One day during recess at school Clarice and her younger brother were fetched from the playground by the principal. Next thing they knew they’d been put in a car and were being driven away by a stranger. Clarice was 10 and her brother six. It was the early 1960s, and the children had been removed from their family. Now designated ‘native wards’, they were taken to a mission farm for Aboriginal children near a large town south of Perth.
Their new environment was a shock. ‘To us kids it was big, frightening, it was scary. Even though there was other Aboriginal kids there, we wanted our dad. You know, these are sort of things that – we couldn’t comprehend, why were we there? … We didn’t understand it.’
The government policies that led to Clarice and her brother being taken from their family made no sense then and still don’t, she told the Commissioner.
‘I was safer at home. But this policy denied us the fact of having a safe environment, denied us the fact of having a mother and father and being a family … I just can’t understand why me and my brother, why we were taken from this safe environment and so was the rest of the mission kids, and put in a place that we didn’t know, in a place where we were taught to be adults before our time.’
At the mission, children did hard physical work. Beltings were commonplace. Girls and boys were in separate accommodation, with a road running between them. ‘I used to try to run across the road to see my brother, you know? Give him a hug.’ But this was forbidden, and Clarice was dragged back across to the girls’ side of the mission. Clarice’s mother and father were forbidden from visiting or contacting their children. It was five years before Clarice saw either parent again.
As time went by Clarice became a carer of other children at the mission. She and other older girls looked after the little babies. ‘We said, “Where’s their mothers? I’m only 12, and I’ve got to look after babies?” I said, “I don’t know how to look after babies”. But they made me look after babies.’
She came to understand that sexual abuse was widespread. ‘I knew what was happening, growing up and seeing things’, she said. Girls at the mission were having babies. ‘They weren’t black babies, they were fair-skinned babies. So what’s happening? What’s going on?’
At bath times Clarice would leave whatever else she was doing and run to make sure it was she who washed the younger kids, not certain staff members – ‘because I knew what was going to happen’. She did her best to protect them, she said. ‘That’s why they call me Mum today. Mum and big sister.’
When Clarice was 12 she was moved to accommodation for older girls. It was supervised by one of the missionaries, Keith Tanguay, and his wife Delia. Tanguay sexually assaulted many of the girls in his care. ‘Every night he used to pick one girl’, Clarice said. ‘When we see that door open we used to cover our heads.’
Eventually he chose Clarice, and raped her. ‘One night when I was sleeping I couldn’t breathe – I was trying to breathe and it was heavy on my chest … It was Mr Tanguay on me … I felt all hurting inside. And I tried to scream but I think he had his hand over me. He was a big man, he was about six foot tall, a big fella. Like a big rugby player.’
At breakfast the next day Clarice couldn’t eat. ‘I felt funny. I couldn’t look at anybody.’ When she got up to get on the school bus with the other kids, Tanguay stopped her. ‘He stood on the side there and he had a belt in his hand, and he pulled me to one side and he said – he said something like, “Don’t talk to anybody”.’
At school she felt unwell. ‘I went to get up to go to recess and next minute it was all warm down my leg – all warm and a big pain across my back … All I could see was blood and wee. I must have wet myself. And I said what happened here? I said what happened?’
An examination by the mission nurse revealed internal damage. ‘It’s torn’, she told Clarice. Clarice thought the nurse was talking about her dress. Later she realised it was her vagina.
No one investigated Clarice’s injuries. Tanguay didn’t sexually assault her again but he continued to assault others. ‘That man, he had a feast on young girls.’
When she was 15, Clarice was sent out to a property to work as a domestic. The owner tried to sexually assault her. Clarice ran away. She was helped by some Aboriginal people she met in the nearby town. She made a statement to police and eventually the man was charged. ‘Because I seen what [Tanguay] did to us, and I wasn’t going to let no other man do that to me’, she said.
Clarice ended up living with her grandmother on an Aboriginal reserve. She gained a university qualification and has had a successful professional life. She married and had children young. That marriage ended but she remained on good terms with her ex-husband. She remarried and has been with her second husband for close to 40 years.
She has never had any counselling. ‘Well, I sorta just got through life, you know’. But she received redress from the Western Australian Government and the application process led her to be more open about her experiences. She is now a central figure in the organisation set up to manage what used to be the mission, and is actively involved in healing programs established to help the children of the mission and their families.
‘It makes me so sad to see what we all went through, and we had nobody to tell. We had nobody to tell. We had nobody to look after us. We were taken off our families and put in danger.’
She remains very close to many of those she cared for at the mission. ‘Even today they say to me, “I know you‘ll always be there for me”, you know?’ She does her best to look after them, as she does her own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
‘Like an old hen, I still am.’