The Assimilation policies in Australia began in the Forties and the period ran till 1965. This was a policy that determined how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have the same rights and privileges and responsibilities as other non-Indigenous Australians, and be made essentially indistinguishable from non-Aboriginal Australians.

These policies, however, had a very western lens. Government ‘training programs’ were offered that focussed on agricultural or pastoral skills for men, and domestic or service skills for women. For those that stepped out of this model and sought semi-professional or professional roles such as nursing, systemic racism was faced daily. Segregation was still common. Indigenous people could still be made ‘wards of the government’ if they were thought to be living in a non-similar manner to non-Indigenous people, were perceived to not manage their own affairs, have different social habits and behaviours, and personal associations. Basically they had to be ‘just like white Australians’ and if they were not, the government could step in.

My grandfather, who served to fight wars for this country when he was not yet a citizen and came back to a segregated land where he couldn’t even share a drink with his digger mates in the pub because he was black.

My great grandfather who was jailed for speaking his language to his grandson – my father – jailed for it!

My grandfather on my mother’s side who married a white woman who reached out to Australia, lived on the fringes of town, until the police came, put a gun to his head, bulldozed his tin humpy, and ran over over the graves of the three children he’d buried there…

You might hear tonight, ‘but you have white blood in you.’ And if the white blood in me was here tonight, my grandmother, she would  tell you of how she was turned away from a hospital giving birth to her first child because she was giving birth to the child of a black person.

Stan Grant (2015)

‘But every time we are lured into the light, we are mugged by the darkness of this country’s history’, Ethics Centre IQ2 debate

In relation to women and families, a 1965 amendment to the policy of Assimilation meant that the authorities could forcibly remove children from their families on very flimsy grounds, leading to the ‘Stolen Generation’ and untold trauma. The devastation these policies caused, together with the segregation/protection policies before, were well documented in the ‘National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997, Bringing Them Home (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney)’. Violence and neglect was rife in the children’s homes that some children were sent to.

The health of Indigenous people continued to suffer under this policy, as cultural and social welfare continued to be neglected. Toward the end of this period, however, there was more information about the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and some recognition of the terrible state of health. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still have the memories of their relatives being removed from their families, and indeed, many people alive today are those very victims. These memories are often not too far away from Indigenous women giving birth in our hospitals and birth centres today, often unable to access birth care in their own community.


Sadie Canning © SIDE

Sadie Miriam Canning MBE {Leonora, WA 1930-2008}

On April 11th 1930, I was born in the bush according to Traditional Aboriginal Custom.  Born under a tree, on the outskirts of the mining town of Laverton, in the North Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Laverton is almost 300kms north east of Kalgoorlie.

There were no hospital births for Aboriginal Mothers then.  Aborigines were only allowed in town during the mornings.  There were then rounded up at Midday and told to get out.  By dusk, they were often whipped out by police.

My mother was a full blood Aboriginal who lived a traditional lifestyle.  She could not read, write nor could she speak English. I was taken at the age of 4 years and placed in Mt Margaret Mission which was in the area my parents traversed. I was placed in the Graham home for girls with about 59 others, I entered the home speaking and hearing Wongutha, as English was completely unknown to me.

Sadie Miriam Canning in her own words, for CATSINaM

Sadie Miriam Canning was removed from her family at four years of age, and taken some 40km away to the Mt. Margaret Mission. Here she studied with the WA Correspondence School, with the goal of becoming a nurse: a bold and ambitious dream as, at that time, Aboriginal women in WA were barred from nurse training. Sadie began  her nursing training at Bethesda Hospital in Richmond (Vic) in 1949, and graduated in 1952. She  completed her midwifery training at the Haven Hospital in Fitzroy (Vic), run by the Salvation Army in affiliation with with the Queen Victoria Hospital, and Infant Welfare training at the Presbyterian Babies Home in Camberwell in 1954. Sadie is recognised as WA’s first Aboriginal trained nurse.

I was now a Triple Certificate Nurse!!  An achievement as the 2nd Aboriginal trained nurse.  I believe another Aboriginal nurse graduated from Bethesda Hospital before me.  I believe she was from South Australia and her name was Nelly Lester. I was now able to wear the veil!!  The starched piece of Viol, which was the pride and prize of graduating as a fully fledged nurse.

Sadie Miriam Canning in her own words, for CATSINaM

She returned to the Leonora District Hospital in 1956. Sister Canning was promoted to the position of Matron in 1958, and held the role until her retirement in 1990.

Leonora is not an Aboriginal Community it is a town  – although there is a large Aboriginal population. To take up a position in that atmosphere was daunting especially when there was still segregated wards and in particular the maternity wards. Aboriginal mums delivered in a tin shed just a few metres away from the maternity block of the hospital.   Aboriginal patients were also treated in a small shed away from the general wards.

My first and foremost desire was to, in some way, help our Aboriginal population of that town, but I had also to prove to the white community that an Aboriginal nurse could do the duties that was required.  It was very stressful to see Aboriginal patients having to wait till the very last to be seen by the resident doctor and to be treated as second rate.

As a nurse, our code of conduct was to treat every one the same regardless of colour or race.  Thus, I began to plan in my mind, how things could be changed. First of all my own professional integrity and ability to care for all patients, be they black or white, had to be such, that I could not allow any criticism of anything I did. My strong desire was to integrate the patients on the maternity and general wards.  But how????  When, these practices had been practiced for years.

My chance came in the form of resignation of the Matron.  I applied for the position of Matron in 1958 and was accepted as Matron of the Leonora District Hospital.  Changes were made very gradually but full integrated wards were achieved by the end of 1958!!!! The maternity section was my biggest achievement.

Sadie Miriam Canning in her own words, for CATSINaM

The life of a remote area nurse/midwife was tough, with a lack of staff, services, and support, but no lack of demand.

Often one had the role of cook, laundress or cleaner, as well as nursing and on occasions one had to these extra duties.  As it was a one Doctor practice town, with no back up from the Royal Flying Doctor Service, (as it is known today), no bitumen roads then to Kalgoorlie, high corrugations and Kalgoorlie being 247 kms away the Doctor did emergency surgery and some elective surgery i.e.;  herniorophies, appendices, tonsillectomies etc.  In these cases, as far as anaesthetics went, Dr induced the patient and then I had to take over while he operated.  Oxford vaporiser ether machine was used for the anaesthetics.  Huge responsibility but it had to be done.  At the time, if patients were transferred to Kalgoorlie, it was by road – and the only ambulance then was owned by the Sons of Gwalia mining company.

Sadie Miriam Canning in her own words, for CATSINaM

Sadie married Graham Canning in 1966; they have a son David and a daughter Miriam, and grandchildren. She was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1964, for services to nursing, improving facilities and indigenous healthcare in WA. In 1977 she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal for her services to rural nursing in WA, and a Centenary Medal in 2003. Sadie was a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the State Reconciliation Committee, served on the Board the Australian Children’s Trust, and was a patron of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses. She was a claimant for Wongatha Native Title Claims in 1996, and one of 12 applicants for the Wongatha Claim accepted for registration in February 2007.

Sadie died on 3 September 2008, and was interred in the Guildford Cemetery, Guildford, WA. Leonora Hospital is now located on Sadie Canning Drive, Leonora (a little over 800km north east of Perth), and Sadie Canning continues to provide health care services to the community as a Royal FlyingDoctor Service plane.

Read more about Sadie’s life in her own words for CATSINaM, and an oral history interview and transcript is available in the State Library of WA.

You can also read about Sadie in the Women’s Museum of Australia, in the School of Isolated & Distance Education (SIDE) Hall of Fame, the Australian College of Nursing Nurse education in Australia: Part 7,  and on this WikiTree genealogy.

Faith Thomas © Wise Women

Faith Thomas AM {South Australia, 1933 – 2023}

Faith Coulthard was born 22 January 1933 at the Nepabunna Aboriginal Mission in South Australia. Her mother, Ivy, was an Adnyamathanha woman, and her father a German migrant. Faith’s mother, Ivy, did not think the Nepabunna Aboriginal mission was the right place for her baby daughter, so she took her to the Colebrook Home for Aboriginal Children in Quorn, SA, where she played cricket using stones for a ball and wood for a bat.

I really appreciate Mum, you know, for doing that. So I ended up with three wonderful mums – Sister Hyde, Sister Anna, and my natural mum. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones… Had I not been in Colebrook, I would’ve never had the opportunities I did have. I consider myself not stolen, but chosen.

Faith Thomas to Amy Clark

Faith completed her nursing training in 1954, one of the first group of six Aboriginal nurses to graduate from the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and the first Aboriginal public servant in SA. She then undertook midwifery training in Adelaide at Queen Victoria Hospital in Adelaide, and in 1958 was employed to work at Raukkan (known then as Point McLeay Aboriginal Reserve).

After a year’s training to become a midwife she delivered so many children that parents took to giving them her name. “There were a lot of Faiths running around the joint,” she says. “I’d feel really good about them all being named after me.”

Faith Thomas to Russell Jackson

Faith was reintroduced to cricket and shortly made the State team, playing for the SA women’s cricket team 1956-58. She was selected for the Australian team in 1958 and played an International against England. She was the first Aboriginal woman to be selected to represent Australia in any sport, and until 2019 she remained the only Aboriginal woman to play test cricket for Australia. She was a member of the Aboriginal Sports Foundation, and patron of the Prime Minister’s XI versus the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) Chairman’s XI.

Faith chose to prioritise her nursing and midwifery career over cricket, and retired after only 3 years in the game. She played her last game in 1960, 8 months pregnant! With her “guts sticking out”, she stepped onto the pitch for the last time. “I stood there… telling everyone not to hit [my belly]. They bowled me slow balls, and I just stood there and hit them all over the place,” she told Cricket Australia

In terms of her nursing and midwifery, Faith said “That’s the part of my life I feel really proud about”.

Aunty Faith was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019 for service to cricket and the Indigenous community.

There’s so much more to learn about Aunty Faith… read her entries in the Women’s Museum of Australia, Australian Women’s Register, and the Australian College of Nursing; read the 2016 interview with sport writer Russell Jackson of the Guardian. while the 2018 interview with Amy Clark focusses more on her life and career than her cricket (with a Cricket Australia video and loads of beautiful photos!). Listen to the ABC podcast series Fierce Girls: Faith Thomas and watch for the documentary ‘Before her time’ funded  by the NITV ‘Our Stories’ series (available on SBS on demand).

Aunty Faith spent her later years in Wami Kata, an aged care home in Port Augusta for Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander people. She died 15 April 2023, at age 90. The SA Branch of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation posted a eulogy in her memory, as did Obituaries Australia.

She was always loving and always looked after us, she was always joking, she was never too serious. She’d teach us about respect, to be hard workers, look after your family. She’d always take us to introduce us to the aunties and uncles, she just knew everyone, everyone she talked to was her friend.

Reehan Thomas, grandson, to Nicholas Ward & Tom Mann, ABC

She was a very proud Adnyamathanha woman, but she knew that there were systems she had to work with to create change … she really was the epitome of what reconciliation and working together is all about…

Tyson Baird, Biographer and friend, to Nicholas Hard & Tom Mann, ABC

Faith Thomas’ family has given permission for her name and image to be used in reportage of her death.

Voices from the Armchair: Aunty Pamela Mam

Deadly Choices honour the life of Institute of Urban Indigenous Health patron Aunty Pam Mam

Pamela Mam {Qld, 1938 – 2020}

Pamela Ah-kee/Bligh, descendent of the Kuku Yalanji peoples, was born in Richmond, western Queensland, in 1938.

Pamela grew up on Palm Island, as her mother had been removed from Cooktown under the Assimilation for Aboriginal People policy. She began working as a nurse’s aid in the Palm Island Hospital, before completing her nursing training Townsville Hospital 1954-1959, then midwifery training at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Brisbane. She is recognised as one of the first trained nurses in Qld, and a champion of culturally appropriate health services.

When working in direct service with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is important to offer humility and leadership, knowledge and learning, respect and culturally responsive care for people. We also must never neglect the everyday support and guidance required by all health care professionals to provide proper health care.

Pamela Mam

In 1973, Pamela co-founded the Brisbane Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service (ATSICHS), and was the inaugural inductee of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council Hall of Fame in 2008.  Griffith University and ATSICHS established the Aunty Pamela Mam Indigenous Nursing and Midwifery Scholarship in 2015. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Griffith University for services to Aboriginal people and to the community in 2018.

She was an inspiration to all people, a remarkable humanitarian, a First Peoples’ Elder, role model, patron and matriarch

Professor Carolyn Evans, President and Vice Chancellor, Griffith University

When Pamela passed away in 2020, aged 82, her obituary noted that she had championed care for Aboriginal people based on ‘respect, humility and cultural understanding’, her entire life. She is memorialised in Pamela Mam Drive, Eagleby Qld.

She has for over 60 years, provided tireless service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, starting out as a nurse at Palm Island Hospital and progressing to be the founder of the biggest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controlled health services in Australia. Aunty Pam championed proper care for our people; based on respect, humility and cultural understanding. Aunty Pam is a great Australian and will always be remembered for the legacy she has created in Aboriginal-controlled heath.

Donnella Mills, Chairperson, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)

as reported by Keira Jenkins, NITV News


24 Jan 2020

MAM, Pamela Hope

Late of Camira, Brisbane. Passed away peacefully 17th January, 2020. Aged 81 years. Dearly beloved Wife of the late Ezra Stephen Leo Mam. Much loved Sister, Mother, Aunty, cherished Grandmother, Great-Grandmother and Great-Great-Grandmother. Relatives and Friends are respectfully invited to attend her service on Tuesday 28th January, 2020 at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 141 Brooke Street, Fortitude Valley commencing at 11.00 am. A burial will take place at Mount Gravatt Cemetery, 582 Mains Road , MacGregor following the Service.

Learn more about Aunty Pamela’s life in this statement from the Qld Aboriginal and Islander Health Council, this Griffith University statement at the time of conferring her doctorate, this NITV report,  the Australian College of Nursing, and the videos above


Birthing Business in the bush

Click here to see the archived website for maternity service providers.

Kildea, S., Wardaguga, M., Dawumal, M., Maningrida Women. (2004). Birthing Business in the Bush (website – Trove archive). Liquid Rain Design, last updated 2004.

This website has been prepared by Aboriginal women with Sue Kildea, to be used as a resource for maternity service providers working in remote communities. A participatory action research approach was used to develop the site. The contents are mainly ‘Women’s Business’ and there are some sections that should not be read by men. We knew we could not monitor this once it is available on the Internet and rely on each individuals honesty and integrity to follow these wishes. The Aboriginal women involved in the project were not concerned about this as they said that Aboriginal men would not even try to look if they knew that it was women’s business. The women were very happy to think that women all over the world would be able to read their stories, and some women suggested that men could read then too, particularly if they were involved in providing health services to women. Aboriginal communities all vary from each other and the messages here are about one community only (Maningrida, Arhnem Land). However the local wisdom and experience provides lessons that could be applied universally in many different settings.

Timeline of Trauma and Healing in Australia

Click here to see The Healing Foundation timeline of trauma and healing in Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been taken from their families since the start of colonisation in Australia. Children were stolen, taken for labour and removed from their families through government policies of the day.

This timeline looks at some of the events, trauma and healing that’s taken place in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities over the last two and a half centuries. The dates in this timeline are a selection representing the breadth of events that have occurred. This is not intended to be a complete list.

The Healing Portal

Click here to see The Healing Foundation Healing Portal.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing portal is an online hub for people working in healing, health, justice, education, employment, child protection, community services and family violence.

The Healing portal is designed to encourage information sharing and collaboration across sectors and locations. It brings together best practice healing initiatives and information about what is working in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities around healing. The portal includes the latest research, reports, case studies, videos and tools from around Australia to enable people to bring trauma informed and healing aware practices into their organisations and communities.

Florence Onus. Telling Our Stories – Our Stolen Generations

Florence Onus shares her story of being the fourth generation of her family institutionalised and forcibly removed, and her healing journey © The Healing Foundation

Faye Clayton. Telling Our Stories – Our Stolen Generations

Faye Clayton shares her story of being one of six children forcibly removed from her family of nine, and why donating blood is an important symbol for her. © The Healing Foundation

What can you tell us about the Assimilation and breeding out programs?

Colin Jones, lecturer in Aboriginal History, talks about his culture and history, and the underlying philosophy of the assimilation policy.  © Qld Rural Medical Education Ltd

Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report

April 1997


This report is a tribute to the strength and struggles of many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by forcible removal. We acknowledge the hardships they endured and the sacrifices they made. We remember and lament all the children who will never come home.

We dedicate this report with thanks and admiration to those who found the strength to tell their stories to the Inquiry and to the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people separated from their families and communities.