Reconciliation Action Plan inspires new opportunities of support
A St Vincent de Paul Conference providing support to a community just a few kilometres away is usually not much of a challenge, provided access to transport.
But for our Murgon Conference, working with residents of the neighbouring community of Cherbourg has been the start of a new, previously unexplored development for the Society in Queensland.
While separated by just a few kilometres of road, the Aboriginal Settlement of Cherbourg has a long and difficult history compared to the rural town of Murgon.
Cherbourg’s 120+ year history is full of stories of discrimination, where the Indigenous community were subject to decades of forced resettlement and labour, strict and racist policies from a white government and the attempted erasure of their cultural heritage.
It’s no wonder, says the Society’s Reconciliation Action Plan Officer Leon Epong, it can be difficult for outsiders to gain trust within the community.
“They don’t usually get a lot of support externally – you can’t just go in there and operate like any other Conference would and expect the same response,” Leon said.
“You need to really establish trust and it can take a long time before the community really understands what St Vincent de Paul does as a charity organisation.”
As part of the most recent stage of the Society’s Reconciliation Action Plan, RAP Innovate, Leon said there was a real opportunity for conferences to not just work with Indigenous Elders and organisations in their own communities, but to outreach to new remote Indigenous communities like Cherbourg.
“Providing support to Indigenous remote communities is not something we’ve done a lot in the past,” Leon said.
“Working with the people of Cherbourg is a chance to see how we can build those relationships with those communities.
“Hopefully, not only will St Vincent de Paul become a trusted and helpful organisation for the people of Cherbourg, but to other remote Indigenous communities in the future.”
Murgon Conference President Cecily Fry said from late 2020, her Conference had started visiting Cherbourg once a fortnight.
“You can’t just come into the community unannounced and start knocking on doors trying to offer help,” Cecily said.
“Leon did some great groundwork introducing us to the Cherbourg Council and allowing us the opportunity to introduce what our Society does for people in need,” Cecily said.
“While it’s a slow process, already we’re starting to become more well known in the community – we’ve seen a sizeable increase in people from Cherbourg coming down to the Murgon Vinnies store to chat with us!”
Cecily said one of the key types of support provided to the Cherbourg community was through facilitating interest free loans for those on low income.
“Unfortunately, you hear of a lot of loan companies are taking advantage of the community there,” she said.
“It’s not uncommon to hear of people spending 10 times what they should be paying on household goods because of predatory loan practices, which can place them under a lot of financial stress.
“Providing no-fee, no-interest loans has been a great way of introducing ourselves to the community as we slowly build on the ways our Society can provide support.”
Cecily said the St Vincent de Paul team were already starting to build relationships with the community, having been invited to local events such as Christmas carnivals and most recently in July, NAIDOC Week celebrations.
“The people there have been so supportive and welcoming – we’re really looking forward to becoming more integrated with the community,” she said.
Leon said the Society’s work with Cherbourg is just one of the ways St Vincent de Paul is using the RAP Innovate as an opportunity to work more with Indigenous groups and representatives across the state and play an active part in the reconciliation process.
Located 170km north-west of Brisbane, the Aboriginal community of Cherbourg has a population of about 1,300 people, more than 98% of which identify as Indigenous Australians.
Cherbourg, located on the traditional land of the Wakka Wakka people, was set aside as an Aboriginal reserve in 1901 but had very little facilities or support for arrivals.
Many Indigenous residents were forcibly removed from their land from around Queensland and moved to the Cherbourg reserve, where they were used as cheap labour for local landowners and subject to strict oversight from government administration.
After many decades of harsh governance, Cherbourg became self-managed with the formation of the Cherbourg Community Council in 1982 and the Cherbourg Aboriginal Shire Council was granted recognised government status in 2004.
While conditions and freedom have improved for the residents over the years, many challenges still remain for the residents of Cherbourg, including a very high unemployment rate with little work opportunities in the region.