Indigenous Suicides

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Indigenous Suicides


Resumed from 18 March on the following motion moved by Hon Stephen Dawson —

(a)           that the Council condemns the Barnett government for its failure to combat the rise in suicide rates amongst Western Australia’s Indigenous population; and

(b)           that this Council calls on the Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs and Mental Health to outline to the house the strategies they will use to tackle the state’s suicide rates.

HON ROBIN CHAPPLE(Mining and Pastoral) [2.54 pm]: This is an interesting debate, and I thank Hon Stephen Dawson for bringing on the debate. I will support the motion, but not necessarily on the grounds outlined in the motion. The reason I will support it is that I do not think that any governments over recent times have fundamentally addressed the systemic problems involved with Indigenous suicide. We hear very much—we have heard it again today—about culturally respectful programs or culturally appropriate programs, but very few people have addressed the substantive issue of culture. I am not here to bag the government, nor, indeed, to support the opposition’s motion; however, I fundamentally support the opposition’s motion and I will tend to vote with it on this motion.

I am not really here to argue whether the state has or has not got it right. I am concerned that we turn what is in essence a cultural problem into a mental health problem. As a person who has worked in Indigenous communities—from the 1970s, I spent 10 or 15 years out in the desert—and a person who had an Aboriginal foster child who committed suicide, I think that I have some experience around some of the fundamentals.

Our modern cultures are only several thousands of years old, whereas Aboriginal culture is 60 000-plus years old. It is important to note that we mostly stumbled across a culture that was at least 10 times older than our own. This culture had developed a methodology of dealing with non-renewable resources and the degradation of the environment, and had basically avoided wars. It developed in some way that was significantly better than what we have managed. We should perhaps regard western culture as a developing culture and Aboriginal culture as advanced, because many of the components that we still struggle with, it has dealt with, and dealt with successfully.

The other point is that when we mention Aboriginal culture, we do so at a great distance. There are many Aboriginal cultures—there is not one; there are many—and there are many evolutions of culture, dependent on whether people are living in the metropolitan area or are still living out at Tjuntjuntjara, Kiwirrkurra, Warralong or wherever. They all evolved differently. One of the most important things is—we tend to really forget this—that Indigenous communities are small family communities that have a great interconnection and a great homogeny of views. One endearing feature that they have is the interpersonal respect mechanisms, which we find do not exist in many other societies, and a deep connection to land. I mentioned previously out on the steps of this place that I sat down at a place called Kintore with some old fellas—Nosepeg Tjupurrula and Tutama Tjapangati. I happened to be flooded in there so I had a bit of time to listen to them. They said to me, “The trouble with you wadjelas is that you want to own land. We are owned by the land; we are the land. We are not separate from it; we are one and the same.” Another old woman, whose funeral I attended a while ago, said to me, “If you love the land and you respect the land, the land will love you, but if you give your land away or if you do not respect the land or you do not respect the culture of the land, you will be lost as a soul; you will be shamed.” That shaming is a deep issue within Indigenous culture that we very seldom understand. I do not speak as an authority, but I just point out that most New Zealanders know one or two versions of the haka—it does not matter where they come from—and they embrace and enjoy the haka. It becomes a systemic part of being a New Zealander. How many people in this chamber, including me, speak one or more of the 90 languages that still survive in Australia?

Hon Adele Farina interjected.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Very good. Eloquently, I hope. I have a couple of words from two different languages and that is about it. We need to understand that we do not embrace our Aboriginal culture—the culture that started this nation.

I think it is highly important that when we deal with Indigenous suicide, we understand some of the drivers. One of the drivers that are continually identified in every report that we read—indeed, Alastair Hope touched on it in a number of his reports and I will read from a couple of reports shortly that deal with it, including “Hear Our Voices” and “Cultural wounds require cultural medicines”—is the shame that is felt within Indigenous culture in a way that we do not understand or comprehend. We might be able to acknowledge it, but can we actually appreciate it? Self-harm comes from a feeling of worthlessness and embarrassment: “Do I fit in with my peers? Have I let the side down?” I can recount two occasions in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land when we lost workers and we did not see them again for six months because somebody had poked a stick at them, so to speak, and they could not handle it. So they went off and left the community until they either were brought back in by the elders or plucked up the courage to come back.

Not performing as expected in school is another massive issue for kids, because they are targeted by their peers as they do not shape up. Everybody goes back to working to the lowest common denominator rather than working upwards.

Another thing that is very important to Indigenous people is not being able to protect land—the land that they are part of and the land that owns them, not the land that they own—and not being able to protect culture or sites. And so we go on and on. Those are the sorts of things that permeate a community. It is not an individual who is feeling disfranchised or shamed; it is a community, a family group, and that permeates through that family group. Quite often, we tend to put in place some program for little Johnny who might be considering self-harm, and he will be taken out of the problem area and he will be nurtured and whatever else. However, the fundamental problem is that, inevitably, it is the shame and pain of the community, not of little Johnny himself, that is manifest in little Johnny.

It is interesting that I reconnected with Martin, my foster child, after 30-odd years. He was a loving, happy-go-lucky man. Nobody—not his real parents nor I—had any inclination that he was going to take his own life on 14 March 2013. He did not have a mental health problem. I am absolutely fed up with this notion that Indigenous people have mental health problems. They have a societal problem; they have a cultural problem because their culture is not respected. We talk about culture, we talk about culturally appropriate programs and we talk about being respectful of culture, but how often do we sit down and learn or understand the culture that drives them? As Hon Sue Ellery has said, the Premier has made some pretty outrageous statements that offended me deeply, and I am not Indigenous. What do we think it did to members of the Warralong community, who took to Facebook and said that the Army was coming in to take away their community and that the police were there? They had one visit from a policeman because there was an outstanding fine, but suddenly that became bigger than Ben‑Hur. I was being phoned by Indigenous people from the embassy in the eastern states who said that they were coming over to save Warralong, and I asked them what they were on about. It is this messaging that is so damaging. Those people at Warralong are now in a period of shame. They are worried. It is out of that collective shame that we get suicide. It is not a mental health problem.

I was really pleased to see the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs make a valuable contribution. I want to turn quickly to a position that was stated in the 2008 record of investigation into the deaths of a number of people from suicide by the then coroner, Alastair Hope. There were a number of recommendations in that report, some of which I do not think got the message or misplaced some of the judgement. There are a number of good recommendations in the report, but the recommendation that really struck home was recommendation 7, which states —

I recommend that if the government proposes to give a leadership role to the Department of Indigenous Affairs action be taken to —

·          put in place in the department a leadership structure which will command the respect of other government agencies and Aboriginal people;

·          be given the power and ability to monitor the performance of other government agencies and to give direction to those agencies in respect of Indigenous affairs; …

The Department of Indigenous Affairs, if it operates properly—I hope one day it will—will be the real conduit for bringing forward the cultural needs and desires of Indigenous communities —

·          be adequately resourced so as to be able to take a leadership role and an increased practical role in working with Indigenous communities through regional offices.

It does need a central body. In my view, many aspects in a number of reports that have been written identify the fundamentals, and we do not seem to touch on those. I was quite interested in where the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was going until he started talking about sports training and those sorts of things. I think they are incredibly important, but they do not go back to what I call the fundamental issues. I am glad that the minister is here, because I hope he is listening to what I have had to say so far.

Hon Peter Collier That is part of a whole raft of strategies; that’s my point.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: I understand that. I would not actually hang one’s coathanger on them; they are an important part, but there is a much more important part than that. I think we need to identify in that sort of little interchange the fact that Indigenous communities differ dramatically—whether they be out at Windjingayre, Warburton, in the south west in the Noongar lands, or in the Perth metropolitan area. There has to be a process that caters differently for those communities.

The key issue that the minister made was to engage with the family. I am assuming that what he means by engaging with the family is the immediate parents. Therein lies one of the fundamental problems. Under traditional cultural law, the parents are not the best people to be talking to. Mostly it should be the aunt or the grandmother or whoever are the carers for those children, because that is how it was done culturally. When we talk about engaging the family, we need to engage with the family as a community, especially when it comes to the more remote communities. Where I have a problem with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is in the notion that somehow an evaluation of the economics of having remote communities is needed. If the government decides to close communities, the social dislocation, the shame, the sorrow and all the attendant things such as the control mechanisms that exist in remote communities will disappear. It is important that the minister recognise that going down that path will be inordinately expensive, and the corollary to that will be greater dysfunction, sorrow and a lack of potential healing within those communities. I have quite a lot more to say and I am mindful of the time and am trying to wrap up around this point.

The issues that I really want to talk to are cultural wounds and cultural healing. I will touch on Yiriman and Burks Park, and also a very good contribution that was made in this chamber by Hon Shelley Archer, a former member of this place. I want to talk about programs that we should be funding that actually have a genuine, good outcome.

Hon Dave Grills: Do you know what is happening in Burks Park now?

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: What is the latest out there?

Hon Dave Grills: I have worked very hard there; you should find out.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: I was up there a little while ago and I was talking to Helen and her partner. If the member has some more information, I will talk to the member after this. They have been doing a pretty sterling job out there. The work that Yiriman has been doing was one that I had written to the minister about—namely, about its ability to deal with suicidal tendencies, to stop young offenders and also the process to empower young men and women to stand proud in their community. Unfortunately in those letters that I sent to the minister, they were actually around what I consider the fundamentals of what that program may or may not be able to do.

Debate adjourned, pursuant to temporary orders.


Legislative Council

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


Resumed from 25 March


HON ROBIN CHAPPLE (Mining and Pastoral) [1.13 pm]: I thank Hon Stephen Dawson for bringing this motion before us. The last time I spoke on this motion, through an interjection, I was dealing with the matter of Burks Park and the Yiriman project. I was about to talk about the amazing work of Helen O’Malley and Roy Wilson, who established the hostel and workers program at Burks Park just out of town on the Duncan highway. They have done a fantastic job preparing that place and are fairly visionary in the community for the holistic work that they do with Aboriginal youth.

I want to touch on a couple of other reports related to the Yiriman project. A large number of reports deal with the social problems faced by Indigenous communities and the associated problems of self-harm, lawlessness, lack of respect and those sorts of things. The Yiriman project certainly encompasses many of the ways forward. It has some funding, which will continue. Those sorts of programs really are the drivers. I will come to a couple of reports that deal with some of them in a minute.

I really want to turn to an adjournment speech given by Hon Shelley Archer on 7 May 2008 in which she gave a really good overview of the Yiriman project. I will not read the whole speech because it will consume too much time. It stated —

The Yiriman Project was initiated by a respected Kimberley elder, Mr John Watson, and his son Anthony, who ... saw a desperate need to provide Indigenous young people with the sense of direction and belonging that was lacking from their lives.

I will come back to that sense of direction. It continues —

The program draws on the combined efforts of elders from four different language groups who came together to identify ways to stop self-harm, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse amongst the Indigenous youth of the Kimberley.

I was in the very privileged position a few years ago to go north and film the Yiriman project with some of the elders. We went out on country with the young men and listened to how they were re-empowered. We also interviewed some of the young men who had gone through the program. They were on the cusp of becoming serial offenders. We also spoke to youth who became very depressed and suicidal. To see the turnaround in these young people was quite incredible. To see them walking around the community with their heads held high, suddenly feeling that they fitted in the community and were respected, completely changed them. We interviewed one young man who basically said, “I was a lost soul before Yiriman came along. I went through the program and I now really feel respected by not only my elders, but also my peers. I am trying to get other young people to get into that program because I know what good it did for me.” I return to the speech by Hon Shelley Archer —

The objectives of Yiriman are twofold. The first objective is diversionary, through the immersion of young people in a cultural framework. The other objective is to build community relationships and capacity ... The experience is designed to build respect for elders, pass on knowledge of culture, and encourage self respect by getting young people to understand themselves as part of the Indigenous culture, thereby giving them a sense of identity and belonging ... Yiriman is a holistic program, governed by cultural decision making and cultural practices ... The program is delivered in partnership with drug and alcohol education centres and other services such as mental health. This partnership is particularly essential to ensure a holistic approach to help prevent the high-risk behaviour of Indigenous youth.


The coroner recognised that suicide is a form of distress. In his report into the reasons for the high number of Aboriginal suicides, he asked: why do so many Aboriginal persons in the Kimberley feel an intolerable intensity of psychological pain? The coroner found that alcohol abuse is both a cause and a result of many other problems for Indigenous people in the community. In particular, Alistair Hope referred to Aboriginal people in the Kimberley experiencing a shocking standard of living and suffering very poor health compared with other Western Australians. He found that these conditions were continuing to deteriorate.

I do not make that observation of this government but I make an observation that we continually see $100 000 and $200 000 programs being rolled out over many different small agencies, yet when we look at the report that has just come out at a federal level into what is needed—that is, the Leach report—we see it states that $5.5 billion is needed to substantially address the matters.

In many cases, I understand what the minister is doing with many of her programs, but I come back to the fundamentals. These are bandaid measures; we need to fix the problem.

Hon Shelley Archer went on to talk about the high incidence of Aboriginal suicides being a major concern for Indigenous people and governments for many years. She said —

In 2001 the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Hon Alan Carpenter, was presented with a briefing paper entitled “Working Together”. The paper was prepared by the Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Steering Committee as a proposal for a policy framework and work plan to address early determinants of self-harm and suicide among Aboriginal youth in Western Australia. The paper warns about increasing suicide rates and states that, on the basis of current trends, the rate of suicide among Aboriginal people can be expected to increase further unless there is concerted community and government action at all levels to address both the immediate and the underlying causes.

Having read that, I want to go to one of the reports I talked about earlier, “Cultural wounds require cultural medicines”. A number of parts of this report deal with the essence of what I have been trying to talk about. It states —

Here are the two headline conclusions to which everything that follows in this chapter is meant to inexorably lead—our ‘take home’ messages, if you will. The first is that the sum total of malaise and ill-health suffered by Canada’s (and the world’s) Indigenous peoples is best understood, not as some simple aggregate or additive sum of the personal woes of separately damaged individuals, but as a culmination of ‘cultural wounds’ inflicted upon whole communities and whole ways of life. Yes, of course, the raw nerve endings of those in distress are naturally wired to pain centers in the private brains of single suffers, but the various forms of wholesale damage communally inflicted on whole peoples is collective, rather than simply personal, and multiplicative, rather than simply additive.

The second of these conclusions is that such shared cultural wounds require being addressed, not one individual sufferer at a time, but require instead being communally treated with ‘cultural medicines’ prescribed and acted upon by whole cultural communities. Taken together, the broad implication of both of these position statements is that, when it comes properly catching on, most suicide prevention efforts have been fishing in ‘the wrong pond.’

The report goes on to another couple of areas and at page 17 states —

A part of what this means is that, if suicide prevention is our serious goal, then the evidence in hand recommends investing new moneys, not in the hiring of still more counselors, but in organized efforts to preserve Indigenous languages, to promote the resurgence of ritual and cultural practices, and to facilitate communities in recouping some measure of community control over their own lives.

This is an international paper. It touches on the very substance of the matters that I believe are the drivers of what is occurring in many places in the Kimberley.

I also want to turn to “Hear Our Voices: Community Consultations for the Development of an Empowerment, Healing and Leadership Program for Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley, Western Australia: Final Research Report: March 2012”. The document mentions a number of people, quite a few of whom I know. It is really interesting to see many of the authors involved in this report. They include Professor Pat Dudgeon; Associate Professor Roz Walker, who happens to be my neighbour in Perth; Cheryl Dunkley; Divina D’Anna; Kathleen Cox from the Kimberley; Dr Clair Scrine; Katherine Hams; and Kerrie Kelly. I turn to a few of the statements in that document. It states —

People spoke of needing to “build self first” and to “make ourselves strong” and to focus on “rebuilding family”. Respondents said they wanted to learn how to talk to one another again, to share and care for one another and to praise those who do good things for themselves and their communities. Of particular note was the high level of concern and urgency for the need to focus on young people who, it was felt, have lost their sense of connection to and respect for their culture, their family and themselves.

Paragraph 3.3, “Timeline of Aboriginal Led Initiatives to Address Community Distress and Suicide in the Kimberley”, refers to the Yiriman project in 1997. It states —

The Yiriman Project was an unfunded project developed by Elders in the Fitzroy Valley who were concerned about local young people struggling with substance abuse, contact with the justice system, self-harm and suicide. They saw the need for a place where youth could separate themselves from negative influences and reconnect with their culture in remote and culturally significant places.

The report goes on at paragraph 4.1, “Analysis Using a Social and Emotional Wellbeing Framework”, in chapter 4, “Analysis of the Causes of Community Distress and Suicide in the Kimberley”, to state —

Multiple short-term projects which reach small numbers will not achieve the critical balance required to restore social and emotional wellbeing across the Aboriginal population. Universal prevention strategies, which promote strong, resilient communities and focus on restoring social and emotional wellbeing are needed. This needs to be done in such a way that each language group/nation and/or community is supported to achieve the goal of restoring social and emotional wellbeing at individual, family and community levels.

Conversely, factors that strengthen and protect Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing have been identified as: connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry and family and community.

In reading that part of the report, I am mindful that some proposals are afoot—I am not quite sure what they are—for closing communities. I think we need to look at these sorts of reports that identify that the malaise is due, to a large degree, to people’s uncertainty about their culture and their ability to live on and nurture land that is theirs.

Paragraph 6.1, “Summary of Responses to the Focus Questions”, states —

People said:

We need to “build self first”, identify with ourselves. We need more self worth. We need to make ourselves strong and find our inner strengths.

We need role models from our own backyards.

No more shame factor.

I raised that point in my earlier contribution on this debate. Very few people understand the notion of the shame factor in Indigenous communities.

Hon Peter Collier: Did you say that very few people understand?

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Yes, I do believe so. The reports that I am reading from identify that.

The report continues —

We want to get it right in families. We need to feel the love of families, need to feel good about sharing, don’t hide family. Keep in touch with families. Make families aware to care and communicate with each other.

We need to learn how to talk to one another again, to share and care for one another and to praise and credit to those who do good things for themselves and for others.

We need to feel and be a part of our community. Have a sense of belonging, have cultural identity.

Help us to become good parents and set good examples for our children. We really want to be good parents.

We need to heal by getting back to country and keeping culture strong.

We need to help our young people who don’t respect their family, their culture or themselves.

We need to learn how to deal with grief and trauma to break the cycle of pain in our families.

Those comments were made in what I consider to be an incredibly good report.

I turn to a statement in the same vein made by Josie Farrer, MLA, in a press release she made. She states —

We must Keep Culture Alive. Strong Culture Strong People. Living in communities helps us to fulfil our cultural obligations of looking after land, plants, animals, and passing on traditional cultural practises to our future generations.

It is interesting that over time there has been a lot of dialogue between the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and the various ministers. Indeed, I have written to the Minister for Corrective Services, Hon Joe Francis, MLA, encouraging him to come with me to Burks Park to view their work and the Yiriman project, which is an example of a way to stop incarceration. Members have to remember that to many young Indigenous people incarceration has taken the role of initiation, and to be incarcerated and to go through the process of incarceration is seen almost as a badge of courage. They come out of that with a completely false sense of pride of having done that. I also wrote to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Hon Peter Collier. I encouraged both of those ministers to go out to Burks Park to see firsthand how some of these diversionary programs work and the impact that they have on young people in the Kimberley, and that they are really empowering and lifting people out of the doldrums of potential self-harm and worthlessness.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death of Aboriginal people in WA and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs said in a letter to Wes Morris, the coordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, that it is a priority of the state government. He said —

The Aboriginal Affairs Coordinating Committee (AACC) and the AACC Sub-committee on Health and Mental Health are committed to developing holistic strategies to improve the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Western Australia (WA).

That is a very noble and honourable thing to do, and I encourage that committee to look not only at individuals but also the wellbeing of communities as a whole, because unless we can get that right, we can take people out and give them programs where they feel empowered and feel better, but they go back to the same situation in the community, which is fearful. I am mindful that recently I had to intercede in some fear that was going on in the Pilbara. A community in the Pilbara, as a result of the statements made about the closure of Aboriginal communities in the media—I am not apportioning any blame—suddenly felt threatened and believed that the Army was coming out to their community to shut them down, so some of the people were considering leaving that community and going into Port Hedland. When people are out in the sticks in remote communities, they do not have good contact with the media, and when they hear a story they start reacting. Luckily I was able to go to that community and say that there was no plan to close their community. I must admit that somebody had been stirring the pot. There was an individual out there who was ramping up their fear. We have to remember that we need to work with the communities and that by empowering communities we will resolve many of the antisocial problems, many of the suicidal tendencies and many of the issues that we continue to deal with within juvenile justice such as offending, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. I am no particular expert, but having had a young man who is my responsibility to look after go down that horrible path, I believe that I can speak, not with authority but with some knowledge, of what drives many within the Indigenous community to go down this path.

Go to top