A struggle to reignite, restore and respect Aboriginal community control is being waged in Fitzroy, a place of historical significance to the contemporary Indigenous rights movement.
Following the national weekend of action on November 17 and 18, members and supporters of Koori communities in Fitzroy and around Victoria have staged a vigil outside the old Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) building, rejecting a plan by Mission Australia to redevelop the site into a "bush tucker" restaurant where Kooris would be trained to serve as waiters. Many Kooris have taken offence at this plan, especially given the fact that this particular building been used as a base and resource for self-determination struggles in the past.
In a recent statement, local Indigenous activist Robbie Thorpe described the building as "a site of historical significance to the Victorian Aboriginal community and an invaluable symbol of community control and self-determination".
He went on to explain that the local community would prefer the site to be used as a cultural centre, given that at present there is no such facility available to the local Indigenous community. It could be "a crucial community Meeting Place for healing, traditional culture, and in honour of the many brave Aboriginal ancestors and elders who fought for so long to live and die with dignity."
VAHS was established in 1973, in response to a grassroots movement to address the fact that many Indigenous people were dying due to racial oppression and denial of basic services. While the VAHS has since relocated — though it remains within Fitzroy — the old site, which remained empty and neglected for 15 years, still has significance for the people who fought so hard to establish community-controlled health care.
Thorpe told Green Left Weekly, "these services need to be independent of government control and accountable to the Aboriginal community. This building was derelict and neglected for 15 years, like our people. The neglect we are seeing is a subtle form of genocide, and we have had enough of it."
Statistics published by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on Indigenous child abuse show Victoria has the worst track record of abuse, with nearly five times more cases than anywhere else in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics' recent census revealed that the Victorian Koori population suffers the highest rates of recent and chronic illness in the country.
The vigil outside VAHS — which has been extended indefinitely — is being combined with working bees to repair the interior and exterior of the building. Each evening a sunset "sacred fire traditional smoking ceremony" is held across the road in Atherton Gardens to pay respect to all those who have not lived to see the struggle for justice to the end.
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