Marie McInerney and Summer May Finlay report:
The second National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Conference opened in Perth on Tuesday with a powerful expression of Nyoongar culture and raw acknowledgement of the personal impact of suicide, in the lives of delegates and Indigenous peoples in Australia and across the globe.
Speaker after speaker through the day – in the plenary sessions, in presentations and over coffee and meals – talked to the toll of suicide in their own lives and of its disproportionate impact among their communities.
Conference convenor Professor Pat Dudgeon said barely an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family is unaffected by this crisis.
Before asking the packed plenary room to observe a minute’s silence at the opening of the two-day conference, co-MC Professor Ted Wilkes, a leading Aboriginal academic and policy advisor, invited his daughter Sonia Blurton Wilkes on to the stage to speak on behalf of those present who had lost loved ones to suicide.
To the hushed room, she said:
I am a grieving mother, I lost my son. I know that many here today have also lost loved ones, they’ve lost sons daughters brothers sisters.
I pay homage to you and I share your pain. We share your pain as a community. Over the next four days we will be having hard discussions but I hope we come together with love and hope in our journey of healing.”
The conference opening also showcased the strength of culture in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and its protective role in health and wellbeing.
Wilkes welcomed the more than 500 delegates to the land of the Whadjuk Nyoongar people, one of the 13 tribes of the Nyoongar people of southwest Australia. He said:
“I follow in the footsteps of those before me, I think that’s true of all of us. We’re cultural people and we people who know that knowledge has power in its own right will follow in the footsteps of others.”
Following a smoking ceremony, on a hotel balcony overlooking the blue sky and ocean at Scarborough, Wilkes introduced his brother, Whudjuk elder and “family culture man” Nigel Wilkes to lead the Mungart Yonga Traditional Dance Group performance that got delegates up dancing with them.
“We respect you for coming here to talk about this,” Wilkes told them.
The first day also featured a host of high profile Aboriginal and Torres Strait speakers, including Dudgeon, Professor Tom Calma, Professor Helen Milroy (a former Commissioner of the Royal Commission into institutional abuse of children), and leading health advocate Gracelyn Smallwood. Croakey will report on their addresses in the coming days.
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• If you or someone you know needs help or support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24 hours-a-day), contact your local Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisation, call Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or call Q Life: 1800 184 527.
• Summer May Finlay and Marie McInerney are reporting for the Croakey Conference News Service. Bookmark this link to follow the coverage of #ATSISPC18.