Inspired by the walks of great activists across their country, but on a journey all of his own, Noongar man Clinton Pryor has set out on foot across Australia to seek justice for remote Aboriginal communities.
The 26-year-old Wajuk, Balardung, Kija and Yulparitja man set off from Matagurup (Heirisson Island) in Perth on September 8, with the intention of arriving in Canberra in six months to meet with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He has so far made it to Merredin over 200km away.
Pryor hopes the more than 3000-kilometer journey will pressure change in government policy affecting remote Aboriginal communities. “That the government agrees to refund communities to become self-sufficient and that communities are under the guidance of Elders,” he said.
“I want to do it for the love of my people, I’d do anything for the love of my country,” said Pryor. “To make the Australian people change, because we are better than this. I think someone’s got to give this country hope.”
One of Pryor’s first stops will be Karlgoorlie where protests occurred after a 55-year-old man was charged with manslaughter for killing 13-year-old Aboriginal boy, Elijah Doughty.
Pryor’s passage will continue northeast to Laverton, then Yulara, down to Cooper Pedy then Adelaide, and along the south east coast to Sydney and finally Canberra.
Pryor believes the action will shift the nation’s attitude towards remote Aboriginal communities. “The way how our people live in remote communities, the poverty, the way our people are treated in this country,” he said. “And the way the government plans to close down communities in Western Australia.”
WA Premier Colin Barnett’s November 2014 announcement that up to 150 communities would be closed due to federal funding cuts was met with outrage.
In July of this year, the Barnett Government introduced a renewed policy for services and funding to remote Aboriginal communities, the Stronger Families, Resilient Communities Roadmap to Reform.
The policy does not mention community closures, instead outlining a plan to prioritise investment in larger communities with “significant employment and education opportunities”. It also says “some smaller communities will be supported to become self-sufficient over time.”
Anthony Watson, chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, says the policy lacks vital information for the council to work off. The Kimberley and Pilbara region contain 89 per cent of Western Australia’s remote communities.
“We have a lot of concerns about the roadmap,” Watson said. “We see it as not being helpful to our communities. This proposal doesn’t go into detail so we don’t know what we are faced with. There’s a lot of doubt about where the funding will be going and to who.”
He agrees with Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt’s assessment that the roadmap could be akin to community closures by stealth.
“If they want to work with us to actually build communities we would be happy. They really need to work with traditional owners,” said Watson.
A motivating factor of Pryor’s walk is his fear services to smaller communities will be reduced and that homelessness will ensue. “I think this has been happening since Australia became a federation or even since 1788, to keep traditional owners down and suppress them all the time. This government has billions of dollars and they won’t spend it on remote communities.”
Another concern for people living in remote communities is the federal government’s restructure of welfare payments. Kara Keys, the Indigenous Officer of the Australian Council of Trade Unions says the work for the dole arrangement introduced in July 2015 is “a step back in all respects” from previous welfare policies for people residing in remote areas.
“The Community Development Programme is advertised as a program of assistance for those people who are unemployed in remote communities,” said Keys. “But in reality it is a program of compliance and punishment for an overwhelmingly Indigenous workforce.”
The CDP requires 25 hours of work for the full weekly payment, effectively paying recipients at below minimum wage and suspending payments if work is not reported.
As a child, Pryor lived in communities based in Carnarvon, Halls Creek, Kununurra and Mulan. “Growing up in remote communities gave me the connection of how to live like my ancestors, living free, talking like my people, learning how to live off the land.”
He says living conditions have not improved in these communities over the past two decades.
“Nothing has changed, it’s still the same. That’s why since I was a little boy, I have had a dream to save my people and save my culture,” he says.
Pryor will be collecting messages from traditional owners to present to Malcolm Turnbull. Part of his journey will go through the Central Desert. “It’s the only way I can get support from those people in the communities,” he said.
He is inviting people to walk parts of his journey with him and follow his route online. “This will show the encouragement of people united together.”