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Wednesday, 16 April 1980
Page: 1524

Senator EVANS (Victoria) -Two weeks ago, during the Easter parliamentary break, I attended a funeral in Alice Springs. Funerals are always sad occasions and particularly so when close personal friends are involved. This was a sadder occasion than most. The man whose death we mourned was a young Aboriginal, Brian Kamara Willis, who at the time of his death was Director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Service. He was just 26 years old. He died in tragic circumstances, by his own hand- whether accidentally or not remains a matter for the coroner to determine. He left a young wife, Lynette, with three small children and a fourth on the way.

I believe that Brian Kamara Willis's life and death should not go unnoticed by this Parliament, because it represents in many ways a tragic encapsulation of the Aboriginal experience in this country. He was a man of enormous innate intelligence and capacity. He had been trying for the last six years to harness, discipline and develop that capacity in the service of his people. I believe that had he survived and been able to ride out for another year or two the enormous pressures bearing down upon him he would have gone on to become one of the great leaders of the Aboriginal people and would have been recognised and acknowledged as such throughout the nation. As it is, with his achievements only just beginning, his death will go more or less unremarked, and I think that is a tragedy.

Brian Willis was born 26 or 27 years ago- he was never quite sure- somewhere in the Northern Territory. It might have been Alice Springs or Darwin or somewhere in between. Again, he was never quite sure. His mother was black and his father was white. That status as a half-caste, or a 'yeller feller' as full-blood blacks say, was something that haunted him throughout his life.

He was fiercely proud of his Aboriginality. But equally he was acutely conscious of his inbetween status so far as both full-blood blacks and whites were concerned. That search for racial identity, for a sense of belonging somewhere, anywhere, was something that most of us in this Parliament can perhaps barely begin to understand. It was one of the central struggles, the great traumas, of his existence.

As a young boy aged seven Brian Willis was snatched from the arms of his mother- there is no other phrase to describe it- in accordance with the misnamed welfare policies of the time. He was sent south to Adelaide to white foster parents and spent his childhood in a variety of institutionalised settings, totally losing contact in the process with his natural mother, a contact which he regained only years later when, in his mid-teens, he came back to the Northern Territory and after following a trail of memories and contacts for a number of months finally found his mother living out an unhappy existence in fringe dweller's camps around Darwin. That whole experience and everything associated with it was undoubtedly the second great forming experience, the second great trauma, of his life. Perhaps again it was one of the pressures that contributed to his death.

Brian's formal education had not gone very far. He had not completed even his fourth year of high school. He drifted into the only kinds of employment that that education fitted him for. He was a labourer, garbage collector, and a rouseabout on stations in the Northern Territory for four or five years. Then in 1974 he was employed as a field officer by the Aboriginal Legal Service in Alice Springs. From then on things started to come together. He and others around him came to appreciate and to understand for the first time his ability and his potential. He developed the ambition to become qualified as a lawyer, however long that took, and then to return to the Northern Territory to serve his people in that capacity. With help from those in the Legal Service and the Aboriginal study grants program that was then getting off the ground he came to Melbourne in 1975 to attempt his Higher School Certificate as a prerequisite to university entrance. That was where I first met him and began a close and lasting friendship with him and his family.

Histeachers in Melbourne were quite astonished at his capacity to write and master wholly new concepts. His school year was progressing extremely well until he was taken seriously ill and had to abandon his studies and return home. But, on the basis of that progress and the reports of his teachers, Brian Willis was, nonetheless, admitted the following year to the Law School at the University of Melbourne under its new disadvantaged students quota. I was teaching there at that time and was closely involved, along with a number of other fellow teachers, with Brian as he fought his way through that first year of law, successfully completing enough subjects on the way to be admitted to the second year. He had to overcome quite extraordinary educational handicaps and quite extraordinary social and emotional handicaps, such as separation for long periods from his wife and family and home. But that first year under those circumstances was an extraordinary achievement.

He came back to Melbourne in 1977 for the second year. This time the pressures, particularly of being hemmed in by a city where there just seemed no opportunity for physical or emotional escape, proved too much. He was given permission after a few months to defer his course and to come back the following year. He went back to the Northern Territory to work for the Darwin, and Alice Springs Aboriginal Legal Services. He became caught up with that work and in the middle of 1979 he was appointed full time director of the Alice Springs Aboriginal Legal Service, which I know was one of the proudest moments of his life. He never abandoned his ambitions ultimately to become a lawyer in his own right. He became enrolled again early this year as an external law student at the Queensland Institute of Technology.

Over the last 18 months Brian Willis was becoming a more and more articulate and outspoken champion of his people. In a series of newspaper articles published in Darwin and Alice Springs in 1979 he expressed with a remarkable clarity and intensity of feeling, in a way that has not been matched I suspect before or since, the sense of what it was to be not only an Aborigine but a part Aborigine- an in-between man, a yeller feller- in the Northern Territory. He wrote of what an appalling crime against humanity the old departmental policy of legalised kidnapping had been. He wrote of how necessary it was that, in order to give part Aborigines some of that sense of recognition and identity and belonging that was beginning to be offered to traditional full-blood Aboriginals, they too should be acknowledged some land rights so that they could acquire a spiritual home. Talking about the plight of those like himself who had come into the world as members of that race in the middle and in particular, those who like himself had been torn away from their environment before they could acquire a proper Aboriginal identity of their own, Brian Willis in one of these newspaper articles said:

A lot of these children started to search for their roots when they grew up.

They tried to trace where they came from, whether they had any sisters or brothers, where their mother was.

But in the big majority of cases these searches were futile.

Many half-castes who failed in their search fell by life's wayside, sought solace in alcohol, trying to escape from their feelings of being alone and dispossessed.

They had no sense of where they could call their home, no sense of being wanted, all traces of their families had disappeared.

I must say that every human being has to have these basic elements: A sense of belonging to someone, some identifiable area you can call home.

Once you have got these essential things you know that love is there. They make life for a human being worth living.

In the end, Brian Willis just could not fight the pressures, shrug off the prejudices, sustain the struggle for long enough. On the night he died he attended a function- a political gathering. He got up, as he so often had done, to make a little speech. The last words anyone remembers him saying publicly were these:

The urban black, the part Aboriginal, is the maninbetween. He has nothing.

So Brian Willis died. But I would not like anyone, least of all the members of his family, who have been magnificent, to think he has been forgotten.

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