Members of the City of Whittlesea Aboriginal Gathering Place Advisory Group, including Gunditjmara woman Karen Bryant, front centre, and City of Whittlesea officers, chief executive Craig Lloyd and administrators Chris Eddy, Peita Duncan and chair Lydia Wilson.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

City of Whittlesea administrators have approved an Aboriginal gathering place to be built at Quarry Hills Regional Parkland at a council meeting held during NAIDOC Week.

A gathering place is a community-owned and operated physically, socially and culturally safe place for Aboriginal people that offers activities, programs and support services to strengthen community wellbeing. 

They are led by Aboriginal people and aim to support enhanced outcomes, increase connection to culture, and facilitate healing for Aboriginal people.

Gathering places are fundamentally inclusive and welcoming spaces for all – by nature they attract and embrace anyone in need of support – including non-Indigenous people.

The project will be developed in partnership with local Aboriginal communities, the City of Whittlesea Aboriginal Gathering Place Advisory Group, AGPAG, created in 2019, and the Whittlesea Reconciliation Group, WRG, which has advocated for a local gathering place for 20 years.

Gunditjmara woman Karen Bryant, a member of AGPAG, said the gathering place would be for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to learn about and experience Aboriginal cultures.

“This project has been a long time in the works, a vision many of our elders in community have held for 20 years in one way or another, and we are excited to see it progress to this point,” Ms Bryant said.

“The vision is for a place that serves the broader community, providing lots of opportunities for non-Aboriginal community members to learn and engage with local culture and history.

“We envision activities like school tours and workplace cultural competency training and education programs.”

Whittlesea has an estimated population of 1633 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people.

The population is increasing, growing by 46 per cent between 2011 and 2016, compared with 33 per cent for Melbourne as a whole, and the trend is expected to continue.

Aboriginal people living in the City of Whittlesea have limited access to culturally appropriate services that respond to their immediate and long-term needs, and the population increase has resulted in an increase in demand for services.

Aboriginal people experience poorer health outcomes than the overall population due to poorer access and systemic issues within the healthcare system. They are also twice as likely to be hospitalised from circulatory disease and six times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Indigenous people, while their life expectancy is 10 years less.

There are 14 gathering places in Melbourne, but this would be the first for northern metropolitan Melbourne.

At the meeting, council’s community wellbeing director Kate McCaughey said the site had the potential to support communities in regional municipalities.

“We’re talking to other neighbouring councils about the opportunity to explore what they’re doing in terms of that regional approach moving forward,” she said.

“All the evidence seems to imply that gathering places work when they work from the grass roots up, so if there’s that grassroots support for that as a regional concept then obviously we’ll progress.”

A final business case for the City of Whittlesea Aboriginal gathering place will be presented to council by March 2022.

Several design options are being considered, ranging in indicative capital cost from $450,000 to $6 million.

The largest option, which is preferred by the AGPGG, would be similar to other community centres. It would have a large event space for 100 people and a 30-person meeting room, as well as an enhanced kitchen with communal dining and a 80-90 space carpark.

Once designs are approved, construction is set to begin in mid-2023, and due to be completed in 2024.

Administrator Peita Duncan said it was a proud night for council, delivering the announcement during NAIDOC Week, which this year carried the theme ‘heal country, heal our nation’.

“I think it’s safe to say the gathering place will be a welcoming, inclusive and culturally safe space with strong emphasis on self-determination and environmental sustainability, and not just for our Aboriginal people but for all, and part of that healing process of bringing the broader community into the gathering place to understand the rich Aboriginal culture of our country but also within Whittlesea,” she said.

“The City of Whittlesea’s Aboriginal gathering place will be pivotal to our reconciliation efforts from both a health perspective and in building the broader community’s understanding of Aboriginal culture.”