Content warning: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
After years of what has been described as a “whitewashing” of the site’s past, options are being considered for how best to acknowledge the place where WA’s first Aboriginal Mission Farm was located.
Wanneroo Mission Farm was a place where Aboriginal children and young people were forced to live and work by white settlers away from their families in the 1800s.
All that acknowledges the site’s history is a small plaque on the ground detailing that the mission was established in 1844 under the guidance of Reverend John Smithies — the namesake of the lakeside park in which the plaque now sits.
The only further detail on the plaque reads: “The aim of the mission purpose was to encourage Aboriginal people to learn agricultural skills”.
It is understood to have been put there by the City of Wanneroo, but the site now falls within the City of Joondalup.
Noongar woman Casey Kickett raised the matter with the City of Joondalup in 2018.
“I saw the plaque and just noticed how sad it felt there,” she said.
“It just doesn’t fit right, I thought it was an oversight; if I brought it up, it might be addressed because surely the local government would not want to have this here, not that specific plaque with that wording.
“It’s a whitewash of history and it pays no homage to the children or the families who lost their children.”
Last year, after becoming frustrated at a lack of action, Ms Kickett started an online petition calling for the plaque’s removal.
City of Joondalup CEO James Pearson said the plaque would be considered by the city’s Reconciliation Action Plan Community Reference Group (RAPCG).
Ms Kickett is urging that the matter be dealt with in a timely manner.
“I know bureaucracy takes time but it’s a story that is not being told and it’s not as if we don’t know what happened there,” she said.
RAPCG chair Noongar Yamatji woman Sharon Wood-Kenney said through oral history storytelling, Aboriginal experiences and perspectives of the site had been passed down through the generations.
“I get why we need to change this, and I know the story I was told as a little girl and it wasn’t positive. But I also know that I’m part of a process, where before we go making decisions, we want to set up transparent processes around how we go about effective community consultation on cultural matters for the City of Joondalup,” she said.
“It’s important because it is not just this one place, there is a Blackboy Park within the City of Joondalup, there are many more that are on our radar for name changes or dual naming.”
Ms Wood-Kenney expects consultation sessions to take place in coming months and hopes a plan will be in place by the end of January.
She said the sessions would seek feedback on the plaque and would consider creating a healing space at the site.
“There are so many opportunities to make it a significant place for families, to pay tribute and recognise the people that were lost there, but it’s really about truth-telling,” she said.
Archaeologist and anthropologist Janet Osborne has looked at missions in WA as part of a PhD through The University of Western Australia.
“It’s that common adage that victors write the history books,” Ms Osborne said.
She explained there was a system in place in the Swan River Settlement at the time that when an Aboriginal child broke the law, and usually that was stealing food, they would be sentenced to go to Rottnest Island or diverted to missions.
At Wanneroo, girls were trained to be domestic servants and boys carried out agricultural labour.
Ms Osborne described it as “something a lot like slavery”.
“If you ask the missionaries, they said they were interested in bringing God to Noongar people and they might have said they were trying to train these children to be useful economic units in colonial society,” Ms Osborne said.
“But these children would never be integrated into colonial society because of their skin colour — they were locked into being a servant class.”
Ms Osborne said it was hard to say how many Aboriginal people were forced to live and work at the site with no detailed records. She said some Aboriginal people at the Wanneroo Mission Farm would have died of influenza or tuberculosis.
By Aleisha Orr