As a teenager in the mid-1950s Joyce Mercy went to Sydney to study nursing. She met and became friends with leading members of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and became a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association.
In 1960 an invitation went out to the Ulgundahi Island community on the Clarence River to attend the third Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement conference at Newport, Sydney.
Joyce Mercy went with her uncles Claude, George and Wally Randall and with her white friend and supporter Margaret Plater. She became aware, for the first time, of the development of a national movement in Aboriginal affairs.
Joyce Clague: Well I was back living on the mission which was Ullagundi Island on the Clarence River, with my family. I wasn't married then. There was invitations sent out to Aboriginal people to go to a conference. The conference then wasn't in Canberra. It was held at that time at Newport [Sydney]. And FCAATSI [Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders] was the host of that meeting with the WEA, that's the Workers Education Association, and they had this place where people can be accommodated as well as, you know, rooms where you could meet and talk with people. That of course was back in '59 — when I first got involved.
Sue:'59 — Oh Newport — I think it might have been '60.
Joyce: '60 was it?
Sue: Yeah. You would have been quite young?
Joyce: Yes. I was within my teens then. And I of course went, which was a little bit strange because where the letter came to was a superintendent of the mission that I was on. And this was, it was also a change with the people who were looking after Aboriginal people at that time. Prior to [that], they didn't communicate or didn't want you to get involved in anything and particularly anything politically or looking at social issues. So this person, Margaret Plater, who went with us, decided that I was available to go. A couple of my uncles went as well, so it meant that I went. And we caught the train of course from Grafton and came down here to Sydney and was billeted by a person here in the city. And of course these people were in some ways involved in, not only FCAATSI but the Australian Fellowship [Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship]. And we stayed with one of those people who was involved in the Fellowship. And from that developed great friendship of people because that person that we stayed with who was then in Summer Hill, a person by the name of Grace Bardsley, she of course was very much involved in trying to see that things related to Aboriginal affairs would be changed. I'll never forget asking Grace at one stage about — and of course this was when there was no funding for Aboriginal people at all. You didn't get any forms of grant to do research or anything of this nature. You couldn't get social services and you — well our people didn't even get the pension or child endowment. So there was very little money and what money that you had, you either worked for it or raised it or if not someone either from one organisation was able to pay your way by either fare or — there was never ever any [money]. We didn't even know what it meant for sitting fees. You never got that either. So it was, you did all the things that you did. You raised your funds but you also did it voluntary. But I would say it was an experience which I am thankful for because I think it made you more aware of our people and the contribution that they made to this country. But not only made to this country but how you should get around about doing things in your own community. I think that it certainly did enlighten me about the health program, housing, education — a whole host of things — not just on one issue. And of course the people that you met there. I remember at that Newport meeting, Gough Whitlam, who was a former Prime Minister in this country, he was one of the delegates in that meeting. So you were mixing up and talking to and discussing things at that level. But of course you never thought of that because I, when I first came here and was introduced to these organisations, I was very shy and didn't want to talk and didn't talk too much. But of course I think one of the great traits with Aboriginal people you know how to, you learn how to listen. And I think that was one of the things even though I didn't talk, I did take in a lot of things and I listened and that was fairly important.
For Joyce the maintenance of her mother tongue provided an important connection to her grandparents who did not speak English and to her culture.
You might know or you mightn't know that I still speak my language. Now, of course when you were on the mission you didn't, you were told to do a thing — you'd be given a cane [if you didn't do it]. And of course I got a belting like anybody else, from the school, the mission school, because they didn't want Aboriginal people — we had to speak English. And I suppose, because my grandmother couldn't speak English very well, or my grandfather, it meant that the only way I could communicate (and you know his daughter and his sons as well) was through the language which was the Yagal language, they're connected with the Bandjulung.
Joyce: Yeah Yagal is what I speak.
Sue: So you still speak that language, even though you were beaten?
Joyce: Yeah well of course they didn't realise that you can take those canes and things of this nature but when you went home you had to deal with your parents and you wouldn't disobey. You'd dare not, not talk to them if they wanted — if they spoke to you in the language, you'd reply. And you wouldn't reply in English you'd reply in your language.
Sue: It's wonderful that there are people like you who managed to resist that kind of tyranny!
Joyce: Well I don't know whether we, sort of say resisted. I think it was a matter of our survival in our community, we did it. And because, certainly because Nan couldn't speak, you spoke to her all the time and because she wouldn't understand you when you spoke in English. And at any rate I couldn't speak English that well at any rate. And so it was easier for me to talk in the language because everybody understood (laughing) me and so whether or not it was a brave thing to do, I don't think at the time I gave much thought to it. But I'm pleased that I did [speak the language] because it means that the language is part of our culture and our culture is very important to us. And I would hope that there will be a revival and I think that there have been people wanting to go back to their language and how to express themselves in that language. That's a very good thing. I think that's a very positive step.
Joyce Clague's political activism was expressed in both national and international spheres. She stood for the seat of Stuart at the 1968 elections. She convened the Cultural Development Committee of FCAATSI in 1969 and was elected as Northern Territory state secretary at the 1972 FCAATSI conference.
In the early 1970s she was nominated by Reverend Frank Engel, head of the Australian Council of Churches, to represent Australia on the World Council of Churches Commission to Combat Racism.
In 1977 Joyce Clague was awarded the Member of the British Empire in recognition of her services to combat racism. Here she reflects on the part the referendum campaign played in her politicisation.
One of the things which I found in regards to the referendum — that our people weren't counted — and at any rate I used to bring that up to myself but not only bring that up to myself but bring that up to people who were of like mind with me around at Maclean 'How could we possibly be not counted?' I didn't know what a census was at any rate at that time. But I said 'why — why we — we're just no — no — we're not — no people! Why aren't we counted in this country?' And when it was, and I can recall one of the FCAATSI members who was a gentleman, Jack Horner, saying 'You know, Joyce' (this is after I'd shifted from home and came down here to Sydney). I asked him a question. 'Jack, how did you come involved in Aboriginal affairs? What was it that made you — that there was something wrong there you wanted to get in and do something about it?' He said 'well I was in the census [office]' and by then, of course, I knew what a census was all about and everything. And he said, 'I went through counting and wherever there was anyone said that they were an Aboriginal I just put a red line through it. That was what they informed me to do — put a red line through it and I threw it in the bin'. So that was how — and he said 'this is wrong'. You know, Jack who was a very sensitive man, had said to him [census officer] 'Oh Whadaya do here?' 'Oh they are Aboriginal. They're not counted. So that you don't count them in this count'. And that was when he was one of those ones that registered to do the census collecting. And I mean that made, that infuriated me. And he said, 'Yes, you know, Joyce they can, they know how many kangaroos. They know how many pigs and how many cattle, how many sheep even there are in this country, but they don't know how many Aboriginal people are in this country'. And I think this is why my involvement — well, that really tempered me up of course. But that made me involved in the referendum because one of the things he [Jack Horner] sort of said to us, 'Okay, if you are not counted in the census you also haven't got a voice. And that's really what you gotta do is get a voice'. So, I suppose this is where I took on the political side to make sure that our people had a voice in this whole thing.
Joyce recalled two people who were strong influences on her as a young woman: Grace Bardsley and Bert Groves.
Grace, I suppose, she came through to — I came to know her from coming down to a FCAATSI meeting that was back in the '60s. She billeted us and because she was a woman and she lived on her own in a flat she wanted to — well she wanted women [as billets]. So Margaret Plater, who was the Superintendent's wife, and myself were there. And she was a white woman, of course, and I came off the reserve and so she billeted us over the long weekend, of the Easter weekend. So we came down there and Grace Bardsley I found was a delightful, beautiful woman. I doubt — and this is me of course — I doubt I will ever find a white woman like that. She was so trusting — I mean, you know I suppose I've never had that form of trust and sharing a home with a person and, would leave you for work and would go and leave you with all these things around you. Of course she had umpteen books and she was saying to me, too, 'You have to get an education'. Of course on that first visit I actually came back to Sydney after that FCAATSI meeting — came back and I stayed with her for a while in her flat until she found me a flat in her area, at Summer Hill. And then she said to me, 'Look, I think that you should try and go and get an education and do things.' And she used to show me how to budget my money because I didn't know how to (chuckling) deal with money and all this sort of thing. So she showed me and she found me a job, which was absolutely great. And that actually helped me to take on nursing after I did my intermediate, because my schooling was very limited. So she assisted us, and was very mindful of — of course she had wonderful experience. She worked as secretary for some organisations and ministers and things of this nature and so she had the contacts. And I think because of her friendship with me, I got to know her, probably very well. She was a delightful person, Grace was.
In regards to Bert Groves, well what could I say about Bert Groves? He was one of those people that — well I can remember in the flat where I was, that man used to work in Parliament House, and my sister and I were in the flat by this time and he used to bring home — they used to throw away the food in Parliament House and he saw all this food that was going to waste and everything. And I didn't realise — okay I thought he was just doing it for me and my sister Christine. He was doing it to other fellas as well around Redfern. He'd get off at Redfern. He'd take their bundle and then he'd come out to Summer Hill and he'd give us all our food. Then he'd go home and he'd — you know, he used to give us a supply that used to last almost a week! You know [there] was fruit and vegetable and fish cake. Oh he used to make the most beautiful fish cakes! (laughs) And, of course, Bert was — you know he cared for people. And of course he was very political and he was around with Bill Ferguson and Patten and he knew all about them and also went with them because he's an older man but it was just a fantastic, well, to know people like Bert Groves. And I, I just loved him dearly because, the thing is, as I said, he saw that we were limited in our — because we couldn't earn that much money living in the city.
But he gave us the food from where he was working. And he used to get boxes of it and he'd take them out to Redfern or wherever he knew that there were people. And so that helped us. And of course Pastor Doug Nicholls, he was just a beautiful man. Of course he later married my husband and myself and it was a privilege to have known him.
In the mid-1960s Joyce Mercy worked as a welfare officer for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. She moved to the Northern Territory with her husband Colin Clague in 1966.
In the early 1970s she assisted people who worked on Willowra Station to apply to the Aboriginal Loans Commission to buy the property. This was one of the first such applications by Aboriginal people to buy back their land.
Joyce: So anyhow one day we heard that the station was up for sale. We heard it in Alice Springs and these fellas said, 'Hey! You know that Edgar Parkinson place? It's up for sale!'.
Sue: So where was that?
Joyce: This's in, in Alice Springs.
Joyce: Just out of Alice Springs, Willowra Station. This Edgar Parkinson's — and I said, 'Look okay you could get — you could try and get it. What you can see is the Loan Commission. You can go to the Loan Commission.' Now we wrote, we wrote that first Loan Commission [application] for the people. And we said to them, 'We'll make an application to the government and they will only charge you so much percentage for it, and you will be able to sort of pay it back slowly, every — but you'll have to pay it back. It's a loan. It's not a — they don't give it to you'. And he said, 'All right. All right we'll do that.' So we wrote and I got them to sign and everything — wrote this letter, oh, real good letter you know and sent it away to Canberra. And then I said to them, 'You know, you fellas can hurry this on, you know. You can hurry this on if you save two dollars at a time out of your pension, out of the child endowment. And if you work you give a little bit more because — and you fellas'll have this soon'. So I was asleep one night and so was Colin. We heard this — and this was, oh must've been a year later — and I hear all this noise at the back there and talkin' and singin' out 'Oi! Oi!' And here's (two and three o'clock in the morning this was, you know). These fellas just came from Willowra Station and they woke us up. Colin out there, you know, and making them a cuppa tea, cookin' bacon and egg, toast and everything.
And I'm sayin', 'What's these fellas, you know, think?' And I get out and I say, 'What you fellas makin' all this noise for and everything?' And they said, 'Oh we've brought you this money'. And I said, 'What money?' They had it in [a] little sugar bag, little sugar bag that full. There was — and all these — the pensioners, the people who was working, some of the people who — child endowment, were givin' the (chuckles) children money too. All in this little sugar bag. Thirty-two thousand something, thirty-two thousand, but I know fifty-eight cents was in that (laughing). And they said (laughs) — they said to me, 'Now you keep it here for us and we'll bring you some more later on'. And I said — well I couldn't sleep! I couldn't sleep. I'd never seen money like that before!!! (laughing) It was under my bed and I couldn't sleep. And they said, 'No, don't put it in the bank! Don't put it in the bank!' And I said, 'You fellas staying here. You sleepin' here tonight. You sleepin' here tonight because you fellas gunna put that in the bank!’ 'No no no! We don't trust those fellas with the — you know — with the bank and everything.' And I said, 'Yeah, but you know if you put that money in now it'll create more money'. They said, 'no'. But it did. So I said, 'All you fellas sign — sign — sign for that thing.' No-one — and that's how they, they had — now that cattle station was quite a big cattle station, and they paid that off. Now they own about four.
Sue: So that was the deposit, that thirty-two thousand?
Joyce: But the most deposit I've ever seen (laughs). But I was so nervous and they — but I think that's the thing with our people. If told how to do it they can do it. And that certainly did prove to — like these were people that couldn't read and write. Okay I taught Stumpy Martin how to write. Because I said, 'Doing it with the thumb is — that's all right, that's legal. That is legal. But for your own satisfaction and everything and so that people, so that you are not different from someone else, you learn to write.' And so I sat — he stayed with me — his whole family stayed with us until he got to capture how to write. Okay and it wasn't real sharp writin' (laughing) but he was able to write his own name. And that was terribly, terribly important that our people were able to do that themselves, without putting the thumb print on.
Sue: Yeah and it gives you more power doesn't it?
Joyce: Oh of course it does. And that's what empowering people is about. But, I tell you, they frightened the hell out of me with that money (chuckles)!
In the following account Joyce shows a courage and determination to expose exploitation which marked her public life dedicated to assisting Aboriginal people to gain control of their lives and futures.
When I first went up to [the] Northern Territory of course the taxi drivers were pretty notorious for, you know, getting Aboriginal women and the usual thing of getting them drunk and all that sort of thing. So it was Hannah [Roberts] and myself who said we were gonna take some of these and report it. Report it officially to the police. Of course Colin didn't know about it — my husband. But Phillip Roberts knew about it and what we said — of course Hannah didn't drink. I didn't drink but we put ourselves, you know, methylated spirit on our clothes and all this sort of thing to get the smell of everything, and we were acting a little bit sort of thing and Philip, so this man was trying to, you know, edge us on and wanted to do certain things and all this sort of thing. And of course Hannah and I was pretty strong and we — and they thought that we were drunk. Of course we weren't. See Aboriginal women would never take the taxi's number so they couldn't do anything. So we took — we more or less recorded everything. We took the taxi number, got his name and everything like this. And you know, reported it immediately to the police, on what he was doing. Now he was going out to Bagot [Aboriginal Reserve, Darwin] and we wanted to go to Bagot. But, he was going out to Bagot and what he was doing there, was getting women of course and bringing in drink in the back way. So we set a trap for him. Phillip [Roberts] of course was well known. I wasn't, there. He was well known and respected by the police and the police was able to pick quite a few people up by just us doing that sort of thing. But sometimes you gotta do those things. I mean, okay, I'd probably, I'd be frightened like hell if I did that down here or anything. But you had to at the time do some things, to try and make changes. Because it was, the abuse of the women were quite incredible.
Leanne: When you say came in the back way is that because Bagot was a dry area?
Joyce: Bagot was. Yeah, yeah. But, you know, well if they came in the front way, they'd have to pass the main gate and the Manager's house. The back way was along a dirt track and everything like this and they could get in. And they knew where to.
Sue: That was very brave.
Joyce: Oh no well — I s'pose when you think about it now, I doubt whether I'd do it you know but (laughs) but you did. You were there because there were other people like Phillip Roberts, a dear person who's gone now but — and his wife. And they were — they were so concerned about what was happening with the women in the Northern Territory. And, it was one way of stopping — not stopping it totally but we were able to put it on the record in regards to the police having to do something for the people at Bagot.'
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Joyce Clague conducted by Sue Taffe and Leanne Miller on 8 November 1996
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