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For too many Aboriginals still, Australia is no ‘Lucky Country’

[Editor's Note: Vancouver-based Ian Gill is filing to the The Hook while visiting Australia, his country of origin. His previous item is here.]

Two shocking revelations from Western Australia this week, both involving Freddo frogs. A Freddo frog is a small, frog-shaped, foil-wrapped chocolate bar that has been standard fare in any Aussie kid’s sugar inventory for decades. As someone who grew up on them, and recalls learning the hard economic lesson of inflation when the price went from 3 to 5 cents per frog, I was startled to learn this week that Freddo frogs now price out at 70 cents apiece. That, and a million dollars, will get you a modest bungalow in the far northwestern town of Broome, where house prices have inflated to make even Vancouver seem almost affordable.

However, the reason Freddo frogs were in the news was not sticker shock, but rather that a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy in Western Australia was accused of accepting, from another boy who had stolen it from a store, a Freddo frog. Being in possession of a fenced Freddo, the boy was frog-marched down to the police station and duly charged. He was headed for a date with the magistrate until a public outcry caused police to withdraw the charge and refer him to a juvenile justice team.

Thus, barely, did another Aboriginal youth avoid going to jail in a state where 40 per cent of the state’s prison population is Aboriginal, many there for minor offences that draw prison terms in WA Premier Colin Barnett’s crackdown on crime. The premier’s dragnet is being ridiculed for overcrowding the jails to the point that prisoners sleep on mattresses on jailhouse floors. Still, at least they have a mattress. In Broome, price inflation means house ownership, even rental, is out of reach for many local people, especially Aboriginal people. In a corner of Australia that is in the grip of a resource boom, which is about to get even louder with the advent of a huge natural gas project offshore, a popular -- or at least populist -- new notion is that of “royalties for regions.” The idea is that royalties from mines or other big resource grabs should be directed not to public coffers in Perth (state) or Canberra (federal), but should actually be deployed to build infrastructure in the region from whence those resources are derived.

Aboriginal people could sorely use the help. Western Australia has a history of unkindness to its Aboriginal people. Recall the popular film Rabbit Proof Fence, a true story of young women relocated as part of the so-called Stolen Generation to a camp near Perth, who escaped and found their way home to Jigalong by following a wildlife fence through the desert. WA is also the state singled out by Wade Davis in his recent book The Wayfinders ¬-- which is the published narrative of his recent CBC Massey Lectures radio presentation -- as being infamous for its Native Administration Act of 1936, which said no native person could move anywhere in the state without permission of the government. “No Aboriginal father or mother was permitted legal custody of a child. Aboriginal people could be ordered into reserves and institutions or banished from towns.”

The Act was repealed in 1963, but on the outskirts of Broome you wouldn’t know it While there have been many important advances for Aboriginal people in Australia, many of them today continue to live in custody, or if not, on the margins of mainstream Australian life. It seems there’s a long way to go before royalties for regions will make much difference to Aboriginal populations across “the top,” as Aussies call the north. Not even a Freddo frog can sweeten the current plight of people whose systemic marginalization continues to be a stain on this, The Lucky Country.

Ian Gill is president of Ecotrust Canada and interim CEO of Ecotrust Australia. His new book is All That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation.

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