Dr Evelyn Scott: a tribute

One of the pioneering figures in Indigenous civil rights, Dr Evelyn Scott, passed away this week aged 81. Dr Scott was a resident in a Bupa Aged Care home. 

Among the great figures in the campaign for political rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Evelyn Scott was one of the most recognisable.

Her trademark was a wide brimmed hat and a tireless commitment to equal rights and reconciliation.

Dr Scott showed a unique ability to argue her case with reason, wit and style - whether to the person in the street or a Prime Minister.

Dr Scott passed away this week at a Bupa Aged care home in north Queensland, aged 81.

Bupa Mt Sheridan General Manager, Sally Bautovich, says Dr Scott was a much-loved resident.

“People were very aware of who Evelyn was and appreciated all the efforts she’d put in over the years to advance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights.”

Dr Scott’s father once gave her the advice, “If you don’t think something is right, then challenge it”.

In a statement, Dr Scott’s family described that as guiding principle in her life as a fighter for justice, not only for her own peoples but for all peoples; in Australia, Apartheid South Africa, wherever there was a struggle against injustice.

After moving to Townsville in the 1960s she observed how her people were discriminated against in housing, employment, educational opportunities, and in the provision of health services.

They were also at the mercy of an often-racist police force, so heeding her father’s advice she challenged this.

Her first major involvement in the equal rights movement was a years long campaign leading up the 1967 referendum. The success of this saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people included in the census for the first time, and gave the Federal Government the power to make laws for Indigenous people.

Her appointment as the first general-secretary of the Indigenous-controlled Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1973 coincided with the development of a new, more organised Indigenous political activism.

Dr Evelyn Scott was Chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation between 1997 and 2000.

Following the huge turnout in the May 2000 Walk for Reconciliation across the country, Dr Scott said it was an unstoppable force.

The people have spoken, and they'll continue to say that reconciliation is a real thing – a red-hot item on our national, state and local agenda. Our political leadership must listen and act. I know now that they will, eventually, embrace both the spirit and the practical goals of reconciliation. They can't afford to ignore the inspiring message of commitment from the grassroots of our society - from the People's Movement for Reconciliation.
Dr Evelyn Scott, AO

Dr Scott maintained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must determine their own destinies.

“We have to determine our own agenda if we're going to address the issue right, if we're going to address the issues of poverty in this country, in terms of employment, if you're going to address the land issue then we need to determine the agenda on those important issues. Because as long as we keep trying to react to the government agenda, then I don't believe we're going to achieve self-determination in this country.”

Evelyn Scott was awarded two honorary doctorates, and in 2003 she was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours list.

She was also a committed protector of the natural world and became a board member of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in the 1980s.

Her family says Dr Scott “campaigned for protection of the Great Barrier Reef and believed in the need for stronger Indigenous voices in land and sea management.”

Dr Scott’s family spoke of her love of nature and devotion to her family.

“Our mother loved to fish and every day was a good day for fishing as far as she was concerned.”

“Her other greatest joy, outside of fishing and political activism, was spending time with her grandchildren, instilling in them the values she learnt as a child from her father; those of honesty, hard work, respect, and justice.”

Dr Evelyn Scott is survived by her four daughters, her son and seven grandchildren.

Her family has given permission to use her name and image in this story.

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