Reconciliation Week: Reflecting on First Nations’ Stories

29 May 2021

This Reconciliation Week, Australians are urged to take meaningful action towards reconciliation to the theme, More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.

The week, which takes place from 27 May – 3 June, encourages us all to reflect on the achievements of First Nations Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have served in defence of our nation.

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had served in every war, conflict and peacekeeping operation that has seen Australian participation over the last 100 years.

“During the First World War, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not permitted to enlist until late 1917, however, throughout the war some recruiting officers ‘looked the other way’ and allowed indigenous Australians to enlist,” Mr Chester said.

“During these war years, Australians of European background and Indigenous Australians who served in our military were treated as equals and developed a mutual respect that was less evident in civilian life.

“Between the two World Wars there was increasing recognition of the role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could play in the defence of Australia, particularly in northern Australia, and it’s estimated that at least 3,000 served during the Second World War alone.

“One of those was Australia’s first published Indigenous poet, Kathleen Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who served with the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).

“Kathleen enlisted in 1942 following the news that her two brothers had been captured by Japanese forces in Singapore.

“Kathleen achieved the rank of Lance Corporal, before discharging in 1944 on medical grounds. Her experience while serving, including her friendships with African-Americans who served in segregated US units and the discrimination she returned to after the war, made her a passionate champion for racial equality.

“Kathleen became a fierce advocate for Indigenous civil rights through political activism and writing. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1964 and was well received.

“Sadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not even classed as Australian citizens until 1967, but that didn’t stop them from serving their country with honour and distinction.

“Today, I am proud that the Australian Defence Force boasts more than 1,900 full-time permanent members who identify as Indigenous, which represents 3.3 per cent of the total permanent ADF workforce.

To those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served, and are currently serving, I say a simple and heartfelt, ‘thank you for your service’.”