‘You know us Aborigines had no voice, no say, and besides, under the Native Welfare Act Aborigines were downcast in white society. They were superior over Aborigines. So it would have been a joke if I went to a white person and told them all about me.’
In 1950s Western Australia, Aboriginal people needed a special pass to go into town after dark. When Colette became seriously ill as a toddler, her parents disobeyed this ban and took her to a doctor in town even though it meant travelling through the night.
The doctor immediately ordered the nurse ‘to take this native baby from this native woman’, and shut the door on her mother. He called Welfare, who came and took Colette away by the back door.
Colette’s mum waited for hours, before the doctor finally informed her that her child was gone. ‘This is how I came to be placed in state care.’ Her dad died in an accident shortly afterwards, as ‘he was fretting for me, and could not focus on anything’.
Four-year-old Colette was sent to a Catholic mission in the wheatbelt, especially for Aboriginal children. She lived in constant fear, as extreme physical and psychological violence from the priests and nuns there was routine.
The kids were viciously flogged, forced to do hard manual labour, and told they would burn in purgatory for their ‘sins’. ‘We were so scared ... That’s why I couldn’t say anything to anybody.’
In the 1960s, several white teachers came in from outside. ‘Many of us had never seen white men before.’ Two teachers, Mr Sullivan and Mr Wright, were every bit as violent as the clergy, hitting the children with fists and blackboard dusters – and sexually abusing the girls too.
Sullivan would approach Colette from behind, and fondle her breasts. Putting his hand inside her pants, he would grind his penis against her until he ejaculated. This abuse happened many times.
Wright separated the students by their skin colour. The kids with darker skin, like Colette, were sent to sit in the ‘dunce’s corner’ and not provided proper lessons. Although the students had all previously been friends, the fairer kids started to ‘ridicule us like the teachers’, calling them ‘blackie’ and ‘camp dogs’.
‘I remember we used to stand in front of the mirror with our cake of sand-soap and brush, and try to wash the black off us, so our sisters would talk to us again.’
During reading times Wright would select a ‘favourite’ girl to sit on his lap, and hold this girl very tightly against him. Colette was glad she was in the ‘dunce corner’, as it meant he didn’t pick her too often.
When she was 13, Colette started working in the kitchens, so thought she could avoid the teachers. However, Sullivan continued to assault her and other girls when they were on the bus together for sporting trips, including digitally penetrating her vagina and anus.
Father Sturt, a priest at the mission, took the older girls for sex education lessons. This was very shameful for them, as even the nuns had never spoken to them about these things. He was very violent too, and sexually abused the girls.
‘He used to get me and the other girls at different times to pull him off’, would kiss and fondle Colette, and also made her perform oral sex. He abused Colette this way on many occasions.
‘Then he used to make me go to confess my sins with another priest.’ Her confession included saying what she had done with Sturt, which the priest then informed her was a mortal sin.
This further terrified Colette, as she’d been taught that committing a mortal sin meant you went to purgatory instead of heaven.
Colette left the home at 14 to work as a domestic. She could barely count, didn’t know how to catch a bus, and had no self-confidence.
‘I had nothing going for me. I couldn’t talk to anyone ... I had no dress sense. I suffered with shakes all over me. I couldn’t face white men, or any other white people for that matter. I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t even tell the time’.
She was violently raped around this time, by a man she met through a friend. ‘I never said nothing, because I thought that’s how men were.’ She fell pregnant, but miscarried. At 17 she became pregnant to another man, and was made to give her child up.
‘In those days, we never heard of counselling. I ended up an alcoholic to drown all the pain out. There were times in my life when I wanted to end it all.’
A good friend took Colette in after she became homeless, and she found other work. She met her husband, and they had children.
Colette did not know how to treat her own kids well, and it makes her very sad that her own experiences have impacted badly on her them too. They know a bit about the abuse she went through, but not all the details.
For a while, Colette kept in touch with the teachers and priest. She once asked Sturt about what had happened at the mission, and he told her ‘I was a young fella ... We were only young’. That was all he said.
Colette has been diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘I always go to sleep with the lights on. After all these years I still cry at night, because that’s when we used to cry back at the home, so that no-one saw us. I still suffer with bad, horrible nightmares.’
Recently, Colette has reported the abuse by Wright, Sullivan and Sturt to police, and provided a formal statement. She received some compensation through a state redress scheme, but did not tell them about all of her experiences.
Colette would like to see the old mission ‘knocked down, and burnt’, and ‘let the bush grow over it’. ‘I would never go back there to do my healing, no way. I would rather hang myself.’