Prof. Eleanor Bourke, chairperson of Victoria’s Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, has called upon all Victorians to join with First Nations Peoples to engage in the process of truth-telling, justice, and healing. In presenting the 2021 Knox Public Lecture in early November, she unpacked the commission’s historic and broad mandate and outlined its vision and priority areas.

‘Today’s oration is a chance for us to ask ourselves what is the Victorian story and what do we want the future to be? To move forward, you need to know that footprints imprinted on this land are of ancient things, not just dinosaurs, but of our ancient ancestors. We are now at a moment where that wisdom can assist survival in parts of this land,’ she said.

The Knox Public Lecture is hosted by the Catholic Theological College and has been held annually since 1978. It commemorates the College’s founder, the late James Robert Cardinal Knox, fifth Archbishop of Melbourne, who envisioned the theological education not only of future priests but also of religious and laity. For the last two years, the lecture has been held online. Providing a response to Prof. Burke’s presentation was Rev Dr Garry Deverell, Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar in Indigenous Studies of the University of Divinity and Sherry Balcombe, Manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria.

Prof. Bourke, who has held numerous executive positions in community, state, and federal government agencies, was Co-Chair of Reconciliation Victoria for three years and a Board Member for the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council for 12 years. She has enjoyed an extensive career in academia and participated in Victoria’s first positive native title determination in 2005 for the Wotjobaluk, Wergaia, Jardwa, Jardwajarli and Japagulk peoples of the Wimmera region in western Victoria.

The well-being of First Peoples is fundamentally underpinned by our lived connection with culture, country and pride in our heritage, the oldest living continuous country on earth,’ she said. ‘There are moments in history where the confluence of past and present events opens to a better future. The past is catching up and our people are lighting the way.

‘I believe that moment has arrived for Australia, and we, the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission are seizing a moment here in Victoria.’

The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission was jointly announced by the Victorian state government and the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, an independent and democratically elected body to represent Traditional Owners and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Victoria, in May this year.

Prof. Bourke explained, ‘The First People’s Assembly has the responsibility to develop the framework for Treaty-making in Victoria. After they came together in 2019 and last year, members had come to understand that they were negotiating a Treaty framework without any agreement or understanding of Victoria’s history and that before moving to create new systems and agreements, we must talk about the frontier wars, the protectorates [and missions], the displacements of people, the theft of land and so much more.’

Having agreed ‘that truth-telling must be a fundamental part of Treaty-making’, the Assembly called on the Victorian Government to establish a formal truth-telling process. As a result, the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission was formally established in May. ‘Yoo-rrook means “truth” in the Wamba Wamba language’, said Prof. Bourke, ‘Yoo-rrook is Australia’s first truth-telling body.

‘Truth-telling is a term that has come into broader consciousness in our country over the recent years. It’s about ensuring the stories of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are not only told, but heard and understood and remain. This truth may not be comfortable, it may be hard to bear, but without truth there is no understanding and without understanding there can be no meaningful change or progress.’

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Professor Eleanor Bourke is a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba Elder and is Chair of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission

In September, the Assembly presented the commission with the Tyerri Yoo-rrook ‘Seeds of Truth’ Report, which outlines the ideas, hopes and expectations from First Nations Peoples from across Victoria for a truth-telling process. With this as the backdrop, Prof. Bourke explained that ‘the commission’s brief is to investigate past and ongoing injustices experienced by Traditional Owners and First Peoples in Victoria in all areas of life since colonisation.’

‘Yoo-rrook is unique among royal commissions because while it for the benefit of all Victorians, First Peoples drove its design and remain at its centre. It is a historic moment – what this Royal Commission represents in Victoria, and indeed for Australia. This is something that Australia’s First Peoples have campaigned for, for generations – to set the record straight.’

Prof. Bourke is one of five commissioners who will lead this work over the coming years. The other commissioners include Dr Wayne Atkinson, Sue Hunter, Prof. Maggie Walter and Prof. Kevin Bell AM QC. An interim report is due by 30 June 2022, with the final report, including recommendations, due on 30 June 2024.

‘I’m very proud to lead this commission, but also very conscious of the heavy responsibility we bear,’ said Prof. Bourke. ‘We five bring diverse skills with experience and expertise across the fields of history, education, social work, law, sociology and systemic disadvantage, land rights, trauma and healing, and a very rich collective lived experience.’

The commissioners will draw upon the Tyerri Yoo-rrook report in carrying out its work and its ‘letters patent’, the legal document from the Governor of Victoria which outlines instructions about how to inquire into the experience of the past and present systemic injustices for Victorian First Peoples. Prof. Bourke explained, ‘The Commission, “is required to develop a shared understanding among all Victorians, of the diversity, strength and resilience of First People’s cultures, knowledge, and traditional practices among other matters.

‘The letters patent was designed with the First People’s Assembly and community input, together with the Victorian state government. This provides the guiding context for the Commission’s work. Whilst the mandate for the Commission is very broad, it is also flexible, which enables us to choose culturally appropriate approaches. We do not underestimate the importance of this historic moment, or the size of the task ahead,’ she said.

The commission has established three interconnected goals to guide its work toward the interim report: truth, understanding and transformation. ‘Everything Yoo-rrook does will contribute towards achieving these goals,’ Prof. Bourke said.

‘The truth, the big objective, is to establish an official public record based on First People’s experiences of systemic injustice since colonisation. The work of the commission must lead to a better understanding of the history and the evidence, and the public records should assist the path to self-determination and treaties.

‘The commission’s work must engender respect for and an understanding of First People’s cultural heritage and knowledge as a core value. We are committed to ensuring that respect and protection for all information received and allowing First Peoples to determine how that information will be managed and stored. It’s a world first for a royal commission that we will be establishing data sovereignty protocols developed in consultation with traditional owners. This means that Aboriginal people who give us information, give their voice, and will have control over what happens to that beyond the life of the commission.

‘The commission’s research will identify ways to create systemic reform and inform the Treaty-making negotiations. The commission is required to propose changes to laws, institutions, and systems. The Commission’s recommendations must lead to fundamental systemic and institutional changes of government service delivery and transform Victorian cultural life, overall.’

In concluding, Prof. Bourke said the commission’s final report will ‘establish that official record of the impact of colonisation on Traditional Owners and First Peoples, the first time something like it has ever been done. That is an advancement in and of itself, the recording of our state’s story. We haven’t had an official record of contact that included the voice of our people and our people telling their story. However, our story is your story too and through truth and justice, there is a huge opportunity to reshape, reconcile, to celebrate and learn and to ultimately create a future identity for this continent, which we can all be proud of.

Yoo-rrook is the most important thing I and my fellow Commissioners may ever do. We are moving forward with conviction and confidence and on the shoulders of those ancestors that I’ve alluded to in a contemporary sense and back to the past, to the great greats.

‘The Victorian government has made it possible for Australia to start its own truth-telling and I can tell you that our brothers and sisters in the other states and territories are watching us.’

Learn more about the annual Knox Public Lecture hosted by the Catholic Theological College