‘We were stolen in April 1952’, Carl told the Commissioner. Carl was nine years old at the time. Police came with a Native Welfare Officer and took Carl and his two younger brothers away. ‘We couldn’t fathom why we were being taken and arrested’, he said.
The family was living in a small settlement in Western Australia. Carl’s father did seasonal work, cutting timber, shearing, picking grapes and other farm jobs. They had been living in Perth before, but had left because of the widespread police harassment of Aboriginal people.
Taken from their parents, grandparents and siblings, Carl and his brothers appeared in court and were committed to state care. Soon afterwards they found themselves placed in a Methodist mission.
‘No one was better off in those missions’, Carl said. ‘We were there to learn; we were there to become Western; we were there to become Christian; and we were there to lose all our nativeness.’
Carl never saw his parents again. He lived at the mission for the next seven years, until he was 16. By the time he left, both his parents had died. He wasn’t permitted to attend his mother’s funeral, and this was a source of lifelong sadness to him.
His new life at the mission was ‘exciting’ at first, he said. There were about 40 kids there, most of them Aboriginal. ‘Not all of them were from my country – it was a mixed bag’, he said. That made it hard for the children to know what their kinship rules and obligations were. ‘It was a mess, all right.’
Nonetheless, over time they were able to create a sense of community amongst themselves. They made a family. ‘I became friends then with people from another nation. I would never have met them otherwise. That’s one good thing that came out of it.’
In other ways Carl’s new life was a terrible shock. ‘I lived in the bush with my mum and dad, all my life with them. It was a totally different life.’ He had grown up eating bush food, and had not lived in a house. His parents had very little money but it didn’t matter.
‘They gave us themselves … that’s far greater than any amount of money. As far as we were concerned we were very, very rich people living in the bush. And very healthy.’
As a nine-year-old, he was already familiar with his cultural traditions and had practised them for a long time. ‘[At the mission] each time you spoke your language you were flogged. Any time you did something cultural, meaningful for yourself – you were flogged’, he said.
‘It seemed to me that we had a terrible lot of beltings and floggings … They were brutal. Very brutal. Well, they were there to do a job.’
Carl was also sexually abused while he was at the mission, as were others, he is certain.
The children at the mission went to school but also had jobs to do. There was a night roster for jobs such as milking the cows, chopping wood, cleaning the kitchen and setting the tables.
‘On night duty the cook would turn the light off from time to time and abuse some of the boys – it certainly happened to me.’ The abuse included fondling and penetration and continued until Carl was 10 or 11, when it just stopped – Carl didn’t know why.
‘He never faced justice. You couldn’t tell the supervisor, you couldn’t tell anybody’, he said. ‘No one would have believed us anyway.’
Once the kids in the mission turned 16, most were taken to Perth and left there, ‘just discarded’, without resources or support of any kind. Carl was luckier. He went on to have three-year training at an agricultural college. He avoided the abuse of alcohol and drugs that many of his peers at the mission succumbed to.
‘I had the good sense to see the pain and the hurt and the grief and the stress that it was and that it is. I worked out that if I sought revenge for all the injustices in my life then I would end up in jail, for a long time.’
Instead, he studied theology and became a minister, and gained additional qualifications as well. ‘As I walk down the street I can hold my head up high in the white man’s world’, he told the Commissioner.
Carl has received $45,000 through the Western Australian government’s redress scheme, but didn’t see much value in the process. ‘What is the money for?’ he asked. As for the written apology he received, signed by Premier Colin Barnett: ‘It’s a laugh’.
He has never disclosed his experiences at the mission to his wife or children. ‘The fact is that nobody else understands … You’re ashamed of yourself. You’re filthy, you’re dirty.’
Carl believes he survived those experiences because of what he learned from his grandfather. ‘I could see my grandfather standing over me and driving me forwards’, he said.
‘He was the greatest man I’ve known. My grandfather left a legacy in me, in my person, that’s stood me, as it stood him, in good stead.’
Now retired and dealing with significant health issues, Carl said his priority is his family. ‘My policy as a dad is if my kids need me, I will drop everything and be there. And if my grandkids need me, I will drop everything and go be with them, physically. Nothing takes the place of the physical presence of a parent … The greatest thing I can do is just be with them.’
He is also returning to the ways he grew up with. ‘Now that I’ve finished all my studies, I’m retired, I’m at an age where I’m a senior, I’m starting to look back and I’m saying to myself, “Where are those things that are better? What has the colonial brought us that is better?” And I’m going back to the bush. So it’s full circle’, he said.