Over a century on since the dark dawn of the Stolen Generations, the Indigenous community in Ballarat has secured an historic, once-inconceivable gain for self-determination.
Using a $2.6 million infrastructure grant from the Victorian government, the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Cooperative (BADAC) will fund the construction of several supported residential facilities for First Nation elders within the community.
The stunning project, many years in the making, was announced at BADAC headquarters on Tuesday morning following a smoking ceremony conducted by Indigenous elder Uncle Frank Laxton of the Gunditjmara nation.
Referencing the enduring trauma attached to policies of forcible assimilation and cultural genocide - as epitomised in last century's child removal policies - BADAC chief executive Karen Heap said the project would enable the region's Aboriginal elders to "age with dignity" and independence within a culturally safe and supported environment.
"Ballarat was a key location during the Stolen Generations, with children removed [from] all over Victoria and interstate and placed in one of Ballarat's five children's homes," Ms Heap said, adding many elders were "terrified of being institutionalised once more."
"I see our elders in the community getting older, with some isolated from cultural and social activities and others facing poverty - this project, our elders' independent living village, will enable them to maintain cultural connection and age with dignity."
Her views were echoed by BADAC chief operating officer Jon Kanoa, who told the gathering of Indigenous elders, leaders and community representatives the project and its favourable reception by the Victorian government marked an important step towards Indigenous self-determination and reconciliation, noting his community was long "tired of being dictated to" by government.
"Self-determination means we can enter into a partnership with government and look at projects like this and make decisions on behalf of our own community," Mr Kanoa said.
"For us, it means government walking beside us, not behind us or in front of us, and being guided by our advice through processes of truth-telling because empathy comes from understanding the past."
To similar effect, Wendouree MP Juliana Addison said the "ground-breaking project" would build on the Victorian government's commitment to truth and justice, as reflected by the landmark Yoorrook Justice Commission and the Victorian Aboriginal local government partnership strategy.
The village of self-contained units - to be designed in close consultation with elders - will be built on a BADAC-owned parcel of land on Porter Street in Bakery Hill by the end of 2023, and is projected to house 16 First Nations elders.
Commending the pioneering leadership of Ms Heap, Uncle Ted Laxton of the Gunditjmara nation said the initiative was "nothing short of brilliant".
"Without a project like this, I might be sleeping in a tent; I'm sort of lost for words," he said. "You can rest assured that I, myself, and the rest of the community [are] really pleased with it."
The possibility of similar projects materialising elsewhere was also foreshadowed by the Minister for Regional Development Mary-Anne Thomas, who said the Victorian government was "always open to proposals" like it.
"The Victorian government is very proud to be in partnership with BADAC to deliver this significant project," she said. "This is a great model and I want to congratulate BADAC for the work they have done in coming to government with this proposal."
The $2.6 million grant was awarded to BADAC under the Victorian government's $156 million Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund.
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