As an Indigenous Australian, Alex Gater has been waging battles against discrimination all her life. The first one began at birth: as a member of the Aboriginal minority living in White Australia, she was disadvantaged from the start. Racism was a concept she experienced first-hand growing up on Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission, an Indigenous community in rural Queensland.
She says: “I dream of the day when my people will be acknowledged, accepted, and not judged by the color of their skin”.
She says also: “I see homeless youth wandering the streets of Brisbane and ask myself: Why are they here? Why did they have to leave home so young? I see the sick and the dying in hospital and ask: Why are our life expectancies 15 – 20 years lower than those of White Australians? Why are our infant mortality rates so much higher? We are all part of God’s family, we are all created in his image – why do Indigenous people have to fight so hard for equality, for recognition”?
Alexandra (Alex) Gater – Australia
By the time she was 13 and economic hardship ended her formal education, Alex had developed a real understanding of the injustices facing Australia’s Aboriginals, not just in her home state but right across the country. She made an important decision. She would devote her life to fighting such an unjust system.
Several years ago, after a career spent working in the ministry of the Anglican Church of Queensland, Alex Gater decided she wanted to become a priest. Her request was flatly refused by the archdiocese. It was the start of what would be a long and very difficult battle but she took on the Anglican Church, and won.
In 2003, after months of heated debate which culminated in her speaking out at the church’s national Synod conference, Alex became the first Aboriginal woman to be ordained within the Anglican Church of Queensland.
It was, she says, a victory for all Australian women. “They would approach me in churches, in universities, on the street – these poor women who had been forced to leave the church because they could no longer put up with the culture of patriarchy,” she says. “I admire your courage,” they said. “You had the courage to stand up to them.” At the Synod, one woman broke down in tears after Alex’s speech; the rest of the assembly, men and women alike, gave her a standing ovation.
But in a lifetime of struggle, successes like this are few. Repeated calls for the current government of Prime Minister John Howard to apologise to Australian Aboriginals for more than two centuries of abuse and mistreatment have fallen on deaf ears, with the Government consistently refusing to acknowledge this dark period of Australia’s history.
As a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council, Alex actively lobbies church bodies and other national organizations across the country about the need to take responsibility for the role previous generations played in the subjugation of indigenous Australians.
The atrocities suffered by the Stolen Generation (referring to the tens of thousands of indigenous children, mostly of mixed Aboriginal/White blood, removed from their families by police and welfare officers between 1910 and 1970 and forced to “assimilate” into White communities, with all links to their language, culture and past severed) is an issue on which Alex is especially outspoken.
“The need for reconciliation is vital,” she argues. “Healing will never take place until the crimes committed against us in the past are acknowledged. Without closure, it is impossible to move forward.”
The need for closure is reiterated to her on a daily basis in her role as Chaplain for two prisons, the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Center and the Sir David Longland’s Correctional Center. “I meet men and women who are still suffering from cruelty inflicted upon them as children,” she notes. “Physical abuse, sexual abuse – they are still hurting, still feeling worthless.
I give them a hug and tell them, ‘Jesus loves you. You are precious.’ It is all about helping them to break whatever cycle they are caught in, be it violence, crime, or substance abuse”. In addition to her chaplaincy work, Alex does emergency visits to eight other prisons in south-eastern Queensland, providing counseling to prisoners who are agitated or suicidal and offering comfort to the families of prisoners who have taken their own lives.
Suicide rates amongst incarcerated Indigenous people are tragically high, as are the numbers of Indigenous men and women serving time in Australian prisons. While Indigenous people make up only one per cent of the country’s population, it is estimated that they are jailed at around 18 times the rate of non-Indigenous people – and the rates of
imprisonment continue to rise. Through her role as an Elder in the Murri Magistrate Court in Brisbane, established for the trial of Indigenous people, particularly youths, who have been accused of minor offences, Alex is attempting to address this problem. “The magistrate meets with a committee of Aboriginal Elders twice a month,” she explains. “On the recommendation of the Elders, he decides what punishment should be meted out to the offender before him.
The purpose of the court is to find a punishment which is fair and appropriate to the offence being tried, but will deter the individual from re-offending. Jail is always a last resort.” Alex was also recently invited onto the Crime and Misconduct Committee, which investigates allegations of inhumane treatment of Indigenous people by members of the police force and other agencies.
Despite a life spent advocating for the rights of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system, Alex never tires of her work. The rewards are in the gratitude expressed by the people she sits with and listens to and in the peace she feels at the end of each day. But her days are long.
A crisis call could have her out of bed before dawn, driving 100 kilometers in one direction to deal with the sudden death of a prisoner before driving to an even more remote region to perform a funeral – and some days there are more than one.
In between there are her normal pastoral duties, which take her into the hospitals, homes and parks of Brisbane to provide support and comfort to the city’s sick and homeless Indigenous community.
Then there are the public forums, the committees; her role as a mentor for the Indigenous youth of her community, particularly young women in their teens and early twenties; and the educational seminars she gives to churches, universities and other institutions on subjects such as Aboriginal history and culture.
A 20-hour working day is not uncommon. When asked how she copes, Alex just laughs. “Yes, it can be tough at times, and by the end of each day I am really looking forward to sleep! But this is my vocation. This is what the ministry has called me to do. We, the stronger ones, have to carry the weak – it is our duty.”
The story of how a girl from Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission rose from poverty to become Queensland’s first Indigenous female priest is in itself a story of strength and courage. A large and loving family, and a community who looked after their own, could not shield Alex from the hardships that would eventually plague her as a Black woman living in a White world. She remembers a teacher who stood her in front of the class and labelled her a “dunce” who would never amount to anything; real estate agents who refused to rent out houses to her and her family because they were Aboriginal.
When, as a mature-age student, she successfully completed two Diplomas – the first in Theology, the second in Applied Social Sciences – she held the certificates in her hand and declared, “This if for the teacher who said I had no future”; when she purchased her own home, she knew the days of being refused a lease were behind her.
But beneath the surface, the scars are still there. They are still causing pain, and a lot of anger at the prejudice which, even in 2005, is still endured by so many Indigenous Australians. It is this anger, Alex believes, which fuels her energy to keep on challenging the complacent attitudes of national bodies and the Government towards Indigenous problems, to keep on demanding a better life for her people.
Nevertheless battles are won. Frustrated by an Anglican school system which excluded Indigenous children who could not afford the school fees, Alex lobbied the Anglican Church of Queensland on this issue. A number of schools agreed to offer scholarships, and today there are over 60 Aboriginal children attending Anglican schools, with Alex sitting as an Adopted Elder at one of them. She has also been successful in raising awareness on issues relating to Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Stolen Generation, and police brutality of Indigenous offenders.
On a personal level, Alex’s love for people is actively demonstrated. She is foster carer, for many years caring for a variety of young people in her own home – teenagers from the streets, children who have been placed with her on court orders. A mother of eight and grand-mother of 26, she is also very active in the life of her family. On Christmas Day, Alex’s home becomes even busier when she opens it up to the poor and the needy, who come from miles around to share in her hospitality.
Last year she had 37 guests. “She has given so much to so many people and has never asked for anything in return,” says Noritta Morseu-Diop, a social worker and associate lecturer with the University of Queensland. “She has worked tirelessly within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Brisbane for over 40 years and is respected by young and old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. Aunty Alex is my role model, my mentor.”
And for “Aunty Alex” this respect is a reward in itself. It is a constant reminder to her of the beauty of humanity, of what humans can achieve if they work together to help each other – a minor yet important victory won every day in the shadow of a larger, lifelong battle.
Another reward, she says, is the thanks she receives. “It is a joy when people I have met in the past come up to me and say, ‘Remember me, Aunty Alex? You helped me when I was in prison. You gave me some toiletries, you said a prayer for me. Thank you, Aunty.’
Thank you. Those two little words mean everything,” she says softly.
For this tireless human rights activist and criminal justice advocate who has spent her life fighting for change, perhaps now is the time to express our gratitude. (1000peacewomen).
Indigenous Australians are greatly over-represented in the criminal justice system, reflecting the history of socio-economic disadvantage and, in the last few years, a stricter approach to law enforcement. Sadly, in recent years, the greatest relative increase in incarceration has been for Indigenous women. The Indigenous female prison population increased by 262% between 1991 and 1999 (compared with an increase in non-Indigenous women of 185%). Indeed by June 2003, Indigenous women were incarcerated at a rate 19.3 times that of non-Indigenous women. The highest rates of incarceration for Indigenous women were recorded in Western Australia (428.6 per 100,000), New South Wales (383.1 per 100,000) and South Australia (286.3 per 100,000). (Figures: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Corrective Services – June Quarter 2003, p 22). Many Indigenous women are prominent in prison ministries, formally and informally. Rev Alexandra Gater (pic left) for example ministers to her people in prisons in the Brisbane area. She is also an Elder in the Brisbane Murri Magistrates Court, a Queensland Magistrates court which deals with sentencing adult Indigenous offenders. (full text).
Parliament of Australia, Senate: Completed Inquiries;
iwda news, INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DEVELOPMENT AGENCY;
Pray Daily, January 2007;
News of the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia.