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On Saturday the West Australian Government apologised to Indigenous communities around WA “for the mistakes of the past” on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup).

These “mistakes” include the use of Rottnest Island as an Aboriginal prison, where 373 deaths in custody took place, the area where they were buried then being used as a camping ground known as Tentland, and the prison, the Quod, being used as a hostel.

This history was hidden.

In his address, West Australian Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts, and Heritage, David Templeman, who is the cabinet member responsible for the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA), recognised the “pain and anguish” caused by the past actions of Island management which lacked respect for Indigenous communities or for “the cultural significance of the Island”.

The Minister emphasised the importance of the closure of Tentland and the return of the Quod to the RIA in 2007 and 2018 respectively.

Minister Templeman spoke with the National Indigenous Times on the significance of the apology and the next steps in the “reconciliation journey”.

The apology was a “very important step forward in continuing the road forward for reconciliation”.

“The history of Rottnest is one of great sorrow, and it was a very significant, emotional and important day for me and all who attended.”

Minister Templeman reiterated that the apology was “only part of the journey forward, [there is] still a lot to be done”.

This work to be done was announced at the conclusion of his apology speech, where a three-year Reconciliation Action Plan for the RIA was presented.

The plan, which has been endorsed by Reconciliation Australia, includes actions that aim to not only maintain but to improve connections and relationships with Indigenous stakeholders and organisations.

The Action Plan further aims to promote reconciliation and positive relations by improving understanding and demonstrations of respect through the observation of cultural protocols and celebrations of key events such as NAIDOC Week.

The RIA will consider name changes of the island and its key locations throughout 2022, in addition to improving Indigenous employment on the island over the course of the 2021-23 plan.

This increase in opportunity is also planned to be extended to using First Nations’ suppliers and by encouraging Indigenous artists to exhibit and present their work on the island.

First Nations woman and Co-Chair of Reconciliation WA, Carol Innes, described the apology as “long overdue”.

“In regards to reconciliation this apology takes us forward on what can be done together to inform, educate and get all visitors to understand the horrendous truths that Aboriginal people from across the state suffered under past policies.”

Innes described her hope that the next stages of reconciliation are “Aboriginal-led” and that “state-wide consultations” can be enabled to “develop respectful acknowledgement of those who remain away from their home and Country”.

“Truth telling however terrible the stories of the past are, the impact is still living with us.”

“Reconciliation frameworks provides an opportunity through deeper understanding and awareness.”

A spokesperson for the RIA acknowledged the “important milestone” that the apology represents in moving “forward together towards a reconciled future”.

The spokesperson highlighted the agency recognition of the updated Action Plan’s importance and stated the RIA “is ready to make the changes necessary to build authentic equitable partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

The plan “sets out clear actional commitments across the three pillars of reconciliation – relationships, respect and opportunities”.

These will “will strengthen relationships, engage our staff and stakeholders, and create new opportunities that enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to thrive economically and culturally” said the spokesperson.

Minister Templeman will make a statement regarding the issue and Reconciliation Action Plan to Parliament that will include the wording of his apology.

By Aaron Bloch