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Wilma Grace's story

Wilma was born on an Aboriginal mission in Western Australia in the late 1940s, and lived there until she was 20. Her mother left when she was three, and Wilma lived with her grandmother. She would accompany her in the early mornings when she began her day’s work as a cook for the missionaries.

Because she and the other children were always hungry, Wilma used to hide under the table, in search of scraps of food. ‘A big cat was under the table, and every time, I punched the cat. That cat was more quicker than me.’ When one of the missionaries told her grandmother, ‘Your granddaughter is fighting with my cat’, she replied, ‘Well, anyway, that cat is more fatter than my granddaughter’.

Wilma told the Commissioner, ‘The little girls from the dormitories came along and played with me … talking … urging me on, I could go and stay with them in the dormitory, and I didn’t want to’. Even though she wanted to stay with her grandmother and aunties, Wilma was sent to live in the dormitory when she was five.

‘[We were] making dolls out of wattles and stuff and then the nun came along and when I seen her, this white dress, and a big red face … “This is the devil” I’m saying to myself, and then she said “Hello” … I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t even meet her eye, and she thought I was deaf and dumb.’

There was a lot of brutal punishment at the mission. If no one owned up to a misdemeanour, then everyone was punished. If you did own up, ‘you’d get the biggest hiding, with the oleander stick … [I’d say], “Oh, that stick’s going to break my skinny legs”. I’d just scream and scream, I tell you. My legs used to be swollen after that’.

The children went to school at the mission, but there were ‘500 children … and one nun to teach us … she used to be very strong and … whacked [us] with an oleander stick, and she had cross-eyes … We thought she wouldn’t be looking at us, but she was … She’d take us fishing during the week … because she liked fishing and when she threw the line in, we’d pray for that fish must come and bite her leg’.

The children were always hungry. They had a poor diet, with very few vegetables, so they used to steal food from the garden. ‘There was one nun trying to do good things, you know, but she died. She was good with little children, give them milk in the afternoon.’

Wilma told the Commissioner that the children weren’t allowed to speak their language and would get ‘a slap across the face’ if they did, and they would be punished if they were seen sitting with the old people. Some of the old people would sing hymns in their language, and if the children were caught listening outside the church, they’d get belted.

Wilma and many of the other children, both boys and girls, were sexually abused by a bishop who visited the mission. He used to refer to what he was doing to them as ‘crucifixion’.

When she was in her 20s, Wilma was in a cafe in town with some of her aunties, ‘and out of the blue, I just said, “How do you like … the crucifixion” and they [said], “Don’t you dare say that” … because they’d had it … It happened all the years since that old man came here … all the girls that came before us. I think we were the last ones’. The bishop eventually went overseas, where he died.

Wilma told the Commissioner, ‘The girls didn’t know nothing … They knew about crucifixion and death of our Lord and they couldn’t say a word. So they thought it was a holy thing to do, but I didn’t … and when they told me to shut my mouth up I said to them, “I won’t shut my mouth up”, and when this other bishop came along … I said, “Would you give me a crucifixion?” “What’s that?” he said. He didn’t know, so I shut my mouth. I didn’t want to say anything’.

Wilma has got through life by working hard, but ‘my memories were always there … When I got a little bit older I try to drink some beer to block it out … I didn’t know who to talk to … There were no people’. She still has nightmares about the abuse, and ‘one time I ate lye soap … to cleanse myself, I suppose’.

Wilma told the Commissioner, ‘[The mission] wasn’t [a] good place for young girls to live in … I used to cry for my grandmother and my mother. I remembered my mother ... “You shouldn’t be crying for your family” they said … I used to stay with some little girls that had no mother, no father, and we used to sit together and cry’.

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