Pain and suffering turns to pride as the community remembers
PRIDE rose in Doris Leo as she watched the Australian South Sea Islander flag reach the top of the flagpole in front of Rockhampton's council building yesterday.
The ASSI community is celebrating 25 years since the Australian Government recognised them as a distinctive cultural group, but the moment was as special as ever for Mrs Leo.
About 62,000 islanders from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were transported to Australia to work as labourers in the Queensland sugar industry during the late 19th century.
Mrs Leo's grandfather was one of the many South Sea Islanders who travelled to Australia to clear the land for sugar cane farms but hit a roadblock when protesters opposed ASSI taking labouring jobs.
She said acknowledging the role ASSI people played in industries across Queensland was instrumental to understanding the nation's history.
"We are a proud group of people,” Mrs Leo said.
"We are proud of who we are, what we've achieved and proud of our ancestors and what they did and instilled in us.”
While some South Sea Islanders were asked to leave once the work had dried up, Mrs Leo's family was allowed to stay.
"When the country was cleared and the sugar cane was planted their work was done, but then they had to find other ways of working to support themselves and their families,” she said.
After work at the Yeppoon sugar mill was no longer available her grandfather cut mangroves, which were used to tan leather.
Mrs Leo's family were the fortunate ones - she said she heard stories of SSI workers in north Queensland being forced to secretly work in the dark to avoid authorities.
She said the experience had shaped their culture and as a result ASSI had a strong work ethic.
"We've been brought up to know we had to work for a living,” she said.
"We want to be recognised as the descendants of these people to distinguish ourselves as our own group.”
That recognition first came in 1994 from the Federal Government, five years later the Queensland Government followed in their footsteps.
They were initially known as Kanakas but since the recognition they have been known as South Sea Islanders ancestors.
While the recognition is a proud day for many, the underlying message is to recognise the injustices and discrimination the community has suffered for over a century.
But the community's priority was focusing on the future and celebrating how far the culture had come.
Vanuatu residents also travelled to Rockhampton to celebrate the anniversary.