Work to shine spotlight on past tragedy of lock hospitals on islands off Carnarvon acknowledged with awards

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Lisa FavazzoMidwest Times
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The 'Don't Look at the Islands' statue in Carnarvon.
Camera IconThe 'Don't Look at the Islands' statue in Carnarvon. Credit: Supplied

The efforts of a Carnarvon group to ensure a cruel and disturbing part of Australia’s colonial history is not forgotten was formally recognised by the WA Government last week.

Carnarvon-based Lock Hospital Working Group co-founders Bob Dorey and Kathleen Musulin have known they were the recipients of five Heritage Australia Awards for months, but the formalities were put on hold by COVID-19.

Their dedication to truth-telling was finally celebrated in Perth last Tuesday, with Heritage Minister David Templeman, Heritage Council of WA chair John Cowdell and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt among the guests.

Their project was about uncovering information about lock hospitals, which were prisons disguised as hospitals set up on Bernier and Dorre islands, off the coast of Carnarvon.

About 800 Aboriginal people, said to be suffering from venereal disease, were taken from their culture and country and moved to the islands between 1908 and 1919.

Mr Dorey said there was very little evidence the people on the island were sick at all.

Heritage Council of Western Australia chair John Cowdell, Kathleen Musulin, Heritage Minister David Templeman and Bob Dorey.
Camera IconHeritage Council of Western Australia chair John Cowdell, Kathleen Musulin, Heritage Minister David Templeman and Bob Dorey. Credit: Mark Pace Photography,

The program is now widely accepted as an example of racially fuelled policing, occurring as a result of the 1869 Aboriginal Protection Act. Mr Dorey said receiving the award was a “huge honour”, but he didn’t do it for the accolades.

He said he did it to honour the trauma held by “the old people” and to contextualise the intergenerational pain experienced by the young.

“We can’t get over it until it is acknowledged,” he said.

The group’s work included lobbying the Government to investigate the tragedy and having a remembrance statue, built in Carnarvon titled Don’t Look at the Island.

The statue is a homage to the generations of Aboriginal people who have avoided looking at the islands.

“We still feel it, even today,” Mr Dorey said.

Mr Wyatt said the Lock Hospital Working Group had lifted the lid on a very painful part of WA’s past.

“Its work has left a shocking but important legacy of truth and healing for those who suffered in the tragic era of lock hospitals, and their descendants,” he said.

Mr Wyatt welcomed the commendation, which he said celebrated community members who had “worked hard to achieve good social outcomes”.

Mr Templeman agreed, saying: “this project was a stand-out across four categories for its clear vision and dedication to the traumatic history of Bernier and Dorre islands”.

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