Aunty Joan Vickery has made achieving better outcomes for Aboriginal people her life’s mission. Equally, she has helped build greater understanding of Indigenous issues, particularly in health.
The Gunditjmara Elder was born in Portland, western Victoria. Her father was a labourer and the family moved where there was work. The eldest of six children, Joan started school with her brother, Bob, in Berribank, Victoria.
Joan’s grandparents were from an Aboriginal reserve at Lake Condah. They relocated to the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, where Joan’s family joined them. Fitzroy absorbed many Aboriginal families from around Victoria. They migrated in search of employment or were forced off their homelands by government legislation. After leaving school at age 13, Joan worked in factories for a number of years.
Her mother was a member of the Uniting Council of Aboriginal Women, founded by the prominent leader, Aunty Marg Tucker, who was her grandmother’s best friend. The group lobbied for Aboriginal rights during the 1960s. Joan was drawn to their activities, offering her services when required.
In 1968, she successfully applied for the newly created position of housekeeping advisor at the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. The role required her to visit Aboriginal families. While employed there, Joan was disciplined for using her government vehicle to pick up Aboriginal hitchhikers. Joan insisted she could not deny help to one of her own. She resigned and became the first Teacher Assistant at Northland Secondary College in Preston. She also worked for a time as a field officer for the newly established Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.
In 1975, Joan helped establish what is today known as the Ngwala Willumbong Co-operative. Meaning ‘dry place’ in the Pitjantjatjara language, it provides alcohol and drug rehabilitation and support services to the Aboriginal community. The same year, Joan joined the Victorian Department of Health as one of the first Aboriginal Health Aides. Her unit was given the ambiguous title of Special Health Services. It came just below cemeteries in the department’s hierarchy — indicative of the status given to such a service by the bureaucrats of the day.
As an office-based Health Aide, Joan felt she lacked a practical purpose. In light of research that revealed ongoing problems with Indigenous health, particularly for children in rural areas, she was appointed to a working party alongside other Aboriginal people and pushed for policy change. As a result, Health aides were moved out into hospitals and renamed Aboriginal Liaison Officers. In 1982, Joan became the first of these at St Vincent’s Hospital. The working party also influenced the decision to redirect funds towards the establishment of Aboriginal health services in rural Victoria.
Joan has lived with diabetes for much of her life, and lost her mother and grandmother to complications associated with it. Her work in this area has been significant. While at St Vincent’s, Joan ran a monthly support group for people with diabetes. She developed the idea of special camps to raise awareness and understanding of diabetes within Aboriginal families. First held in 1985 at Camp Jungai outside Melbourne, the camps proved a huge success, attracting those with diabetes, their family members and health workers from Aboriginal organisations around the country. During this time she founded a dedicated Koori Diabetes Service. It led the way for the establishment of Aboriginal community operated diabetes services across Australia. In 1990, Joan began working at the Melbourne-based International Diabetes Institute, alongside Professor Paul Zimmet, a pioneer in diabetes research.
Joan completed a Masters in Public Health at the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University, in 2005. She has authored several papers and edited books. Her involvement with the health sector continues, as patron of Onemda, VicHealth’s Koori Health Unit at Melbourne University. She is also part of the University’s Aboriginal Action Plan and a current board member of the Aboriginal Community Elders Services.
Over many years, organisations including the Aborigines Advancement League, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, Camp Jungai Corporation, Victorian Aboriginal Housing Board and Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation have all benefited from her experience. She was chair of the Koorie Heritage Trust and currently sits as an Elder on the Broadmeadows Magistrates Koori Court, a division of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. In 2011, she received a National Elders Award from the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council for her contribution to higher education for the Victorian Aboriginal community. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005.
Aunty Joan has, in her own words, simply gone where she was needed. It’s an understated description for a lifelong commitment to helping others. Not only is her experience of immense value to many in Victoria’s health sector, with her dedication to education and justice for her people, Joan has helped build healthier communities around the country.
Reviewed 04 October 2019