Pauline Pickford became the honorary secretary of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights (CAR) in 1961, a position she held for the next decade.
Working with Aboriginal people from Lake Tyers to Far North Queensland, Pauline Pickford increasingly saw her role as one of supporting initiative by Aboriginal activists themselves rather than presuming to know what was needed on their behalf.
During her secretaryship of the Council for Aboriginal Rights, the involvement of Aboriginal Victorians, particularly the people from Lake Tyers with whom she developed strong friendly relationships, increased.
Here she recalls the council's work on behalf of the Lake Tyers residents.
So we had an enquiry, initiated an enquiry into the doings of Lake Tyers settlement. There were a lot of grievances. There was a letter, a couple of letters written to the Council, about things down there, and so I thought this would be a good time to go down there again and have a talk to various individuals that I had met and ask them if they'd be prepared to participate. Well it was far too far for these people to come up to meetings, and anybody who was coming to town would be given a little note to give to me about things that were worrying them. So that was my main preoccupation with extending the Council, and we did eventually get one [participant], Margaret Edwards, the sister of Joe McGinness, (whose painting's up there on the wall) who eventually became our president and — who else? — one of the Atkinsons who married a Gippsland bloke. I can't think of her name, her name is in our minutes book, but I can't recall it. But so they were the two, eventually we had three Aboriginal executive members, and, of course, it became imperative as FCAATSI developed, for as many people in Lake Tyers as possible to get to Canberra, and so with the help of Abschol, people in Abschol. Robert Oke was one that I can remember who drove a car, he took, and I think we had something like seven to 10 Aboriginal people from off the Reserve who then started coming to Canberra. [Gene Mobourne, Laurie Moffatt, Mrs Melva Walsh, Cedric Parsons, Foster Moffatt, Regina Walsh, Dora Green, Maude Pepper — names added later by Pauline.] not all of them all the time.
Sue: Laurie Moffatt would have gone?
Pauline: Oh yes. Oh that Laurie Moffatt was a presence and a half. He was a wonderful speaker, and he had a lovely voice too. He used to sing My Little Grey Home in the West you know — brought the house down. And his daughter Melva and a couple of his grandchildren.
Sue: And the Mobourne family, the Mobournes?
Pauline: No Gene didn't ever come but Gene and Cedric Parsons were very important to the Council because it was through Cedric and Foster and Laurie and someone who came off the Reserve wrote to me and asked a small favour which was well within our ability to deal with the government, on this particular problem. Cedric Parsons was an enormous influence. A man who lived at Drouin, Stewart Hood, wrote a letter to me and he said that if I'd prepare a petition, he'd go down there and he would see that everyone on the Reserve signed it. Which he did. And of course that was an amazing thing to the government as you can imagine, and then we were able to organise around issues at Lake Tyers. I know — can you remember who was the Secretary of the Board — was it Felton?
Sue: Felton [Aborigines Welfare Board, Victoria]
Pauline: Yes, Mr Felton eventually got the news and of course he wanted to know who had signed it, because I refused to let him know who'd signed it, I just said to him 'well everybody on the Reserve signed it'. So then he went through the various names and I said 'yes, well it was a united front'. What could they do?
She attended the open enquiry into the flogging of a young man at Hopevale Mission in 1961 and helped publicise such abuses through her articles about this affair.
We arrived at Cooktown and stayed in a pub and we took the young man out to the Mission and he recently went on to the Mission and had a talk around about various people, and unknown, of course, to Pastor Kernick. So the night passed and we're all extremely tired. I had notes that I was trying to put together, and I had Acts and you know, there's the Act but there's those awful regulations governing the Act. So I studied those up and in the morning we went off up to Hopevale, and it was a very rough ride, but, of course, when all of us poured out of the two cars, plus another car with Mr Michael Ryan who was a noted person from the area, there was consternation because there was this young man surrounded by all these people, and Mr Killoran and the Pastor [Kernick] were waiting at the gate, and when we all got out of these cars looking very efficient with our briefcases and what not, there was a rush to a little wireless station. They disappeared very quickly at speed. So we were left there quite unwelcome not knowing quite what to do, but eventually we were organised and shown to the schoolroom where we sat down and waited for things to start. Apparently while we were away they had radioed Brisbane for a solicitor to come, you see. They thought that probably none of us would have arrived and this would all take place and it would be a similar kind of whitewash.
Sue: The story really illustrates doesn't it both the awareness that the Federal Council had, for how to use publicity and also the value of having a federation, as you can involve people from other states.
Pauline: Oh yes. Terribly important. The Federal Council actually hadn't done much about it. I think a telegram arrived for the president while we were at Cooktown and, I think the president was advised to be, not exactly careful, this could be verified by Joe McGinness. I saw the telegram but I don't quite remember what was in it. But there was some uncertainty with FCAA if this was a thing that was wise to pursue. Was it wise? Because you see they'd had no experience with this sort of thing up there. What was going to happen to that young man if all this became public and what would happen to him? So there was a bit of uncertainty as to, just how heavy to walk, I guess is the best way to put it.
She met Gladys O'Shane at this time and a strong friendship developed between the two women with Gladys coming down to Melbourne in the early 1960s to meet Melbourne activists and join the campaign to save Lake Tyers.
Gladys O'Shane I met, of course, in the car going up to Hopevale. And she was a very, very quietly spoken lady, and it wasn't 'til we got there on the second day that I realised that she had a wonderful sense of humour as well. And you know, she had a great political understanding. She was a member of the Union of Australian Women and so we had that in common, and she told me how involved she was in the first inquiry that they had up there. And how they formed the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League and that was their first big campaign [taking on a case of a taxi driver who was discriminated against in Cairns]. But the [Hopevale case], that was their first magisterial inquiry. Well from then on there were a series of things brought before the Cairns League up there. There was a couple of constables on a Saturday night after they'd got nice and full at the local pub, used to go down to the Reserve, and they used to have their bit of fun, you know, breaking windows and making a general pest and nuisance of themselves. And this went on for a long, long time. But eventually the women in particular got jack of it, so they complained to the police and there was an inquiry there. At that time Gladys was here in Melbourne, staying here, and we were doing the circuit down in Gippsland, addressing meetings down there about Lake Tyers, because Lake Tyers was going to go. I'm convinced of it.
Pauline Pickford regularly attended the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) annual conferences held in Canberra from 1963 to 1970.
Her reports on these conferences display a concern for issues such as Indigenous people taking control of their own affairs, and for the need for an Aboriginal title to land. She recalls some memories of the way in which Joe McGinness led the organisation as president.
Pauline: Very gently, but with great force (laughs). That was Joe's method. Very, very few people would argue with Joe. He not only had the stature, but he also had had the experience in the trade union movement about how to organise people, and also how to pressurise governments, and individuals in the bureaucracy. He's still at it, I think, and he must be nearly 80 (laughs). (Sue: More!) Yes, yes, he was a wonderful leader. And because of his great experience, I think, in the trade union movement, he was able to move between three groups: Aboriginal groups, European groups interested in FCAATSI and trade union members. And he was able to bring those together. And as far as trade unions were concerned, they were beginning then, on his requests, to start sending delegates. They'd go back to their various unions and they'd report on what happened, what they heard.
... Well, Joe, of course, I met for the first time when we were going to Hopevale. He was driving the car that I was in. And Joe hardly said a word, hardly said a word for almost half the trip, but I can see him sitting there so — and he doesn't talk much but when he does talk, Joe also has a very good command of language and I think he has a fair command, although he was the youngest in the family, his mum, his sister Margaret spoke language very well because she was with her nurse a lot of the time who only spoke language. And Joe has his own language as well, which he speaks. And I think that if you have your language, your mother tongue behind you, it is much easier to learn another language, because, you know, there's a sort of emotional content of language that goes between the two languages.
Pauline spoke about the 1970 conference when the Aboriginal rights movement split.
Well, as you know, the delegates were evenly divided and it was the presidential vote which decided that we should stay FCAATSI, stay as FCAATSI. It, it was a very sad affair really because to some extent I think, and there must have been some sort of machinations going on, I think outside FCAATSI, and some people came already in their minds decided what they wanted. So that very little of what was said — Faith Bandler, I think, got up, and she made a very forceful statement to the effect that just because she was black she didn't want to be treated as a child. And she was extremely upset because again it was a majority of white people, really I think, who, so it seemed to me, who were pressurising for a division. And I think there was an agenda that very few people understood at the time. I wouldn't know who knew, but I think Mr Wentworth was, in some respects, involved in it, and I only know that second-hand. Geraldine [Briggs] would remember because Geraldine actually discussed it in my presence, but what the details were I have no idea. But it seemed to me that there was something going on there that wasn't all that apparent to us. And I think it was, quite frankly, the beginning of the end for FCAATSI.
You see, my argument was, and I circulated Abschol people and other people from Victoria. I wrote what I was prepared to get up and speak to if they thought I had any hope of changing their minds. That's, these are the people I gave it to, to read. And I believe that it would have been better and more wholesome for FCAATSI if the Aboriginal groupings took over the main Conference, and the Europeans and trade union delegates took the role that had been the Aboriginal role at the time, which was they had their own Conference and then they brought their own statements and whatever to the main Conference, but I couldn't sway anybody to do that, and so I didn't get up and speak. I thought what's the point? But that's what I think in retrospect should have happened. I believed so at the time and I'm even more certain of it now, because you see, for a long time trade union support was lost.
Pauline Pickford also provided active support for the development of the National Aboriginal and Islander Women's Council in the early 1970s, often being the driver, taking women from the south up to Canberra for national meetings.
(I was not involved in discussions of women's issues at Federal Council conferences, only National Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women) [clarification added by Pauline Pickford] Geraldine [Briggs] had a very progressive agenda. You know, I use that in the political sense. Very progressive. And her girls were very strong girls. She knew what she wanted to accomplish. And having been involved with FCAATSI she realised that there were a lot of women who could be organised. It was a question of getting the money, getting the help, and writing petitions. How you can't get a petition before Parliament unless it's written in a certain way, things like that. Well I think what they did was quite extraordinary really. There was the approaching people like Ansett for plane fares for various women, there was the big national one that I was mainly bus driver to, was in Canberra at Bruce Hall and we all lived at Bruce Hall. There were some wonderful women came from all over Australia to that meeting. And they had a different chairman for each session. And everybody got up and had their say. And they passed resolutions and all the resolutions were spot on sort of resolutions. Geraldine knew the direction that she wanted the women's organisation to go. Geraldine wasn't just one woman, I mean there were all the other women around her, you know.
Pauline speaks about some of the impressive people she met at FCAATSI conferences.
Yes, yes I remember him [Joseph Abednigo] very well, a very tall man. He'd been a pilot not of aeroplanes, I mean a boat pilot or whatever they call them. And yeah he was, he had a lot of influence in the Islands. Very influential man. And he too spoke very well.
I remember Mrs Jimmy. Mrs Jean Jimmy. Mrs Jimmy was a most wonderful woman. To get the money to come to her first conference, she went crocodile shooting, and I can't remember how many crocodiles she had to shoot to get there, but she got there.
Leanne: When would her first meeting have been now? Was it early '60s?
Pauline: It was one that was at Bruce Hall, so it was 1963 or 1964. She was a lovely woman and she's the one that you heard that wonderful expression, 'They make our rights wrongs'. It's never left me. That's a beautiful expression. And those people from up there spoke a language that you could almost say was biblical. Truly. They used their wordings of the Bible to put their case. Beautiful. It sort of knocks you sideways when you hear it. And she, I met her, second time, they had to leave of course and she was up in the range somewhere with her family. I think she was probably getting a little bit sick of all the people that sort of were coming because she was a very quiet person, and people became very interested in the story of the bauxite and how they were forced off, you know, by gunpoint, and all this sort of thing. And so she seemed to have a whole stream of visitors going up there. And she was a very solitary person, who liked to be alone I think.
(laughs) Yes I remember Stan [Davey]. He's going strong still, in Western Australia I think. Have you heard anything about him? He's a great bloke. Oh he was a wonderful organiser particularly at the last minute. People would be getting, oh so excited about, oh you know 'when is it going to be organised?' And ohhh 'people have got to have beds!' and he'd be doing all sorts of things you know. And then about a month before FCAATSI [annual Easter conference] it seemed to us, he got into gear and he was a wonderful organiser at that stage.
Barry [Christophers is] a very dear friend, and it will probably show you what Barry's like a bit by the fact that he went up to Don McLeod, I think to work up there with Don McLeod and Don McLeod was an unusual man. And I think Barry once told me that he had to wait outside for a couple of days before he was even spoken to. Now for a person with that patience, I think that epitomises Barry. He is one of the most patient people I've ever known. But to see him angry is really something quite spectacular. I wasn't at the Brisbane conference, but I heard all about it from other people and apparently there were quite a few officials from governments there, including the Northern Territory government, a minister was there. No they weren't ministers then; were they?
Sue: No, no they weren't ministers. Chief protectors.
Pauline: Yeah, yeah that's right. Well some of the bureaucracy was up there and he was on about what is known as the 'Stud Book'. You know that disgraceful thing? [This was the Northern Territory's 'Register of wards', a list of 15,000 Aboriginal people who came under the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance 1953–1955]
And the names they called people. Well Barry apparently was shaking with rage and it was a real in-the-face confrontation. And they never came again. So, you know, he is a very patient man, but when something really upsets him, that's curtains. And the other thing too. He, with Shirley, were very able organisers around specific things, like equal wages for Aborigines. You know, they're both like bulldogs. They sort of get their teeth into something and 'worry', 'worry', 'worry' until, you know, they sort of get books written and things on the agenda and so forth.
Well Doug [Nicholls] I think, well he comes from that era. His brother and Doug and the Coranderrk people, they played their role. You know Geraldine was on one of those delegations to the New South Wales Parliament, I think with Mr Ferguson. I can sort of see three faces, I think was it Evelyn [Briggs, sister to Geraldine and Margaret Tucker]. Would Evelyn have been there? It was Margaret [Tucker]? But there were, I can just see the two women and Mr Ferguson, there were many others grouped there, but I can only remember those three. And, well Doug played his role. My God he did! And for a long time, he was the only voice, you know, down here in Melbourne. You know one way and another, people sort of drifted off to their own affairs, it happens. It happens in every movement. You reach a crisis and things go away, ebb away and something else happens and that person's there again. It's like that with Geraldine and Doug and others, and the thing that I regret about Doug is that (I wasn't involved at the time) but at Council for Aboriginal Rights (everyone belonged to the Council), and then it was thought that Doug would make a wonderful worker along social worker lines. And so they wanted to have the Council do this kind of work. But the Council, I think, was probably more oriented towards legislative change and instead of making a committee to organise something along those lines, they [opted to start a separate organisation]. I don't know why they didn't, because I wasn't involved in any of the discussions. I was at the meeting where the AAL [Aborigines Advancement League] was formed, but everybody was there. You know, I mean the Council members were there, and the populace and, so I don't really know but — that's another fault. It sort of divided again, although we still concentrated on legislative reform and that sort of thing, whereas the AAL did social work, organised groups of people, and kids, and had branches and all that. So, I suppose in the long run, it mightn't, you know, six of one thing and half a dozen of another. You know, it's hard to say when you look back. But Doug was very, very necessary.
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Pauline Pickford conducted by Leanne Miller and Sue Taffe on 15 November 1996