Ernie was born in Guyra, Northern NSW at a time when the lives of Aboriginal people were heavily controlled by the government policies of “assimilation”. His mother was a part of the Stolen Generation, a woman who dedicated her life to keeping her family together. Growing up with eight sisters, Ernie was the man of the house! Today, Ernie works at Wundarra Children’s Services, where he provides residential care to children and young people who are removed from their families.
Tell us about where and how you grew up …
I was born in Guyra in Northern NSW, at a time when the lives of Aboriginal people were very heavily controlled by government policies of “assimilation”. However, the constant threat of “protection” (which basically meant that Aboriginal children could still be taken from their families without real cause) was still very real, both in the memories of my parents’ experiences and in reality. Due to the existence of these policies, I grew up in a number of different places, as my parents moved us frequently to keep us all together and safe. I lived most of my life and had my schooling in Armidale.
When did you move to Coffs Harbour, and what brought you here?
I moved to Coffs Harbour in1998 for a sea change. When I was a child, my family would visit Sawtell every year at Christmas time and I always planned to live on the coast.
You have eight sisters and a brother. What was it like growing up in a household full of girls?
It was pretty good actually. I have three older sisters and five younger sisters, in addition to my younger brother, so I guess I was a bit spoiled. Mum and the girls did my ironing, and I don’t remember ever having to do chores around the house. Although, I may have mowed the lawn on the odd occasion, but my role in the family was more the protector of my sisters.
Your mother was part of the Stolen Generation. How much impact has that had on her life, you, and your family?
My mother’s experience as one of the Stolen Generation has significantly influenced both my personal and professional life. My mother was taken from her family at Walcha Aboriginal Mission during her formative years as a very young child and was not able to return to her family and community until she was a young adult. When she returned, both her parents had died and her brothers and sisters were scattered around the county, and it took many years for her to find them and reconnect with them. The impact this had on my mother strongly affected both her feelings about herself and her child rearing practices. She felt a loss of identity and self-esteem, which she fought hard to overcome.
The reason I started up my business was due to the history of people like my mother and the ongoing removal of Aboriginal children. I wanted to play a positive part in the experiences of these children and provide an alternative, culturally appropriate care environment.
Your mother is a bit of an icon back in Armidale. Tell us about her and some of the achievements she has reached in her lifetime …
My mother had the rare ability to turn the negatives in her life into positives in the lives of others. Not only did she raise 10 children of her own, but she took in the homeless, abused and people that no one else cared about. She worked with youth and other Aboriginal offenders in the Aboriginal Circle Sentencing Program and Night Patrols and was nominated for and awarded the 2006 Justice Award from the NSW Law and Justice Foundation. She was an early activist at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and was also instrumental in the development of Aboriginal education and health programs and services in Armidale and across the Northern Tablelands.
She was seen as a community leader by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Armidale and across NSW. Many of the services and programs available to Aboriginal people in Armidale today are due to Mum’s direct contribution and social activism within the community.
Your family was one of the first families in Australia to be assimilated back in 1967. How did that experience shape you and your family?
We were actually moved under a government policy of assimilation in 1963 to a brand new house in St Mary’s (Sydney). Prior to moving to Sydney, we lived in a tin shanty at Rob Roy near Inverell. The place had no running water and a dirt floor that Mum used to sweep out with a tea tree bush, but we had lots of fun with a lot of freedom. My father was also given a job with the Council in St Mary’s as part of our “assimilation”. Dad’s job was to empty the toilet cans into a truck parked out the front of houses. As you can imagine, it was not a very pleasant job, and it was a whole new experience for all of us. By 1966 we had already left our house in St Mary’s and travelled back up to Purfleet Aboriginal Mission near Taree and then later to Uralla, before we finally settled in Armidale – where I grew up.
You studied drama at the University of New England in Armidale. Where has that led you over the years?
Although I enjoyed studying drama at UNE in Armidale, I didn’t pursue this as a career. Along the way though, I got to meet other Aboriginal actors and writers like Ernie Dingo, Justine Saunders and Oodgeroo Nunnucal (otherwise known as Kath Walker). I performed in the stage plays Cake Man and Capricornia and really enjoyed acting and meeting people in the industry. Prior to my study at UNE, I’d never done any acting, and this experience really gave me a lot of confidence.
You have three very talented daughters. Why are you most proud of them?
I have three beautiful daughters. My eldest daughter graduated from university as a nurse, and my two younger daughters are twins. One is a very talented athlete and the other is equally talented in the arts and dance.
Tell us about your experience with cancer …
I was diagnosed with bowel, lung and liver cancer and underwent chemotherapy and three major operations over two to three years. Throughout this time I gained a greater appreciation of my own resilience and strength and was fortunate to have the support of my family. Having cancer made me look at life very differently than I did before. I appreciate the people and opportunities I have in my life, and I try to surround myself with positive people.
Wundarra Children’s Services do wonderful work with young people, and on any given day we can find you there giving back to the community …
Wundarra Children’s Services is a service that provides residential care to children and young people who are removed from their families and placed under the care and protection of the Minister for Family and Community Services. Services we provide include educational opportunities, drug and alcohol counselling and sexual assault counselling. We work in partnership with local police, Juvenile Justice, Family and Community Services and local mental and medical health professionals and other Services like ours in Coffs. We also provide our services in other areas across NSW, including the western and central western regions.
What are some of the challenges faced in your industry?
Providing care for such high needs children and young people can be very challenging, but also very rewarding. Funding issues, constantly seeking qualified staff, lack of resources and working within the policies and procedures across a range of government partners can be difficult and sometimes confusing. It can also be difficult working with other offices, as they all have different practices and expectations. Wundarra always provides a comprehensive service and are able to meet the needs of clients.
What do you like about living on the Coffs Coast?
My father was a Dhungutti/Biripai man from the NSW Mid North Coast, and I have always had an affinity with coastal living. My daughters and granddaughters were born and raised here, and we can’t imagine living anywhere else.