AN Ingham couple who are about to celebrate 50 years of marriage are among thousands of First Nations Australians awaiting the outcome of a Stolen Wages class action.
Michael and Lorna Ryan were married at St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Ingham on 28 November 1970.
The pair are claiming wages that were never paid to their parents.
Aboriginal and Islander people who worked between 1939 and 1972 had their earnings paid to a ‘protector’ who issued monthly allowances in the form of credit notes to families.
The Queensland ‘Protection Acts’ prevented Indigenous employees from receiving their salaries – something which today is known as the ‘Stolen Wages’.
Warrgamay traditional owner Lorna Ryan (69) lived with her grandmother while growing up as her parents and grandfather worked away on cattle stations.
She said: ‘We were given credit tokens for the shop and we had enough money at the start of the month.
‘But by the end of the month when we had no money for food – that’s when we’d go out fishing in the Herbert River.’
In 1967, three years before the couple married, more than 90% of Australians voted yes in a national referendum that changed the constitution to include Indigenous people among the population in the national census.
Until this point they had been classified under flora and fauna acts that detailed plant and animal life.
Mrs Ryan added: ‘When the adults worked on the cattle properties, or anywhere, the money was sent to, the protector they called him, and that was all kept.
‘When my grandmother was working out on the station they used to give her flour and stuff like that – they didn’t pay her.’
‘It all went to the protector or the police or whoever had control of it.
‘My grandmother would have to go once a month to the police station or the court house to get her vouchers.
‘There was one lot for food, and my aunt said that one was for just meat and another one just for bread.
‘I have no idea how much it was. She’d just take it straight to the shop.’
Mrs Ryan’s grandmother, Elsie Morganson, was a native speaker of Warrgamay, a Hinchinbrook Aboriginal language that is no longer spoken.
‘That was her first language. She could speak English well. She couldn’t read or write. But she knew how to count money.
‘I don’t know when she was born. I don’t think they’ve got records. She probably was born in the bush.
‘When all the adults would come and they’d start speaking [Warrgamay] language, and if they seen us kids coming it was: ‘Wait a minute, big ears is here. Off you go!’ So we never ever learnt the language.
‘I don’t know why.’
Aboriginal Australians have the world’s oldest known languages.
Mrs Ryan’s husband Michael (70) drove trucks for the council for 30 years and now works at Herbert River Bus and Coach in Ingham.
She has worked at St Teresa’s College, Abergowrie, for close to 40 years, starting in the laundry before becoming a teacher aide.
The 69-year-old has witnessed immense social change in her life, but says she has always been fortunate.
Now an elder herself, she views the world through grateful eyes.
‘Change has been pretty good. You can go anywhere now and do all those sort of things whereas you were sort of restricted [before].
‘I had it pretty well [growing up] but I think some others didn’t. Especially the ones that were on reserves and all that.
‘I wasn’t really aware because I grew up with a lot of white friends. I don’t know [how my family weren’t on reserves] because three of my grandmother’s children were sent to Yarrabah. They were taken and sent to Yarrabah.’
‘But Mum and Uncle Billy and them weren’t. They were left.’
More than 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their families by government agencies between 1910 and the early 1970s and placed in state or church institutions, with some going to foster homes.
No compensation has been paid to victims of what became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’.
Mrs Ryan’s late uncle Bill Morganson’s children include former Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys National Rugby League player Willie Morganson and cultural leader Elaine Morganson.
Being raised day-to-day by her grandmother, Mrs Ryan remembers when she got to see her parents and grandfather.
‘Twice a year, for the Ingham Show and around about Christmas time. I was pretty happy [when I got to see them].
‘I grew up with my two sisters and a brother.
‘My grandmother was strict. Hard-working. She didn’t take anything from you. You’d have to earn it. If you were cheeky or anything, she wouldn’t stand for it.’
Indigenous families were also given vouchers for clothes.
Mrs Ryan recalls her aunt successfully challenging a dictation about where clothes had to be bought – which resulted in her and her siblings getting to shop at Rockmans.
‘She just went to them and said, look, these kids are growing up now. They need different clothes, like fashionable clothes.
‘Not like the old things that this other shop had. So they allowed us to do that.’
She recalls her family working at Blue Range, Lucky Downs and Greenvale stations.
Reflecting on her wedding day, Mrs Ryan said: ‘It rained all day. Right up until we were about to enter the church.’
And as for the secret to a long-lasting marriage, her answer is wonderfully simple: ‘Trust each other’.
How did the Stolen Wages claim come about?
According to stolenwages.com.au, a class action is a legal case brought by a person (who is called the ‘applicant’) on behalf of a group of people (who are called the ‘group members’) against another person (who is called the ‘respondent’).
It is called a ‘class action’ when the applicant and the group members have similar claims against the respondent.
In September 2016 a class action was started in the federal court by Hans Pearson (who is the applicant) against the State of Queensland (who is the respondent).
The case is called Pearson v State of Queensland and it is about the payment for work undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland between 1939 and 1972.
This class action is called ‘The Stolen Wages Class Action’.
The proceedings claimed that the Queensland ‘Protection Acts’ in force between 1939 and 1972 required that the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were to be paid to the protector or superintendent of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander district, reserve, settlement or mission.
The applicant claimed the monies were paid to the protector or superintendent on ‘trust’, or subject to a fiduciary duty to act with care and control of the money received.
It was claimed the Queensland government breached its duties as trustee, or its duties as a fiduciary, by failing to repay that money to the workers.
In 2002, the Queensland government established the ‘Stolen Wages Reparations Scheme’ and compensation was paid to former workers, including Mr Pearson.
The applicant claimed that the Queensland government acted unconscionably in the circumstances where a ‘Deed of Agreement’ releasing the government had to be signed as a condition to obtaining a payment under the ‘Reparations Scheme’.
In the ‘Stolen Wages Class Action’ it was estimated that eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were owed many multiples of what the Queensland government had offered in the ‘Reparations Scheme’, taking into account interest payments.
The applicant and the Queensland government agreed in 2019 to settle the ‘Stolen Wages Class Action’.
The Queensland government agreed to pay $190 million for compensation and legal costs. This is called the ‘settlement fund’. This fund is in addition to the approximately $56.5 million which has already been paid by the Queensland government under the ‘Reparations Scheme’.
In return for the settlement fund being paid, the applicant agreed that no more claims can be made against the state about ‘Stolen Wages’.
The settlement was approved by the federal court on 17 January 2020 along with a ‘Settlement Distribution Scheme’, which sets out how the settlement monies are to be paid.
It is thought that around 3,000 claimants are yet to provide evidence of their identity or bank details.
The federal court has just approved a deadline extension to 9 October for this information to be provided.
An applicant can claim on behalf of their parents if they are deceased, but not their grandparents.