Deadly people

Deadly People and Their Stories is a collection of stories from unsung heroes – people who work tirelessly for their families and communities, but who may not be recognised for their achievements. This collection is a way to celebrate these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working to better their communities. The project produced a calendar featuring each person’s story with portraits by photographer James Henry.

We heard some amazing stories from these people, from Elders to youth. We would like to thank everyone who took the time to share their experiences.


Deadly People and Their Stories was a joint project by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service caters specifically for the legal needs of the Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

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Contact us for more information on the Commission’s activities or browse issues of our Aboriginal newsletter Rights Yarn Up

Aunty Shirley Firebrace


Aunty Shirley Firebrace

My name is Shirley Firebrace. I am one of seven children. My father was Arthur Firebrace, and my mother was Shirley Moore Russell – Yorta Yorta people. I was born in Echuca and lived in Moama, and lived a very happy, free life. I have lots of good memories from there, of rivers flooding, and all the fish and Murray cray, and the smell of the river, and it was all beautiful. I was born there and I was part of all the families of the Yorta Yorta, but I would also go up to Wadi Wadi country, of the wise people. Anyway, I am Yorta Yorta, Wadi Wadi, and I have been working in the Aboriginal community for over 30 years.

I started working in Aboriginal education in 1980 at Gowrie Street, up there, with Aunty Mary Atkinson, Rhonda Dean and Maxine Smith, and they were wonderful years because I used to go out helping young Aboriginal students in secondary and primary schools. From there I went on to after-care programs, helping young children with after school programs in Mackay, Queensland, and helping all the mothers to be involved with their children at school. I worked at the Margaret Tucker Hostel, looking after young women. That was a very rewarding job, tough at times but very rewarding. I have worked at the Department of Human Services, helping all ALHAC (Allied Health Home and Community Care Services), to do with our health service, helping the allied health system get up over at the Aboriginal Advancement League with our home care. I also helped ACES with their planned activity group, to make sure that they had enough funding money, enough support and helping them with their training. That was also a very rewarding job. I worked at Darebin Community Health for approximately eight years, looking after our beautiful people there. That started back in 1996, and I think I was really the first Aboriginal person to work in mainstream as an Aboriginal Access Worker, making sure that their system there had appropriate policies and had appropriate access for Aboriginal people into health care. I was  also teaching them to be culturally appropriate, individually, and all the staff across all the different sectors.

I started up the Kookaburra Club – the famous Kookaburra Club – which has now been going for 10 years. The Kookaburra Club provided social and cultural exchange, BBQs, trips, bingo, health and justice info sessions and access to allied health. I also started the Emu Strutters Exercise Program. A lot of our Elders are getting a lot of happiness and joy through that, but I’ve also worked with our beautiful Elders from Aboriginal Community Elders Services, they come from a very special place.

I also worked at the Austin Hospital, working with our very ill people, through the Acute system, who were dying of cancers and diabetes, and really serious health issues. I was a co-founder of DATSIC, the Aboriginal Council that is now at Darebin City Council. That started up after DASN (Darebin Aboriginal Support Network), and a team of us worked very hard, we had to get all the support from the majority of councilors to get DATSIC up. We had 100% vote to support our Aboriginal people, and that is the first one in Australia because it actually has legal powers. So now it is really good that DATSIC is helping our people with art grants so that they can purchase their goods, and they are doing great work in changing policies with Council.

I have worked on issues with the Department of Justice for a year or so to help build better relationships between local police, such as Reservoir, Preston and Northcote Police Stations, to have better relationships with our people – one to one. I can think of a couple of funny occasions when we had a couple of officers – young officers they were, they came to the Kookaburra Club – and I said to them, ‘mate, it’s really good to see you’, and I said, ‘now you’re not just coming here to sit around and drink a cup of tea’. I said, ‘you’ve got to work’. So they said, ‘what do you want us to do?’. I said ‘you’re going to call bingo!’ There they were, these young officers, calling bingo. We had about 15 to 20 of our people there and everyone was laughing. They were really happy, and it was wonderful seeing people talking with people, breaking down all those barriers and all those fears. People were taking different attitudes. I did that with darling Jen Stokes, and she was the lady that headed up the big boss in starting up the legal service in Fitzroy – a community legal service type thing. Anyway, so the police used to come to a lot of functions etc. They were good days because the relationships were getting a lot better, and this inspector, a district inspector, he was really supportive of everything we were doing. That was really important work.

I have done all different sorts of work – I have even worked in factories, picked fruit in Shepparton, such as apples, pears, whatever, anything to get a job. I actually was picking tomatoes one day and there were all these thistles everywhere so I called a strike. I did that a bit – walk out of the paddock – and everyone else walked out. But yeah, I picked green apples, red apples, peaches, apricots, pears – that is hard yakka but you do it, you know you got to go out there and earn yourself a quid. Not only that, but be a good example to your children, teach them the ethics and standards to go out and work and earn your money, that is very important. Yeah done that, worked in a factory out at Dandenong it was actually, pressing filler into cheese and I was going as fast as I could, I couldn’t go any faster! That was terrible.

I did studies out at an artist colony, painting leatherwork by Rowena Wallace’s brother Peter Wallace, and he was a master of it, an absolute master of it. So I did that with him and then studied with the Australian Academy of Floristry – flowers, silk flowers, and also dried flowers. So I’m looking forward to getting back into that again. I even helped at ACES, and had all the Elders there, teaching them floristry. It was a beautiful time and I have really lovely photos of it – it was very important to me.

When I was at the Austin, I had the whole place done out in photos of Aboriginal people. Doctors used to come there and asked to come into the room – it was that powerful. That’s sidetracking. But anyway, I knew that after seeing all the things that I had seen through Acute Health and through Primary Health, that those things were too late. They were at the stages of being too late.

So then I ended up where I had a job to go to Maya Healing Service for women, because women are very important, being powerful to families. I was the co-coordinator for the women’s programs here. It was around prevention but also culture. Out of all the things I have learned in all my days, the most important thing is that it has to go back to culture. We have to go back to the practice of what we always practised, you know, like things around social business, around language, around family, around story-telling – story-telling is very powerful – and around our art and our music, because this is what is missing for our young ones, we have to get the young children listening.

You see you have mathematics and you have all those different things, but without having your emotional and spiritual connection to your land and to your family, and to all the things I said before, you’re lost. That is part of the problem, because we are living in a city. We are living in a city, and so we are living in someone else’s country. That makes it even harder.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, when you are emotionally or spiritually sick or disconnected, the physical business comes, no matter how much money goes into allied health. It comes from that – that is why we have to concentrate on our children and families, but also on our connection to our language and to our practices. Within our language is also the order of where you are within your family, because everyone has status. But the centre of that is the mother.

There is not enough happening for women you see. There are a lot of good things happening for our men, and things have been happening for youth, but we are missing the key of the woman (we even call the earth the ‘mother’). You know that old saying, ‘where there’s a good man there’s a good woman’, you know what I’m saying? And it’s to do with the role of the carer, and all our responsibilities we have as mothers, and the discipline comes with that. It really does, the discipline comes, and that’s why a lot of our mob are going to drugs and alcohol and violence, all of that.

You can have a variety of different programs – housing and all those things; but what enriched me the most was being with my mob and sitting with the Elders, hearing the stories, being with them, you know, like Aunty Liz Hoffman and all the others. My aunties from Shepparton, you know, Margaret Wirrpunda, these amazing women have given so much. I just sort of sat there for years just listening. They taught diplomacy, they taught control, but they also taught discipline and they also taught when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’.

It is something that you earn, it’s not just given, you have to earn it. And so I was very privileged to be around that type of company, because that’s where you get your strength. That’s why I’d like to see Yorta Yorta women going back to our country, taking the young ones with them and they share that experience. If you come from another country, like Gunditjmara or wherever, you’ve got to go back to your own place. There’s too much of the crossing over, it doesn’t work, it’s not the same. It is not the same, that’s what I’m saying. To an Italian, if you’re Calabrese, what, you’ve got to learn Sicilian. They are different, and we are different. We have to base it around that. We have very good news too that up in the Barmah Forest it is now a national park, great victory, great victory.

But yeah, so for me the very important thing for me now is the woman. It’s around teaching, getting to our younger ones – like starting from little babies, boorai – because it does start from there. It starts from boorais and then it goes into the googa – young one – so it goes into that, and then you’re going into young kid………………., young sisterhood, and then you go into sister, then you go into narboo, then you go into googa, then you through to see the Elder. So all those things have an order, and a lot of things are missing respect, that’s the problem. So what we have to do is invest our time and energy with these young ones.

I’ve done some stuff over the last two years over here at Thornbury Primary School, but it’s not just for our Aboriginal girls, it’s for non–Aboriginal people, because we have to be seen for who we are. We love to give and we have so much to give. So much history, culture, stories and dance etc.  We’re a very giving, beautiful people, very beautiful people, but sadly it’s been through other people’s attitudes. That’s why we must do things together, educate each other, show our culture, show who we are, show our leadership. We have such wonderful leadership. We have Aboriginal people who are doctors – I’ve met them. Doctors, lawyers, brilliant business people, teachers. My daughter is a physiotherapist, you know, my mother was the head of a union. There are so many wonderful things that our people are doing, but sadly it’s not promoted enough. We hear a lot about the negatives, and these things have emotional and spiritual impacts on us and our young ones. That’s why our story-telling is important, so then we can hear the stories. My dad was in the war, his father was in the war. All our uncles were in the war, you know, and there are a lot of Firebraces buried in France.

There are all stories around that, but it shows what our people have done. But not only that, through the other wars we’ve had in our own country. So in sharing all that it actually gives you your strength. They make you think, ‘hang on, I come from this’. Big powerful strong red gum trees, corroboree, shake a leg.

A good Jewish friend of mine said these words to me – and he travelled the world all the time – he said, ‘you know what Shirley?’ he said ‘God gave you this country as he gave us Israel’. And he said, ‘you always had your garden green’. And we did, we were (and still are) the most brilliant environmentalists, brilliant lore people. We didn’t need supervision because through our lore, through the order and structure of the family, everybody knew their boundaries. That person is the caretaker of the arts, he’s the caretaker of that story and of that place, etc. We didn’t need money. Isn’t that brilliant? We didn’t need money, and we didn’t even need a jail. We didn’t need prisons; we didn’t need any of that because the lore stood. And it kept the balance of all things, we were blessed with everything. We had the garden of Eden, so that’s why I reckon it would be really good if we could get back to sharing more and more with others, sharing more and more of this, of who we are. And it’s more and more important too for the next generation, especially for the southern Aboriginal people, that they understand that through history what Aboriginal people look like now. That we are blond-haired, blue-eyed. My cousin has red hair. But we’re strong, strong-blooded people.

What I think is very, very important is respect, absolute respect and unity –  coming together for healing, because we are all in the same place, but we need a healing process for ourselves. We must do that with respect and through culture, and we need to have those processes.

It is very powerful, we need that healing. See, one of the things that we did when our people crossed the over to other side, was wailing – we wailed. We don’t do that. That’s the same thing as coming together to grieve, so we should have those days when we come together to heal – together. Not come in with any sort of political motivation. I hate politics. It comes from the time that the white man came here, but it’s a very ruthless thing and very divisive. That’s the square, we’re the circle. We’re the circle, and there is a lot of difference. Circles are wheels and they go round and round but squares go, plunk, plunk, plunk.

I’ve seen this show, it was talking about Africa. It shows the power of politics, and how politics bring poverty. And our poverty brings illness, and how that brings disempowerment. It brings all the emotional, spiritual illnesses with it. That’s why we’ve got to be thinking about our own spirituality and connection – who we are as Aboriginal people – for things to change. And I truly believe that. From what I’ve seen it will never change, until we sit there and really talk about this. Do it in such a way that it’s done respectfully. It will never change until we sit down as Aboriginal people, and do our healing.

Look how many wonderful Aboriginal people we have out there working with people. You look at it, you look at us as Aboriginal people, we get less in wages. People respect you because you work in an Aboriginal agency. Well you do all that, you do 10, 15, 20 different jobs under terrible conditions, and yet when I’ve worked in mainstream – completely different. So we’re still working under those conditions and still not being equally measured to the wider Australia. We’re still oppressed, even with our housing business, I cannot understand this. We are oppressed under that system.

I have many many good memories of being together as a community, as a unified community in one voice, fighting. One voice – not all these difference pockets here and there. Because it is killing us. It is just killing us. We need to come back, that’s what we’ve got to do, the cultural business. You do the cultural business, the rest comes in. The rest falls in its place. I remember the day, even here at the League, there would be hundreds of people, we would even come from down Shepparton. People would come from everywhere, but we had the one commonality, it wasn’t against each other.

And that’s where me and Shaz (Sharon Firebrace) and a few other friends were on the first ALP Policy Committee, and you had to be elected in by the ALP. That was about bringing policy changes, bringing in more money so that we can have all these services. We can have all those services, but we’ve got to go back to the cultural business. It’s the only answer. Then we come in as a force, because you know the old thing of ‘divide and conquer’? It’s still happening. It is still happening, and it’s our enemy.

So when you look at these young ones, from what I can see, incarceration has got worse. It has increased with women. How many of the 350 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have been implemented? Everything’s bad. Look at Mulrunji Doomadgee, when he was killed. You know it’s worse, it’s all worse. That’s why we must go back to culture and find our own way to deal with it. We’ve got to sort our family business out. We have to do that because without us doing that, it’s only going to get worse, it’s only going to get worse. That’s why we need to tread calmly. That’s what the government should be funding, programs like that. Our culture, you know, the food that we used to cook, the songs that we used to sing, what the country looked like, and who your relations are.

It’s the most important, powerful thing, because that’s the thing over the many years that I’ve seen, a stolen generation person who doesn’t know all their family and the effect it has on them. I taught my children that who their family is and where they’re from, and then they say to me now (they’re men now), ‘mum, you taught us that strength. I know who I am’. And no matter what ever happens, I fall back on that. So my first grandson, he’s six, but he speaks fluent Yorta Yorta, and he sings and he talks. My little grandson. And that’s how they get discipline – through the language. But they also know the important thing is their mother, their mother. Absolutely essential.

Bert Williams

Bert Williams

I was born in Shepparton in 1988. My mum’s father is from the Wiradjuri tribe, Harry Williams, and my grandmother is from the Yorta Yorta tribe. My mum is Julie Williams. I was named after my Uncle Bert who is the founder of the Bert Williams Hostel.

I grew up on the east coast of New South Wales and Victoria til I was about 10. Then I moved to QLD to live my father who put me in foster care after two years of living with him. I lived in QLD for 9 years – I was in foster care for 7 years. I moved out of my foster parent’s place when I was 16 and got my own apartment. I bought the apartment when I was 16. I really bought it for my son who passed away this year in May of a type-5 brain tumour. When he passed away, I ended up giving all the money from the sale of my apartment to the person who helped me buy it because I didn’t want anything that reminded me of my son.

I came out of the closet when I was 16 to most of my friends, and to my mum at the age of 17 while I was engaged to a girl. I told my dad a week after I ended my engagement with my fiancé and me and him ended up getting into a full-on brawl, police were called, and they arrested him for wilful assault and another charge. When I went into the police station the next day, my boyfriend at the time was also there visiting his dad. It turns out the police officer who arrested my dad was my partner’s dad.

I’m a qualified chef, barista, and I also have a certificate II in customer service. I’ve worked in hospitality since I was 15, I was an apprentice chef at the age of 16, finished my apprenticeship and didn’t cook ever again, except for at home. I now work at Crown – the largest hotel in the Southern Hemisphere, Crown Metropol. I work in their Executive Lounge. And that probably sums up my whole life.

My mother inspires me. she’s a stay-at-home grandmother now. Even though she’s never worked in her life, she has worked to keep a roof over my head, my two full brother’s heads when we were younger. My two full brothers are older, my oldest brother is my half-brother, John McGuinness. My next older brother down from John is Merv Williams, who was named after our Uncle Mervyn. He lives in Canberra. My older brother Shaun lives with my mum, he’s also been a pretty big influence in the past  five months. When I’ve had problems I just ring him and he talks me through things and whatnot. He plays VFL for the Northern Bull Ants. His last name is Austin, from our father. I’ve got a younger sister who is only 5 months younger than me on my dad’s side, Chantelle Austin, She lives in Shepparton still. I’ve got a younger brother Chris who I’ve never met who lives in Tasmania.

I met Uncle Ronnie Johnson about two years ago when he was still quite vibrant, he would still go out drinking and whatnot. He inspired me to get into OutBlack. When he passed away it made me realise that I really wanted to get back onstage and do another (drag) show. So I did the first show for him (at Midsumma OutBlack). I did ‘Love is All Around’ by Ricki-Lee Coulter. I did it pretty camply as well – I didn’t know anyone could camp it up as much as I did! I then did the show for (the OutBlack) NAIDOC Week in July. I did Ricki-Lee’s ‘Can’t Touch It’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘Not Myself Tonight’. We had about 300 people there.

It’s been a bad year. We were told on April 27 that my son had 2-6 weeks to live, but he only lived 12 days. My son was 5 years old when he passed away – he was born 20 days before I turned 17. My greatest achievement would have to be my son. Another one would be where my life is at right now. I’m confident and calm with my life and I’m happy with the path that my life is on.

Pink Sugar was created in 2003 just for fun. Me and a couple of mates thought it would be fun to get dressed up in drag. I asked one of my mates sisters if she had any perfume that I could wear just for a bit of a laugh, so I could get up in front of most of our mates… just to be immature and have a bit of fun. She gave me a bottle which was called ‘Pink Sugar’, and it smelled exactly like fairy floss, so that’s where I got my name from – a perfume bottle. I enjoyed the laughs I got from everybody, and I thought I’d do it a few more times.

I then did a few numbers up in Queensland at a few nightclubs and whatnot. Did a couple of shows at the Beat, did some at the Wickham, and one I did at Fluffy at family night in Brisbane.

When I moved down to Melbourne I didn’t really come out about doing drag until I met up with Uncle Ronnie. He asked me do to a few shows but I declined just because I had stage fright at that stage. When I did get up on stage in January this year during the Midsumma OutBlack show, it felt right. Just because it was for Uncle Ronnie, and Pink Sugar didn’t really care who was watching her and who had a laugh or whatnot. Pink Sugar doesn’t really mind if people are laughing with her or at her. Because she hasn’t been around for that long, she more the centre of attention, she wants the fun to be focussed at her. She’s a bit of a drama queen at times. Pink Sugar really doesn’t follow routines with dancing, she goes out there and just improvises. My mum has only ever seen Pink Sugar at one OutBlack, and that was the NAIDOC OutBlack. She’s just a bit of a trashy queen really. My mum loves it. She thinks it’s the funniest thing on earth.

Mum’s always been the one to tell us, “if I haven’t tried, I won’t tell you to stop it”. She loves the fact that Pink Sugar’s done all this, mum just thinks it the funniest thing on earth, and to this day she’ll still sit there and laugh about it. She tells everybody about it cos she’s just so proud.

The only people that really have an issue with me being gay is my dad and his mother. I did stop speaking to them for quite some time, for about a year over 2008 and 2009. In august last year I went up to QLD for a wedding my dad ended up calling me and we ended up having a bit of a yarn and that.

My dad’s Sicilian… half Aboriginal, half Sicilian – it’s a bit of a mixture. But it really shows how diverse I am with cultures and nationalities. Because I’m half Aboriginal and half Sicilian, I’ve gotta have an open mind with what I feel and what I know and what I believe. Being a young Aboriginal male in today’s society is more accepted than it was back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Not many young Aboriginal gay men will actually come out of the closet, because they think they’ll be beaten up… but I’ve helped a few people come out of the closet, just because I know what to expect. When I moved here (from QLD), my mum was so happy that I was back, she was telling everybody that she has a gay son, and you’ll get to meet him and whatnot. It helped a few other people realise that no matter who you are, what race you are, what sex you are, what sexual preference you are, you’re loved by the community, no matter what. It’s more accepted today than say 10 years ago because it’s the 21st century and a lot more people are coming out of the closet saying, ‘this is me, either accept or we don’t talk ever again’. People do wanna talk to their families, because we love our families, we accept them for who they are, not what kind of partner they want.

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