Five Indigenous individuals from the south-west are vying for a seat on the First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria to represent the south-west region, marking a step forward for a centuries-long push for an Indigenous treaty.
The Assembly will encompass 33 elected representatives from five voting areas, four in regional Victoria and the fifth in metropolitan Melbourne, whose role will be to negotiate a framework for a treaty.
Elections will be held in September and will be managed by the Victorian Treaty Advancement commission.
Candidate nominations close on August 16, with voting commencing a month later. Enrolment to vote is open to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 16 or over.
Here are the south-west's candidates:
Gunditjmara woman Charmaine Clarke is a family violence researcher at the Gunditjmara Cooperative and is a member of the Stolen Generation.
She is running as a candidate for the south-west region because she believes treaty is an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous member of the community to come together on an equal footing.
"Our collective history is one of both destruction and oppression," she said.
"It's a long history that still impacts negatively on our perceptions and beliefs about each other to this day.
"Rural towns and communities still hold some deep wounds, which need to be addressed in reconciliation, truth-telling and mutual respect."
Ms Clarke believes a treaty process can help bring substantive changes on the ground for Aboriginal Victorians.
I hope that the community will look at the treaty process as not just a moral imperative that is long overdue, but to start the healing process in this country not just for its First Peoples but for all Australians as well.Charmaine Clarke
"[Treaty] can tackle that divide directly by first acknowledging not just our shared history and geography but our shared desires to see development, growth and change in the region," she said.
"We all live in the country towns or out in the bush and share the concerns all country people have - lack of affordable housing, economic development, environmental concerns and drug and alcohol issues which are ravaging our youth and adult populations.
"Like non-Indigenous families, Indigenous communities have the same aspirations for their children too.
"Many Indigenous families face systemic issue on a daily basis and live in a social and cultural environment that has been overtly hostile, indifferent or uninformed in its attitude towards indigenous people and their experiences.
"I hope that the community will look at the treaty process as not just a moral imperative that is long overdue, but to start the healing process in this country not just for its First Peoples but for all Australians as well."
Ms Clarke, who will be campaigning across the south-west over the next few months among the Indigenous communities also wants to reach out to non-Indigenous communities as well.
"I encourage our non-Indigenous community members to educate themselves about treaties like those in New Zealand and Canada and see how it has worked in those democracies.
"I'm also available to give talks about the treaty process to non-Indigenous community groups."
Michael (Mookeye) Bell
Michael Bell is a busy man. With several community justice projects on the go, an active Koori Court and a region that stretches from Portland to Geelong, the Executive Officer for the Barwon South West Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee (RAJAC) is rarely in one place very long
One-time chairperson of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and founding CEO of the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation in his home town of Heywood, Michael has a deep understanding of community and justice issues.
When invited to help implement the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement in 2001 he jumped at the chance.
"It was an amazing time, helping develop policy and having the opportunity to raise awareness about issues affecting our community," said Mr Bell, who was chairperson of the Barwon South West RAJAC for two years before taking on the role of Executive Officer.
A Gunditjmara descendant, Mr Bell was born to a Koori mum and a non-Koori dad, and grew up with nine brothers and sisters.
Mr Bell's nickname 'Mookeye' comes from his Uncle Roderick 'Mookeye' Alberts who was an Elder in the community.
"He and his brother Hank were very strong men who took us hunting for eels, and my father, who was in thick with the mob, came as well," he told the Koori Mail.
"They often took us back to the mission lands at Lake Condah where they grew up.
"Mookeye's Country was around Homerton, which is about 12 kilometres from Heywood, and he knew all of the water systems there. My dad started to call me Mookeye after him and it's just stuck."
Mr Bell is overseeing a number of strategies in Barwon South West to reduce Koori contact with the justice system. They include diversionary programs for young offenders to encourage them to reconnect with culture, education and work opportunities.
Michael said one of the biggest successes in the region was the local Koori Court, which opened in 2003 and is the only one in the state to sit on circuit in three locations - Warrnambool, Portland and Hamilton.
"We'll never achieve no contact with police but empowering families to take responsibility for their own lives and their children so that sons don't simply follow their fathers into crime is achievable," he said.
"I still feel we need to build more capacity and skills in our Koori communities. It's all about growing the good things and telling justice agencies to keep building partnerships with these guys because that's how we'll achieve the outcomes."
Keicha Day works for the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation in Heywood.
She is Gunditjmara, like her mother and her mother's mother. She wants to use her intuition and knowledge to protect Gunditjmara country and 'get rid of ignorance'.
"Since I was five, I've been helping my grandmother care for country. I've got about twenty cousins. I'm the oldest, so I've taken the responsibility," she told Environment Victoria.
"The media send out a message that 'blackfellas want to come and take your country', but that's not true, we just want to care for country."
Ms Day runs tours out at the old Lake Condah mission, about 60 kilometres north of Portland. The site is significant to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and as the birthplace for many of the older members of her family.
Ms Day was contacted for comment.
Kaley Nicholson is an Aboriginal workforce engagement officer with the City of Greater Geelong.
A proud Koori woman, Ms Nicholson is passionate about politics and policy and believes treaty will finally give justice to Aboriginal people in Victoria.
"As a proud Koori woman descendant from the Barapa Barapa, Yorta Yorta, Mutthi Mutthi and Tungaurong Peoples I am committed to seeing the advancement of our people," she said.
Like all other Aboriginal People I have long heard the call for treaty. The time for self-determination is now.Kaley Nicholson
"I really want to make sure the process put together works for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria and is the strongest possible so that it can be a model that can be extended to the rest of the country.
"I remember as a child how powerful the treaty movement was and how much it meant to Aboriginal people all those years ago.
"Australia is the only Commonwealth country that doesn't have a treaty with its First People. It's important to right the wrongs of the past.
"We can finally do the right thing that should have been done at the start. This is history in the making."
Ms Nicholson is well-versed in politics and policy making having completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and Policy and Sociology at Deakin University.
"This means that I am well aware of how Aboriginal communities are always at the mercy of government policy and just how important it is for us to have a seat at the table to ensure that we see the best possible outcome for our communities," she said.
"Like all other Aboriginal People I have long heard the call for treaty. The time for self-determination is now.
"I will work to ensure that the government of Victoria is held to account and that framework for treaty is as strong and fair as possible allowing Aboriginal People in Victoria justice at last."
Jesse Williams is a Gunditjmara, Yorta-Yorta and Wiradjuri man with cultural ties to both the south-west and the Murray region of Victoria.
"I am extremely passionate about working with the Aboriginal community and for the Aboriginal community," his online profile reads.
"Travelling is a big part of my job, I travel all across the state of Victoria to help and support digital health initiatives within Aboriginal health services across the state."
Mr Williams was contacted for comment.
The Assembly will work alongside government to set up:
- The Treaty Authority - an independent umpire through the treaty process
- The Treaty Negotiating Framework - which will set how treaties can be agreed in Victoria
- A Self-Determination Fund - so community can be on a level playing field with government
For more information, call 1800 TREATY (1800 873 289).
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