, but not reported it unfit for children. They found no evidence of neglect. None of Bruce’s siblings were ever removed.

Yet on January 6 the hospital allowed a foster family to take the recovered baby ‘Brucey’ home without so much as a fostering licence.

The laws of the time stated that to remove a child from their family, there had to be either parental consent or a government order. Neither happened.

Bruce’s frantic mother, unable to get to the hospital, wrote multiple letters to authorities asking how Bruce was and when he could come home.

They responded that her baby was still not well enough. Thora only discovered the truth when it was far too late to reverse.

Bruce’s foster mother had her own mental health issues, which worsened when he grew older and began to display signs of emotional trauma.

“There was love there, but it was always a problematic relationship,” Buti said.

“She was having difficulty coping, he was being a difficult child and she would threaten to send him away so he felt this great sense of insecurity.”

When Bruce was around eight and his skin had noticeably darkened his older foster sister bluntly broke the news of his Aboriginal heritage, and the boy’s sense of rootlessness deepened.

He eventually met his birth mother Thora on his ninth birthday and soon afterwards authorities abruptly decided he would be better off – after all – back with her.

They told Bruce he was going to Thora’s for the school holidays and removed him from his foster mother without warning or allowing for goodbyes. The 10-year-old, with little experience with Aboriginal environments, who had not been emotionally prepared to leave his foster mother, was thrust back into an Aboriginal environment he had no knowledge of and taken to meet a host of strange relatives.

Bruce’s father had already died. He never bonded with his siblings or mother and adulthood brought full-blown psychological problems and alcoholism.

The adult Trevorrow was always able to work but he grew familiar with psychiatric hospitals and ended up in court repeatedly for hitting his wife. He never connected with his children.

When this lost soul walked into the office of Joanne Richardson, who was working at Adelaide’s then-equivalent of the Aboriginal Legal Service, he was her age but she couldn’t believe how much older he looked.

“He was a man who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. He didn’t exude warmth. He wasn’t an attractive person to be near,” Buti said.

“But when Bruce told her his story, she felt it needed to see the light of day.”

It took thirteen years for that day in court.

The ALS had few resources. Richardson carried a heavy load, dealing with civil matters, and had a couple of paralegals and another lawyer assisting her but was engaging barristers to help out. Every time she engaged a barrister, that barrister would then get promoted and leave.

Things turned a corner when Richardson’s persistence secured the now-famous Julian Burnside QC, whose initial reluctance to take on such an uncertain case turned into a burning determination to win after meeting Trevorrow and, like Richardson before him, being shocked by his appearance.

The trial went for 38 days. The state threw everything at it; no member of the Stolen Generations had yet successfully sued the state and they were worried about opening the floodgates. There were skilful advocates on both sides and keenly contested expert evidence.

Trevorrow, although he had difficulty communicating, was a good witness in the very truth of how he stood in court: as a broken man. The appearance of his siblings, who had had every success in life, underpinned his case. Their strong family upbringing and connection to culture meant they coped with their ups and downs in life, ending up with important leadership roles in the Aboriginal community. His older brother even lectured at Harvard.

This brother, Tom, told the court Bruce was very quiet, and “different”, from his first visits.

“He’d missed out on – how could I say – our way of life, because he was raised differently and we had to be aware sometimes when we talked, and we’d talk in our language,” he said.

“We’d talk about somebody, or we’d talk about something, that Bruce wasn’t familiar with … even sometimes our actions of what we do with our body language, our Ngarrindjeri ways.

Tom told the court later in life, Trevorrow would sit with family on his intermittent visits, and “tears would run down his cheeks in front of his eyes, he was hurting and didn’t want to show it … everybody knew of what happened to him and it wasn’t fair and we knew that the way he was carrying on is because he couldn’t fit in again, even though we tried helping him fit in, he couldn’t … it’s hard to put into words sometimes; it’s what we feel as blackfellas, as Ngarrindjeri, inside, what we sense about each other.”

It was hard, he said, to put into whitefella words.

“They belonged to a world that Bruce never belonged to,” Buti said.

“Bruce … was caught between two worlds, unsure of who he was, and without the security of a family that would allow him to forge his own identity.

“He was stolen and it just seemed so cruel.

“That they weren’t told what happened to him. That the state lied about it. That he never saw his father again. That he was not prepared to be stolen a second time. That he could not form a close relationship with his mother, or his siblings. That he could never reconnect with his Aboriginal world or the non-Aboriginal world. And perhaps most greatly that he could love or care for his own children.”

Justice Tom Gray awarded damages in respect of injuries and losses, unlawful removal and detention, misfeasance in public office and false imprisonment, totalling $525,000. Bruce Trevorrow died the following year, aged 51, months after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous apology.

A Stolen Life is in bookstores now.

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Movie version of Jasper Jones is off with a bang

Jasper Jones - Photograph by David Dare Parker

Jasper Jones – Photograph by David Dare Parker

It’s been eight years since Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones hit the shelves and was devoured with equal adoration by both critics and the public.

If he’s been a little quiet since, I hear it’s because Silvey has spent the intervening years crafting and honing that remarkable novel into a tight, twisty hour-and-45-minute screenplay.

Read more at WAtoday.