On the day of Dr Evelyn Scott’s state funeral, Reconciliation Australia pays tribute to the immense legacy of the woman whose fierce yet dignified leadership has been instrumental to the key achievements in Australia’s reconciliation journey to date.
Dr Scott today becomes the first Aboriginal woman to be accorded the honour of a state funeral by the Queensland government, in recognition of more than 50 years of tireless campaigning for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
She was drawn to political activism after witnessing discrimination in employment, housing and health care in Townsville in the 1960s. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland were classified as minors at the time and had few rights.
Dr Scott was a driver of the 1967 referendum, a momentous turning point in Australian history where more than 90 per cent of voters chose to delete discriminatory references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.
Then, in 1973, she became the first General-Secretary of the Indigenous-led Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
It was as the chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, from 1997 to 2000, that Dr Scott did some of her most important work.
She led the council – and the nation – through a fractious period, during which the government refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations and reduced the budgets of several national Indigenous organisations.
“It was a volatile time for the reconciliation process,” recalled Reconciliation Australia CEO Karen Mundine, who worked with Dr Scott during her time on the council.
“Dr Scott was able to lead the council through this tense period, while building a huge groundswell of support for reconciliation among some of the country’s leaders and everyday Australians alike,” Ms Mundine said.
“This achievement, and her many others, is testament to Dr Scott’s remarkable capacity to be at once fiercely passionate and conciliatory.”
Under Dr Scott’s leadership, the council coordinated the People’s Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of Corroboree 2000.
More than a quarter of a million people participated in the walk, while thousands more took part in similar events around the country, making it one of the most significant mobilisations of people in Australia’s history.
Facilitating this enormous demonstration of support for reconciliation was a special achievement for Dr Scott, who believed that reconciliation was “a people’s movement” that must involve all Australians as “peacemakers”.
In a speech delivered later in 2000, Dr Scott spoke poignantly about the important symbolism of the Bridge Walk:
“That was the most wonderful feeling, walking across the bridge with my brothers and sisters. I saw people from the Indigenous and wider communities, old people and young people alike, waving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags… I saw one part of the nation that wanted to say sorry and another part accept the apology, and forgive.”
In late-2000, the 10-year timeframe the government had given the council to advance reconciliation was drawing to a close.
Dr Scott was pivotal in securing support for a new body – Reconciliation Australia – to ensure Australia’s reconciliation journey continued into the 21st century.
Ms Mundine, who will attend Dr Scott’s funeral today in Townsville, said that Australia was a richer nation owing to Dr Scott’s lifetime contribution to reconciliation.
“She leaves behind a monumental legacy,” Ms Mundine said.