One of the many prominent Australian Aboriginal families who now call Queanbeyan (NSW Australia) home is the Baxter Family led by matriarch Elder Ethel Baxter, who has iconic status, and loves to quote her brother Harold Williams’ famous line:
“if you want respect you have to earn it – black or white”. 1
Ethel Baxter was born in 1944 in Dubbo (NSW Australia) the second youngest child of Alex Williams and Lorna Dunn’s seven children.
Ethel’s brother’s and sisters are Beverly, Bill, Irene, Harold, Alex and Donna – who have lived to see and benefit from the changes that have occurred in their life time.
Ethel’s parents were born further out in the bush in Western NSW and the family identify as Wiradjuri people.2
If there is one thing to learn about Australian Aboriginal people it is that family comes first and in that sense it is individual family clans that have been and are the backbone of Aboriginal people in Australia.
“Mrs Baxter is on the board of Aboriginal housing service Gunangarah Housing and the Aboriginal Health Service Winnunga Nimmityjah, as well as Queanbeyan City Council’s Aboriginal Consultive Committee”.
On Australia Day, January 26, 2009 Aboriginal, Elder Ethel Baxter was named Queanbeyan Citizen of the Year. 3
Sorry Day 2008
“My grandfather was adopted by Sergeant Smith when he was very small and never knew his parents, and my Grandmother Emily Dunn was one of the stolen generation”, Mrs Baxter said.
A member of the “stolen generation” Ethel’s grandmother, Emily Dunn never spoke about her life and Ethel Baxter said, “If I could go back in time there is so much I would like to know and ask her – so many unanswered questions that will remain unanswered forever”.
It was with that background and burden of unanswered questions that Mrs Baxter took her family to Parliament House, Canberra for Prime Minister Rudd’s declaration of “Sorry Day” on February 13, 2008.
“It was a long time coming”, was all an emotional Mrs Baxter could say. 4
Ethel Baxter was a young 21 year old country girl living in Wellington (NSW Australia) when Aboriginal students Charles Perkins and Gary Williams led other Sydney University students on the 1965 Freedom Ride’.
The 1965 Freedom Ride ‘bus’ traveled through Western NSW to document and publicize the ignorance, racial discrimination, poverty and deplorable living conditions of Australian Aboriginal people who were not recognized as citizens and did not have the right to vote in their own country, Australia.
The Freedom Ride showed the world the discrimination and segregation of Aboriginal people in Western NSW, in swimming pools, pubs, clubs and schools. This publicity bought an awareness to a lot of Australians and helped build empathy and support for the growing calls for a referendum to change the constitution.
“On May 27, 1967, the poll returned the highest ever ‘yes’ vote in a referendum, with 90.77 per cent” agreeing to change the Australian constitution.5
A different bus
The bus that the protest students rode in 1965 was nothing like the eye catching “Queanbeyan Aboriginal Art Transport Project” – the result of local Aboriginal artists painting a taxi and bus which were launched in Queanbeyan Park on Monday October 20, 2008. The result of the project promotes a positive image of local Aboriginal art and talent through joint sponsorship funding by the NSW and Federal Government, Queanbeyan City Council and DBL Dean’s Buslines.
Local Aboriginal Billy T performed the traditional Ngunnawal-Ngambri ‘Welcome to Country’ with Aboriginal boomerang clapping sticks at the launch of the Queanbeyan bus and Queanbeyan born country singer Todd Williams (son of Ethel Baxter’s brother Harold) sang a medley of songs, accompanying himself on guitar, to entertain the crowd. 6
Coonabarabran born Donald Baxter married Ethel Williams in Wellington NSW and with their two boys Adrian and Donald (daughter Lorna was born later in Queanbeyan) went first to Newcastle and then to Sydney looking for work in the early 1970s.
“We didn’t like Newcastle or Sydney so we came on to Queanbeyan in 1972 and settled here because it was small and had a great feel to it”, said Mrs Baxter.
Ethel found immediate work at Woolworth’s Queanbeyan, whilst the children were at school, and Mr Baxter, a tradesman painter, found work in the local housing industry.
Mrs Baxter became an ATSIC councillor after the death of her husband. 7
Ethel Baxter has always been active in the community and especially in the schools. She worked at Karabar High School, Queanbeyan for ten years, first as a teacher’s aide and later after completing formal qualifications at university, as an Aboriginal education assistant.
In addition to caring for her own and fostering other children, Mrs Baxter recently re-started the Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee (AECG) and is the President of the group.
The consultative committee promotes Aboriginal education reform and helps with school issues and attitudes. Teachers and Principals are actively involved and Aboriginal parents are always welcome and are invited and encouraged to attend meetings. 8
Ethel Baxter stood in the Queanbeyan City Council Elections in 2004 and although she was not elected she is proud that she exercised her right to do so.
Mrs Baxter has never been a hot and cold person she has always loved everyone as she sees everyone, black and white, as equal members of one community. 9
On July 9, 2007 Mrs Ethel Baxter was presented with the Healthy communities Award, an initiative of Queanbeyan City Council; Queanbeyan Mayor Mr Frank Pangallo said, “Mrs Baxter is passionate about Aboriginal issues but not at the expense of the wider community. She is committed to the aims of reconciliation – where all people work together for the good of the whole community.”
The Queanbeyan City Council citation also added Ethel Baxter is a “Wiraduri woman born in Dubbo who has been a resident in Queanbeyan since 1972. Ethel Baxter has 3 children and 12 grandchildren and is a foster parent to many Aboriginal and non Aboriginal young people”. 10
“Working together will make more improvements than anything else”, Mrs Baxter said.
After some thought Ethel quoted a saying she had heard, and although she didn’t know where it came from, she said she really believed in it and looking very thoughtful she repeated it again:
“Yesterday’s history, today’s a mystery, and tomorrow’s a gift” 11
Footnotes / Resource
1. (i) “Award for committed foster carer,” The Queanbeyan Age, July 13, 2007, p. 8.
2. Connee-Colleen, “Interview: Ethel Baxter – Family,” October, 2008.
3. (i) Carmen McIntosh, ”Honour for carer and advocate,” The Queanbeyan Age, January 30, 2009. p. 1. (ii) Carmen McIntosh, “Carer and Advocate,” The Queanbeyan Age, January 30, 2009, p. 16.
4. McIntosh, p. 16.
5. Kate Hannon, “Long road to reconciliation,” The Canberra Times, May 19, 2007, Forum, p. B5.
6. Connee-Colleen, © “Queanbeyan Outlook (163): Community stalwart loves everyone,” The Queanbeyan Age, 24 October, 2008, p. 26.
7. Connee-Colleen, Interview, 2008.
8. Connee-Colleen, Interview, 2008.
9. Connee-Colleen, Interview, 2008.
10. (i) “Award for committed foster carer” , The Queanbeyan Age, July 13, 2007. p. 8. (ii) Queanbeyan City Council Healthy Community Awards. July 9, 2007.
11. Connee-Colleen, Interview, 2008.
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