6 July 2023

First Nations acknowledgement

We acknowledge the First Peoples and Traditional Custodians of the land we now call Victoria.

We recognise and respect their continuing connection to land, water and community, and pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

We acknowledge that this land was and always will be Aboriginal land.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that articles in this publication may contain references to dead Indigenous people.

About the illustration

Artist: Matty Atkinson

In his beautiful illustrations, Matty tells the tale of connection to Country through journeying across the landscape. His art incorporates traditional symbols for movement, including animal tracks and meeting places.

The colour palette, developed by the Little Rocket team, reflects the vibrant nature of our project and stories, giving the document a contemporary feel.


Our projects are being delivered in every corner of the area now known as Victoria – through the lands of the Gunaikurnai nations in the east, Wurundjeri and Bunurong country around Naarm, Wadawurrung and Eastern Maar lands in the west, and right up to lands of the Yorta Yorta, Latji Latji and Ngintait across the north.

Wherever we are working, we recognise we are visitors. While our projects will come and go, the connection of Traditional Owners and First Nations people to land, water and community continues.

During NAIDOC week we acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to our organisation, and to building a better rail network for all Victorians.

The profiles contained in this book are a small insight into this contribution. They are stories of strength, skill and resilience that remind us of both how far we have come, and how far we have to go, in creating a culturally safe and equal industry and community.

I thank everyone who contributed to this publication, and wish everyone at Rail Projects Victoria a happy NAIDOC Week.

Nicole Stoddart
CEO, Rail Projects Victoria

Ash Woods, Industry Engagement Officer, Rail Projects Victoria

A grandmother’s strength has inspired a determination to make a difference

Ash Woods was still a little girl when her grandmother passed away, but the mark she left is imprinted on her soul. “I bring her up talking to my friends all the time – ‘That reminds me of my Nan, she used to do that!’”

Ash’s Dad has six brothers, all of them comfortably taller than six feet in the old measurement. They towered over their mother, a tiny woman who was “barely four-foot-three”. Yet to her boys she was a giant to be revered and adored.

One of Ash’s earliest memories is from pre-school days when she was still eating off small plates, and Nan served her up a whole steak with vegies spilling off an adult’s plate. “She said, ‘Here – eat.’ And I ate the whole thing.”

Another time Nan was moving a washing machine – without asking for help – dropped it on her toe, inspected the damage, asked Ash’s Dad to pass her a pair of pliers … and promptly ripped the broken nail right off. “She was a very, very tough woman.”

Nan hailed from Tasmania and met Ash’s Pop on a tram. He was a conductor with striking good looks. “All of her girlfriends were chasing him, but he only went with Nan.”

Most of all, when Ash thinks of her grandmother she feels respect. “She was old school, she wasn’t afraid to use the wooden spoon to discipline them. But it made my Dad a huge person with respect.

“If we were at the supermarket and an older person was coming towards us, my Dad would literally drag me out of the way and stand to let them pass, even if there was plenty of room. I do it now – I grab my partner and I’m like, ‘Wait, there’s someone older coming, let them pass.’”

Ash’s path to RPV included childcare, working with people with disabilities, a VicPol traineeship and administrative work at Alfred Hospital. Now she validates Aboriginal Employment Targets and manages the talent pool, ensuring more young Indigenous people like herself are given opportunities in rail infrastructure’s many guises.

“We’re seeing a lot more traction, a lot more businesses and organisations trying to hire people out of the talent pool. I like being in the background, but it makes me feel good to think I’m giving something back to my community.

“Helping them and trying to make the workplace more diverse, whether it’s First Nations people or asylum seekers, it makes me feel good. I’m a little bit proud of myself – I’ve always wanted to help people in some way.”

Ash has encountered racism born of ignorance and had her Aboriginality questioned because of her fair skin. That someone could live in Australia and not even take the time to be respectful makes her shake her head. On the flipside she’s humbled to think she could be an inspiration to women who are starting their working lives.

“Growing up I always thought I was going to go downhill and never go anywhere in life. To go from that to now, it makes me happy that there might be little girls out there in the position I was once in, and maybe they’ll see me and somehow think, ‘I want to be like her.’ That would make me happy.”

As a young Aboriginal woman, debate over the merits of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament drains Ash. She can’t imagine how it must hurt older First Nations people, who for generations have heard governments tell them, “We’re having discussions, we’re going to do this for you. And then they’re like, ‘Sorry, something else has come up.’”

Yet she feels deeply the conviction of young Indigenous Australians to make their voices heard, and to make a difference.

“I feel like with the new generation now, we’re a lot louder, a lot more straight to the point. We’re not scared of consequences. We don’t put up with bullcrap. It feels like we’ll get somewhere, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

– Peter Hanlon

Aj Williams-Tchen, Director, Girraway Ganyi Consultancy - Mental Health First Aid Provider For Rail Projects Victoria

Teaching people to be there for others is having a genuine social impact

The first 20 years of AJ Williams-Tchen’s life were often traumatic, leaving a cloak of vagueness over his childhood memories. At school he was bullied – for being Aboriginal, for being adopted, because he danced (ballet and freestyle), and then for living with an eating disorder.

Surrounded by chaos, AJ craved structure and consistency and found it in unexpected places.

“I liked watching TV shows that happened every night – Flintstones at 6.30, The Sullivans at 7, five nights a week, structure. I didn’t cope well with anything that was all over the place, because my life was all over the place.”

AJ experienced homelessness and reflects that he’s “had to recreate myself a number of times”. While living in Sydney in his teens he went for a job as a hospital orderly and a canny matron convinced him to join the last hospital-based nursing training in NSW. He feels his story truly began when he moved to Melbourne aged 20, completed his studies, got married and began working as a maternal health nurse.

A back injury prompted a pivot to youth and social work and now, as founder of Girraway Ganyi Consultancy, he provides training in mental health first aid (including more than 50 sessions for RPV since 2017) and cultural awareness, mentors in schools and has impacted thousands of lives. “Everything I do is for community, to give platforms to people who don’t have voices so they can be heard.”

AJ is a proud Wiradjuri man. His biological father was Maori; his mother, who hailed from outside Dubbo, had AJ when she was just 15.

Forced to put him into foster care while giving birth to his younger brother, she intended to bring him home after her second baby arrived. “A couple of days after my brother was born she was told that I’d died.”

A long and anguished process let to a reunion when AJ was 30, after an uncle read a letter he’d written to his Mum, who couldn’t read or write. They met on Christmas morning in 2003 and spent several days together; she died the following Mother’s Day. “Meeting her was pretty awesome,” says AJ, who has four younger brothers. “I finally looked like some people, they could tell I was related to them.”

Now, AJ’s business name celebrates both his culture and family; son Girraway (Goanna) is 24 and a youth worker; Ganyi (Echidna) is studying Occupational Therapy.

Their father broke new ground in his own studies, racking up Bachelor and Masters degrees and multiple community service diplomas. The growing number of people who benefit from his work (around 8000 mental health first aiders and 5000 cultural awareness training recipients) warms him because he knows the reach they have.

“If everybody I’ve trained has gone and had a conversation with somebody, now you see what social impact really means.”

AJ admits he hasn’t always been able to love himself, that negative self-assessment has been easy because that’s how he was so often treated by others. Earning a host of different awards for his work – including an ‘Emerging Leader’ gong in 2015, a NAIDOC Community Award for his impact on Aboriginal youth, alumni awards from Swinburne and Victoria Universities – has been incredibly humbling.

“One was a ‘People’s Choice’ award. As someone who was bullied, who had an eating disorder, a person who struggled so much … to be nominated as someone’s choice was hard to get my head around.”

AJ likes that in NAIDOC Week he sees non-Indigenous people making a conscious decision to engage in activities that celebrate First Nations culture. “And through that we can pose the question, ‘Where are you at on your Reconciliation journey?’”

The diversity of his work emboldens him, from corporate training at RPV one day, to burning patterns into kangaroo skins with Aboriginal students the next, to driving to Echuca to meet with Elders the next. “I never get bored or tired. I’m able to blend in and out of those roles, and they keep me excited because I’m learning every day.”

– Peter Hanlon

‘Everything I do is for community, to give platforms to people who don’t have voices so they can be heard’

Benny Walker, Managing Director, A2B Consumables - Ppe Supplier For Regional Rail Revival and Melbourne Airport Rail Early Works

A gift from his grandfathers underpins a story to make the heart sing

Music runs through Benny Walker like the Murray River runs through his hometown of Echuca – quiet and peaceful one day, overflowing with a force that can’t be contained the next. Fittingly, the source is his Elders.

Before his parents met, Benny’s two grandfathers would play at Saturday night dances at the Echuca hall – Archie on his father’s side on pedal steel and country guitar, his mother’s Dad Alwyn on jazz saxophone and drums. “One would take a break and the other would play, they were well known in the district.”

Benny started piano aged eight, took up guitar soon after and was smitten when his Dad showed him a couple of chords. He’s blessed with a musician’s ear; an early triumph was teaching himself Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York album listening to an old tape recorder. At school he experimented with blues, rock, punk and metal before gravitating back to country and acoustic guitar.

“VCE I wasn’t that excited about, but I’d sit in the common room while people were studying and I’d be in the corner playing guitar. Or I’d duck into the hall and mess around on the piano. It helped me deal with the day-to-day of school. If I misbehaved and was sent to the referral room, I’d write lyrics or poems. That culminated in songwriting.”

Benny’s Pop Archie was a shearer and labourer who fostered an appreciation of his Aboriginal heritage and a connection to culture, teaching the Walker kids little things like making pronged spears for fishing when floods filled the local lagoons.

His non-Indigenous mother is one of 12, leaving Benny and his siblings with “over 100 people I’d consider cousins”.

For more than 15 years Benny has been a touring musician, a vocation he cherishes for how much it’s expanded his outlook and helped him grow as a person. “I went from a young man with a small-town mindset to someone who’s travelled the world.”

He’s played Bluesfest and the Myer Music Bowl to crowds of thousands, shared stages with Archie Roach, Blue King Brown and Tim Rogers. Yet a treasured memory is of a gig in a small country Victorian town that grew from someone’s living room to a sold-out hall with the whole community on hand, all bringing plates to share and tales to tell.

“Those memories of the joy you see in other people, the experience they’re getting, that’s something that’s really hooked me. We all want human connection. I’ve been so lucky over the years to tell my stories and hear other people’s. All your differences fall away, you realise how much we have in common.”

When Benny’s brother Andrew finished a 13-year AFL career with Carlton and returned home to Echuca, they wanted to do something for their people. A2B soon materialised, first as pre-employment training with sister Melanie on board, then with health and wellbeing added via cousin Dr Troy Walker.

Over time they realised the care they provided in training often wasn’t matched by on-the-job support from employers, so decided to become employers themselves. In three years, A2B Personnel has grown to a staff of 150. Workwear, safety and PPE was a logical progression, which Benny drives as managing director of A2B Consumables.

“We’re up against huge players in the game, listed companies, multiple bricks and mortar stores … we’re operating out of an Echuca warehouse, but we punch well above our weight,” he says. “Our service has been a standout, and something we’re super-proud of. It’s what’s setting us apart. Communication is key, and relationships are key for us as well.”

Contemplating contemporary Australia, Benny thinks we’re moving towards a brighter day. His grandparents were the first mixed race couple to marry in Echuca Moama; we’ve come a long way since, and he’s confident that if we keep talking and sharing our stories and songs, we’ll all be better for it.

“The way to break down prejudice, difference, racism, all these things, is through conversation and education. People are scared of what they don’t understand. The more often the conversations happen, the better off we’re going to be.”

– Peter Hanlon

‘People are scared of what they don’t understand. The more often the conversations happen, the better off we’re going to be’

Craig Taylor, Assistant Director, Industry Engagement, Aboriginal Workforce and Enterprises, Rail Projects Victoria

From a transient childhood has come a deep appreciation of clan and culture

For a time in his teens, Craig Taylor kept his Aboriginality to himself. He was at boarding school in rural NSW and racism was all around him.

“If you were Aboriginal you were a minority, someone to be picked on, ridiculed, joked about. There was no way in the world I was putting up my hand to say I was Aboriginal. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with that.”

Back home in Albury his grandmother told him: “Sonny, you’ll never be black enough to be black, and you’ll never be white enough to be white.”

Craig has a vivid memory of an earlier pivotal moment, when a man from Legacy who visited regularly with food parcels, shopping vouchers and the like came to the house and offered to put him and sister Lorraine through school in Melbourne. Their father, who was ex-army and not Indigenous, died when Craig was two. Their mother wasn’t coping.

“I recall that conversation like it was yesterday, I look back and think how instrumental that was in changing the trajectory of my life. I would have most probably ended up on the wrong side of the law, we were heading down that path.”

He went to school in Melbourne, Sydney and then Hay, where the school annual was called Wiradjuri after Craig’s mob. His uncle, John Muk Muk Burke, wrote the autobiographical Bridge Of Triangles. Craig read it, listened to his uncle’s stories, and his connection to culture – and appreciation of what his mother had been through – grew.

“Mum left home at 16 and worked in a service station near Bathurst, that’s where she met my truck driver father. Is that a good thing for a 16-year-old girl, working in a roadhouse, marrying a man more than 20 years older? I realised there were some serious issues and trauma in my mother’s life.”

Becoming an army officer appealed so much that Craig went back to school, although he admits there was an ulterior motive – a girl named Tania, who would become his wife. While Tania became a teacher Craig worked where he could, including Pizza Hut and in a jail. Then he studied again – a Diploma of Education – and they set off for England.

His UK experience – which included teaching kids from troubled backgrounds in London’s East End who occasionally threw chairs at him or pinned him to the wall – is remembered as one of the best times of his life. It also adds to the ‘I’ve Been Everywhere Man’ vibe of his CV, which includes being the first Magistrates Court Aboriginal Liaison Officer in Victoria’s history, two decades and counting as chair of the Aboriginal Health Service in his Albury-Wodonga community, and now as RPV’s only Indigenous employee to reach Assistant Director level. Here, Craig looks after RPV's Aboriginal Impact Management Plan and makes sure contractors are hitting the Aboriginal Employment Target.

He’s also umpired more than 400 games of football at community level, often juniors in the morning and seniors the same afternoon. He’s especially loved the teaching element in age-level games, helping kids get over disappointment, and learn how to win and lose well. “It keeps me engaged with people and communicating with them.”

Craig and Tania have a daughter Edith, whose second name is Girralang, Craig’s Mum’s Aboriginal name that translates to ‘Bright Star’. The NAIDOC theme ‘For Our Elders’ resonates as a chance to pay respect to the many who might not have had things easy, but whose lives have been meaningful and are worthy of celebration.

Craig loves that every NAIDOC Week seemingly brings greater engagement from all Australians yet is nervous about how this and other annual times of connection and education such as Reconciliation Week will look on the other side of the Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Whatever happens, he is looking to the next wave to play their part.

“We’ve been hearing the same Aboriginal voices for too long, we can’t expect to rely on them anymore. It’s time for the Elders to pass the baton to the younger generations to have their say. They’re the ones who need to be shaking the trees.”

– Peter Hanlon

‘We’ve been hearing the same Aboriginal voices for too long, we can’t expect to rely on them anymore’

Hayden Heta, Managing Director, Wamarra - Civil Contractor to Rail Projects Victoria

A grandmother’s example showcased the power of bringing people together

Like the surrounding landscape that was embedded in Hayden Heta throughout his Albury upbringing, an understanding of community resides deep inside him. His parents’ part in this has been significant, but his Nan has always been his guide and inspiration.

He speaks of her with great love, respect and gratitude.

“Nan had a nobility about her, a presence. She had wonderful stories, and to me that was the connection,” Hayden says of a woman who grew up on a dirt floor on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. “Nan was always a positive person who strived to create unity, to bring the community together both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

“She took care of people, had young people under her wing. She made it easy for me to connect with her culture. Putting her on a pedestal was quite easy for me.”

His mother works in Aboriginal affairs while his father spent 40 years at the local meatworks, where a post-secondary school stint convinced Hayden that he belonged outdoors and not on a production line. After studying environmental science he worked as a park ranger in Melbourne; cruising up and down the Yarra River learning about water management and other new tricks was a glorious affirmation. “I knew I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

What Hayden calls his “journey of learning” zig-zagged through cultural heritage and into Aboriginal affairs and eventually to RPV, where community engagement complemented his growing skillset.

Constantly encountering the term “social procurement” and seeing grand plans around Indigenous workers in construction jarred with what he was hearing from the players he coached at the Fitzroy Stars Football Club.

“I was coaching a majority Aboriginal footy side, where the majority of young men were engaged in construction, and not one of them had maintained a full-time job. The way procurement targets were met was transient – meet target, tick box, move on.

“I’d seen the disappointment and desperation in these young men. I had the motivation to start a business, now I’d found a purpose. I had the ready-made workforce there.”

Hayden describes himself as “a very solid weekend hack”, a ruckman who ultimately earned the right to finish his playing days in the goal square. Football did much for him, not least helping bring to life Wamarra, an Aboriginal civil contractor that provides its workers with financial independence and job security in construction careers ranging from engineering to the project front line, administration to corporate services.

He knows the importance of giving back; with his earliest Wamarra earnings, Hayden sponsored Fitzroy Stars.

The business is setting a new norm for its employees, four of whom have recently bought their own homes. “Their kids see Mum and Dad go to work every day, they grow up in a home that they own. That gives them something to aspire to. They’re things I didn’t have, things a lot of people didn’t have growing up.”

Hayden is a father of four, “all different, all wonderful”, from 13-year-old Taitem down to two-year-old Koa with Reo (11) and Jagger (4) in between. He sees a bright future for them, in an Australia that’s more connected to its first people than ever before.

Contemplating Wamarra, he is hugely grateful to every person along the way who has enriched his understanding of construction and of running a business. A mentor who constantly challenges him to lift his eyes and think long-term recently told him Wamarra is ticking all the boxes we want to see as a nation. It humbled him deeply.

“I’d be naïve to think I’ve created this business. I’ve got a clear vision and set of values, but there’s no way I could have done what we have if I was doing this out of my garage. I lean on people, I ask questions, I’m not too proud to say I don’t know.

“I’m so proud of my friends’ achievement, my family’s achievements. Hopefully I’m doing them proud as well.”

– Peter Hanlon

Wamarra Pty Ltd is an Aboriginal owned and operated civil contractor, providing meaningful long-term economic independence and career opportunities for Aboriginal people and their communities. They are working on a number of projects including the Metro Tunnel.

‘I lean on people, I ask questions, I’m not too proud to say I don’t know’

‘Those stories were connected to a much larger story. And it became political, and something the nation had a term for‘

Jadah Pleiter, CEO, Panku Safety Solutions - Safety Supplier On Regional Rail Revival and The Metro Tunnel Project

Being surrounded by successful Aboriginal women forged a belief that anything is possible

Jadah Pleiter was a young girl when her aunt Sally Morgan set about filling the vast voids in their family story. Often Jadah would accompany her up to Palyku country in the Pilbara. The result of this fact-finding expedition was Sally’s book My Place, a triumph of Aboriginal literature that sold more than half a million copies around the world.

“That book and the journey my family was on while it was being written is the backdrop to my childhood,” Jadah says. “The whole family was reconnecting with country and family and piecing together history and grappling with identity. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why do we think the way we think? What does it mean to be Aboriginal, in an urban context?”

Many of the answers were hard to digest. Sally Morgan’s mother (Jadah’s Gram or grandmother) would tell Sally she was Indian, Afghan, Italian – anything but Aboriginal. Jadah’s Nanna (her great grandmother Daisy Corunna) was born in the riverbed at Corunna Downs station. Speaking to Elders in the Pilbara while researching My Place, Sally Morgan heard Daisy had as many as six children taken from her.

Gram married a returned soldier and had five children of her own, one of them Jadah’s father. Among his contemporaries was the performer and rights campaigner Richard Walley, who told him the story of hiding up a tree one day while skipping school when several cars pulled up, men got out, threw his mates in the back and drove off.

“He never saw them again,” Jadah says. “He said it was the only time he wagged school and when he got home his Mum didn’t give him a hiding. She gave him an ice cream instead. For me, as an adult, those stories were connected to a much larger story. And it became political, and something the nation had a term for.”

For all the hardship her forebears faced, Jadah grew up believing she could do anything “because all I saw were successful Aboriginal women”. Among her father’s four sisters, three were professors and the other a university vice-chancellor, including 2021 Australian of the Year Helen Milroy, who attended the Queen’s funeral.

“She sent a message to Gram saying it had been very conflicting for her just being there. She said, ‘I put your name in the visitor’s book – I’m representing you.’”

Jadah first moved to Melbourne to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, determined to become a Bajoran on Star Trek and blissfully naïve about pathways and processes that make dreams come true. She credits her ancestors with passing on an innate ability to improvise and adapt; for the first play she was involved in, Jadah wrote a song called Chameleon. “I identify with that concept.”

Her first job was events and communications officer with the VCA’s Wilin Centre. As a student she’d led a protest against the primitive conditions the centre was housed in, which featured a tent pitched on VCA grounds and a fire pit.

But it worked – the Wilin Centre secured funding for its own building.

Jadah and her husband started Heart2Heart Training and Supplies, a construction first aid business whose first engagement was with the Metro Tunnel Project. Panku Safety Solutions emerged as a natural separation of training and supply services, providing the full range of personal protective equipment, signage and all things site safety. The company has been used by multiple RRR projects and Metro Tunnel contractors.

The conversation around the Indigenous Voice to Parliament makes Jadah emotional. Likewise the lack of education and appreciation for the rich history she was first exposed to on those trips to the Pilbara.

“We have the most incredible artistic, cultural, spiritual cartography in the world – there are literally songs that span this nation connecting all the different tribes of people – and the majority of people I know don’t even know what a songline is.”

– Peter Hanlon

Jesse Miller, Digital Engineering Lead, Rail Projects Victoria

Changing stereotypes and offering hope to others brings job satisfaction

Jesse Miller only found out he was Indigenous – and a descendent of the last speaker of Tasmanian language, Fanny Cochrane-Smith – when he was about seven. His father hadn’t known because Jesse’s grandfather, a union leader with the railways, kept his Aboriginality a secret lest he lose his children under the White Australia Policy.

The discovery brought varied reactions. His Nan declared she wouldn’t have married his grandfather if she’d known. His father was nonplussed and has only recently become interested in his heritage. And Jesse’s mother – who isn’t Indigenous – was so fascinated she went back to university and pursued Aboriginal studies.

Jesse says it’s common in Tasmania for the island state’s Indigenous people to know little of their history. Growing up he valued his Aboriginality but pretty much kept it to himself. “I just sat back and listened and saw who was racist and who wasn’t.” Even his mates didn’t know. “Which is fair – my closest mate only came out as gay a couple of years ago, he didn’t tell me about that either.”

His earliest memory betrays a bucolic upbringing – in bed unwell aged about two, his mother in a chair at his side, a crocheted blanket draped over her for warmth. “I looked up and there was a cow looking in the bedroom window at me.”

They lived in a converted stables at Clarendon House, an 1830s Georgian mansion where his fisherman father did a stint as a farmhand. After moving to King Island Jesse’s formative years were a veritable Boy’s Own adventure of fishing, hunting, exploring with his dog and riding around in the back of a ute.

He was one of a select group to study naval architecture at the Australian Maritime College, before moving to New Zealand and gaining invaluable experience in oil and gas mechanical process design. A roads project in NSW added more layers, and as Digital Engineering Lead on Melbourne Airport Rail (MAR) he is fulfilling a mission to deliver a project whose benefit will extend far beyond catching a train to the airport.

“The importance of the digital engineering side almost eclipses MAR,” Jesse says, noting that good digital engineering techniques could reduce capital and operational expenditure and be “transformative for the whole of Victoria, whether you go to the airport or not.”

Jesse says his twins Max and Charlie will know who came before them and he’s sure they’ll be proud. He senses more people every year engaging in NAIDOC Week and other opportunities to learn and come together as a nation, but wonders still when we will see genuine action. A family drive through Uluru and Indigenous settlements last Christmas was a reminder of complex, multigenerational problems. “A Voice (to Parliament) is great, but what are we really going to do?”

He knows it’s rare for Indigenous Australians to work in mainstream technical roles like his and is determined to help bring change. “My hope coming to RPV was to get out of a technical role into a senior management or executive role, to really try and send that message that you can do this, there is a pathway.”

– Peter Hanlon

“My hope coming to RPV was to... really try and send that message that you can do this, there is a pathway.'

Scott McCartney, CEO, Kinaway Chamber Of Commerce

‘I got pulled into the principal’s office and told, “You can’t say that, you’re not Aboriginal”’

Helping Aboriginal businesses grow and thrive has been a high point of a rewarding journey

Childhood holidays for Scott McCartney meant leaving suburban Macleod for the farm his father grew up on at Balranald. He’d race around the paddocks, ride horses and see first-hand the go-to-whoa operation of his grandmother’s business: a kangaroo abattoir.

“She had to be one of the first Aboriginal businesswomen,” Scott says, recalling his Nan giving work to Indigenous locals who’d grown up on the nearby mission, while helping control the population of an iconic creature that can cause havoc for rural landholders.

After her death Scott was told the story of Nan being confronted by local farmers, who’d heard she was selling kangaroo hides to high-end Italian leather importers. When they demanded a slice of the pie, she took them to where the skins were drying around the back of the shed, poured kerosene on them and struck a match.

“To stand up to those rich, racist white farmers in the 1980s … to have that story shared with me, I think about that when I need inspiration. I get a lot of my strength from her.”

Fortitude and resilience are clearly family traits. After Scott’s parents divorced, and with his mother working 12-hour days at an alfalfa farm, he would get his younger brothers up for school, make their lunches, and prepare dinner before Mum came home each evening. Sensing he was falling in with the wrong crowd, he wrote to a host of boarding schools aged 15 and was rewarded with a football scholarship at Assumption College.

“I just wanted to get out and have a look at the world. Mum was excited – I didn’t tell her I was writing to schools. I was looking at footy as an out, but when I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted I just stopped playing, at 19.”

A comeback in his mid-30s while living in Western Australia brought a serious knee injury and a premiership as coach the following season. “They say it wasn’t my coaching, it was because I wasn’t playing!”

Before his Assumption days, football also helped Scott celebrate his identity, when in Year 9 in 1993 he wrote a persuasive essay about Nicky Winmar’s iconic stance against racism and described himself as “a proud Aboriginal person”. Through a misunderstanding the school was unaware he was Indigenous, despite Scott’s footy mouthguard bearing the colours of the Aboriginal flag. “I got pulled into the principal’s office and told, ‘You can’t say that, you’re not Aboriginal.’

“That was traumatic to go through, I made a conscious decision that I wanted everyone to know I was Aboriginal from then on. Something clicked in me.”

Life’s unexpected twists and turns saw Winmar become a dear friend, after Scott told that story at a corporate event years ago and the former St Kilda footballer sought him out afterwards. When Winmar was inducted into the AFL Hall Of Fame last year, Scott and wife Nicole were guests on his table.

“It was so emotional,” Scott says. “It’s that life moment.”

While Nicole is busy in her role as Victoria’s Chief Aboriginal Health Advisor, Scott oversees Kinaway, the most rewarding job he’s had in a career that’s featured pioneering Indigenous engagement with East Perth Football Club and finance work in the car and building industries. Kinaway’s growth in a handful of years has been astounding, from three staff and 120 member businesses to 570 businesses and 21 staff operating out of their own hub.

“It’s something I get really emotional about sometimes,” Scott says of a chamber that last year inspired the corporate world to spend $436 million through Aboriginal businesses. “What we needed the government to say is if you want to engage an Aboriginal business in Victoria it must be Kinaway certified. And they did it.

“To see that growth, to pass on that knowledge I’d picked up over time, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Doubtless Nan would be proud.

– Peter Hanlon

Karen Milward, Deputy Chair of the Rail Projects Victoria Aboriginal Advisory Council from 2018 to 2023

A mother’s journey and resilience set an example of toil and discovery

Karen Milward loves that this year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘For Our Elders’, knowing how important it is to acknowledge all that those who came before us have been through. Inspirational people like her 83-year-old mother.

Daphne Milward grew up on ‘The Flats’ outside Shepparton among the families who walked off Cummeragunja Mission in 1939 in the first mass protest by Aboriginal people. She lived in a makeshift house built from materials salvaged from the neighbouring tip, until Sir Doug Nicholls brought her to Melbourne when she was 15.

Pastor Nicholls would marry Karen’s parents, a creative and industrious pair whose business exploits included repairing Venetian blinds using a bespoke pulley system and making lampshades to sell in their suburban shopfront while Karen and her sister roller-skated and rode their bikes out the back with the other shop owners’ kids.

Daphne had 26 different jobs, including at munitions and boot-making factories and making bird cages after she taught herself to weld, a learning curve she’s reminded of daily thanks to the scars that dot her hands. For several years she worked at the Department of Education and Training and then the Aboriginal Advancement League, which unexpectedly thrust her into the spotlight.

“Mum was the spin-the-wheel girl for a while on the Jimmy Hannan Show,” Karen laughs. “It wasn’t long after the 1967 Referendum and they wanted to promote being inclusive. She was at the League, they rang and asked for someone to do it. They had other Aboriginal women after her.”

Karen did classical ballet until adulthood and laughs that her mother’s fastidiousness means she still gets a telling off if she has a hair out of place. “Mum and all these other Yorta Yorta women did etiquette school – book on your head and all that! All these Aunties I know had complete etiquette – how to walk, how to sit, where the right knives and forks belong and what they’re for.”

Secondary school exposed Karen to racism, and bewilderment that classmates of Greek and Italian heritage would target an Indigenous girl. When one (who was later expelled) put her sister in a locker and wedged it against a wall, Karen snapped and lashed out. “I had that whole thing of coming to school feeling scared because you don’t know what’s going to happen. But people pretty much left me alone after that.”

After a Swinburne secretarial course she travelled America, traversing Route 66 in a Mustang convertible and working at a holiday camp for disadvantaged children who handed their home-made weapons in upon arrival. Back home she gained experience running events with Melbourne City Council, became director of policy with Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, and at length decided to try her hand at consultancy.

“I’ve been in business for 19 years now and absolutely love it,” she says of Karen Milward First Nations Consulting, a hand-in-glove fit with her Aboriginal Advisory Council role providing guidance to MTIA on employment and procurement.

“I always say they’re best-practice for how other government agencies should be operating in this space. When a contract for a big build comes up, they get advice from us on what should be put in the contract – the percentage of employment of Aboriginal people, that their staff go through cultural awareness training, that they check in with us on how they’re going.”

Son Kane drives an excavator with Aboriginal construction business Wamarra, and features in a mural that greets shoppers at Eastland in Ringwood alongside Bunjil the Creator and his possum-skin-cloaked grandmother.

A decade ago Aunty Daphne Milward helped start Yeng Gali Mullum, a self-styled reconciliation choir. They’ve written a song with Kutcha Edwards, recorded an album, perform regularly and are in high demand each year around NAIDOC Week. All of which makes Karen incredibly proud.

“She’s kind, she’s caring, she has lots of wisdom about our culture,” she says of her Mum. “And she’s just a really nice person.”.

– Peter Hanlon

‘Mum and all these other Yorta Yorta women did etiquette school – book on your head and all that!’