Time to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander warriors past and present

Cath Brokenborough

This year’s NAIDOC theme honours Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have fought in defence of country. We should remember and celebrate not only those warriors who served with honour and pride in Australia’s military conflicts and engagements, but our ancestral warriors as well, who fought against colonial invasion and occupation over many years, and our modern day warriors who continue to lead the fight against racism, bigotry and in defence of our sovereignty and rights to self-determination today.

It is heartening to see the very recent and slowly growing recognition of the sacrifice of people who served even before they were recognised as citizens of this country – people like Sapper Clement William (Bill) Coolburra. Bill was born on Palm Island in FNQ and spent a total of 16 years in the Army, serving in Vietnam, Malaya and Borneo in the nineteen sixties and seventies. Bill has passed, but was recently been recognised in the naming of a Lookout to his memory at the newly constructed Jezzine Barracks public recreational area in Townsville.

However, Bill’s recognition is equally due to the support and mentoring he provided to the young people of North Queensland when he returned from service, and for his active encouragement of his community to lead healthy and purposeful lives.

Earlier, during the first and second world wars, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians saw a benefit in joining the military, as they were treated as equals. However, on coming home, they soon realised nothing had changed in the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived and were treated, and many found themselves again fighting for equality and citizenship on home soil.

From the 1930’s a new level of Aboriginal political activism was determined to turn around this ongoing racism and elitism and gain proper recognition for our culture and people and overturn the Government policies which institutionalised disadvantage.

All this resulted in the fact that many Returned Service people were central campaigners for the 1967 referendum, active in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1970s and in founding many of the changes to social policy and services that led to the formation of such things we have today such as the Aboriginal Legal Service, Medical Service and the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Redfern.

It is due to this ongoing fighting spirit and leadership that, over the past few years, there has been an upsurge of change in overall public awareness and opinion, resulting in things such as the Apology to the Stolen Generations, the Bridge Walks for Reconciliation, the Close the Gap policies and, in the last period, the growth of Reconciliation Action Plans as a vehicle for increased Respect, better and new Relationships and Opportunities for economic participation in today’s Australia. It is becoming more apparent on Australia’s general social and political radar that it is long overdue that we unite in a concerted effort as a nation to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to work together to repair the injustices and damage that has been done in the past.

I have the great pleasure in seeing the results of some of this work in the new generation of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people employed at my company Lend Lease, people like Aiona Nona and Magdalen Corr who are studying Bachelor of Construction Management respectively at University of Queensland and University of Technology Sydney, and employed as Interns through the Careertrackers program on our construction sites; Morgan Coleman employed fulltime as a Junior Development Manager in Victoria; and Vivienne Pio, operating a construction hoist on our Barangaroo South project.

It is also apparent in the thought leadership, opportunity and pragmatic outcomes driven focus of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned and/or managed organisations I work with on a daily basis to deliver the Lend Lease RAP vision, such as the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence, Yalari, Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience and Supply Nation, and communities such as Bourke and Redfern.

On an individual basis, like Bill Coolburra, we can all be modern day warriors if we are prepared to give back to our people by working in our Communities and at our workplaces, to enable our people not only to heal, but to have the more difficult conversations of how we can overcome any lingering defeatist attitudes and beliefs of the past, how we can create unity and shared purpose amongst the mob, and shape our own future (like the young people I mention above), instead of waiting for others do it for/to us.

The greatest legacy and mark of respect we can pay our diggers and warriors past, is to ensure that we are working, in whatever capacity we have, to support positive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian role models, to challenge the existing narrow Australian identity and landscape, to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have rights and opportunities equal to every other Australian, and are recognised as the First People in our Australian Constitution.

About Cath Brokenborough

Cath Brokenborough has worked with Lend Lease for 21 years and has 25 years of construction industry experience including in safety management, skills and competency development, and mentoring women and indigenous people’s entry into and engagement in the industry. 

Cath is a Wiradjuri woman and the Chair of Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation at Lend Lease, where she has led the development of the Lend Lease Reconciliation Action Plan, and remains committed to ensuring that Indigenous Australians’ cultural heritage and traditional custodianship of the land is recognized and employment opportunities and other initiatives are developed and implemented at Lend Lease to close the gap on any disadvantage between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Cath won the National Association of Women in Construction inaugural “Vision” award for developing opportunities for industry participation for women and her industry training and mentoring roles. Cath is a member of the Lend Lease Australian Diversity Council; Australian Indigenous Corporate Network; National Congress of Australian First Peoples.

Join the conversation

* Required information