AUNTY Ruth Hegarty loves telling stories.
The 86-year old respected Aboriginal elder, author, advocate for indigenous justice and holder of an honorary doctorate from Australian Catholic University has recently published two children’s books with five more stories due this month.
These books break away from her previous work that includes an award-winning memoir “Is that you Ruthie?” that detailed life as a “dormitory girl” at Barambah Aboriginal Settlement, later known as Cherbourg, in the 1930s and 1940s.
Aunty Ruth said even as a young child she loved telling stories.
“I always told children’s stories, making them up for the other girls,” she said.
“We’d be under the blanket but they (dormitory staff) knew it was me and I’d have to go outside until everybody was asleep and then you would have to crawl back in because there would be about six in two single beds so you had to find your way into that bed and then fight for blankets.”
Stories and dreams for a better future were a big part of Aunty Ruth’s early life as she experienced unjust policies implemented against indigenous Queenslanders including the heartbreaking separation from her mother, Ruby.
“I think I was most upset when they took Mum away from me,” she said.
“She had me until I was four-and-a-half years old, then they took me away from her so she could go out to work, and I went to school, so I saw her then, I’d say, about once a year.”
The “dormitory girls” then became Ruth’s substitute family. She said there were about 60 girls aged between four and 14 in the dormitory where she lived until it was her own turn to be sent out to work at 14.
Aunty Ruth said most contracted positions were in the country.
“It was a very, very long day; there were no sleep-ins,” she said. “We were supposed to have Sunday off but I worked half Sunday.”
Like most young Queensland Aboriginal people, Ruth only ever received a portion of the wages she earned.
The wages kept from her and fellow indigenous people became known as “stolen wages” and that injustice was one of many Aunty Ruth was fighting to have remedied in later life.
“I was always a bit of a rebel and that got me into a lot of trouble at times,” she said.
She recounts the time she asked for a pay rise because of extra work, when she refused to perform tasks that she had not been contracted to do and how she complained.
“I tell the children, we were signing contracts when we were 14; they called them agreements but I got the idea very young that these were contracts that we were signing,” she said.
“I didn’t get to read them but I knew exactly what was in them; you went everywhere your mistress went and you felt like the duck out of water.
“When they (mistresses) went to other properties straight away you were sent to the kitchen … we were basically servants.”
A visit to her mother in Brisbane in the mid-1960s was the catalyst for change that eventually saw Ruth, husband Joe and their eight children leave “the Mission”.
“It was around the time of the referendum (1966) and we came down and had two weeks with my mum who had saved enough money to move to Brisbane,” she said. “It was just so different and I’d never felt so much peace.
“She lived at Deagon and we could walk down to Shorncliffe and the kids could swim and it was just so good … I was afraid then, when we were to go back, … because there was absolutely nothing up there.
“I remember saying to Joe, we should take the children away from here (the Mission) because education is important and they are not getting it here.”
Children’s education and strong family bonds are common themes throughout Aunty Ruth’s life and she said although the move from the Mission initially saw some tough times it was the right decision to make.
“Every step I took gave me more courage,” she said. “I was beginning to live like a normal person and not like a Mission person and our children were so good; they didn’t run the streets like some families do, they were really good kids.”
Life got better for the Hegartys.
Ruth and Joe were both working and most of their children had finished school when Ruth was approached to help a local group of indigenous mothers.
“People say leaders are born and I don’t know if that is right but I was chosen by my group,” she said. “In 1974 there was the flood and while before that there were only five Aboriginal families here (in Zillmere) … after the floods they were coming from everywhere.
“I was coming home from work one afternoon and I was met by one of the mums and apparently they had been having meetings and decided to ‘ask Aunty Ruth for help’.”
What they wanted was help to get their children into kindergarten.
Aunty Ruth took their request to Joe who suggested that as they were doing quite well and could live on one wage she should quit work and take on the project.
This led to the eventual establishment of Koobara Aboriginal and Islander Family Resource Centre where Aunty Ruth was president until Joe died from cancer.
With Joe’s death, Aunty Ruth resigned from community work but her youngest son, concerned for her well-being, put her name down as an Aboriginal representative on the Queensland Consumer Forum for the Aged.
Aunty Ruth was now, supported by her children, doing what she did best – working to empower her community.
Projects such as Burringilly and Nalingu aged-care respite centres and Binambi Barambah Cultural Enrichment Camps for children were just some of many achievements.
She decided to share her own story with her people in the late-1990s, writing her memoir Is that you Ruthie? The book won the 1998 David Unaipon National Award for unpublished indigenous writers and Aunty Ruth followed it up with a sequel Bittersweet Journey, published in 2003.
During the writing of both books Aunty Ruth continued her community work.
She was on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board from 2000-06 and an ardent stolen wages campaigner from 2002.
In 2012, Aunty Ruth became the patron of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation that utilised the earnings from unallocated “stolen wages” redress funds for education scholarships for Year 10-12 indigenous students statewide.
Aunty Ruth’s work has also been recognised through a number of awards and honours.
In 1998 she received a Premier’s Award for Queensland Seniors and a year later an International Women’s Day award.
She was named a Centenary of Federation Local Hero in 2001 and a Queensland Great honour followed in 2010.
Last year Aunty Ruth was also honoured as a Doctor of the Australian Catholic University (Honoris Causa) in recognition of her service and advocacy for the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, from kindergarten to university, and for her unfailing belief that it is through dialogue that we achieve reconciliation.
“It was amazing that I could get caught up in something like that (ACU honour) because coming from Cherbourg and being a dormitory girl, we had no future,” she said.
“No one had a future in those days.”
So is this 86-year-old ready to hang up her rebel cap and embrace the life of a full-time author? Not yet.
Aunty Ruth has raised concerns about the inclusion of “other Queenslanders” including South Sea Islanders being paid from remaining “stolen wages” redress funds.
“In doing that I’ve opened up a can of worms and I pray about these things, but I’m not sorry that I have done that,” she said.
She said while South Sea Islanders were treated badly, they had nothing to do with the funds in question, as their wages and savings were not controlled by the government of the day.
“So that will be my last thing I’m doing now,” she said. “They will have to come through me, we are going to fight this because this money specifically belongs to us.
“This money is QATSIF (Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fund) now and I will not allow them to touch that money.
“When you think of the 3700 children that have already gone through QATSIF, going from Year 12 into university, these are our leaders for tomorrow, our doctors, solicitors, parliamentarians, these are or future so that (money) will not be touched.”
By Robin Williams.