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Wimmera Indigenous leaders call for more rights at First People's Assembly meeting

Source: Wimmera Mail Times

Reporters: Tara Cosoleto and Eliza Berlage

WIMMERA Indigenous leaders called for more rights to protect their cultural heritage and sites at the inaugural meeting of the First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria.

The assembly began the process to establish the framework for Treaty negotiations with the state government at the Victorian Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The 32-member assembly is made up of 21 general members who were elected by First Nations people from Victoria across five voting regions.

The elected north-west representatives are Jacinta Chaplin, Jason Kelly and Latje Latje and Wotjabuluk woman Raylene Ivy Harradine.

Eleven seats were reserved for members of formally recognised Traditional Owner groups represented by Barengi Gadjin Land Council chairman Dylan Clarke, Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation chairman Trent Nelson and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Jamie Lowe.

Mr Clarke said in his maiden speech that he looked forward to a "fair and just negotiation" with the state government.

He also acknowledged Wotjobaluk Elder Aunty Jennifer Beer who was present for the speech and her contribution towards achieving native title determination.

"Next year marks 15 years of native title for our group and over the years we've seen native title and other formal recognition structures divide our community and cause more trauma," he said. "Systems that don't recognise our own cultural governance and values."

He called for an increase in programs and accountability from multiple sectors including justice, health and educational institutions in relation to their dealings with Aboriginal people.

"We need agreements that are aimed at improving the social determinants that have plagued our people for many years," he said. "We need agreements that prioritise reparations for the stolen generations, to acknowledge the continued intergenerational trauma and dispossession of their identity and connection to families and country.

"The apology by Kevin Rudd was only one small step in a stairwell of healing."

Mr Clarke said Traditional Owners should have more rights to protect their cultural heritage and sites, including the need for water rights.

"Rivers and waterways have gone dry from being redirected or blocked from natural flows dating back to settlement, causing a dramatic impact on today's landscape across Victoria," he said.

"Our cultural knowledge of this landscape is impeccable to the regeneration of a rich and sustainable environment."

Djab Wurrung woman and representative from the south-west region Sissy Austin said in her maiden speech on Tuesday that Mr Kelly had chosen not to attend the speeches due to concerns about the colonial setting being "culturally unsafe".

She also said she lacked trust in the state government to negotiate a treaty because of questions around the Western highway upgrade and the potential threat to sacred birthing trees.

The main priorities of the meeting are Treaty Authority or independent watchdog for the negotiation process; establish a fund for Aboriginal clans to ensure a level playing field; and debate what laws need to be addressed in treaty negotiations.

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