The exemption certificate and the erasure of Indigenous identity

Initially I began by searching for scholarly literature about the Queensland certificate of exemption. I discovered only a very small number of publications about the exemption certificate and its repercussions. Some notable authors mentioned various aspects of the certificate of exemption.[6] These included the fact that once Aboriginal people gained the certificate they would in effect have to lose their Indigenous identity and culture, their family and their homelands, in exchange for living in the wider community. Yet the social impact on cultural identity for the certificate holders and their descendants remained largely unexplored by research and analysis.

This situation drove me into researching material about the legislative origins of the exemption certificate, ‘The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 (Qld)’, housed in Queensland’s state archives.[7] The parliamentary debates in relation to the ‘1897 Act’ reflected a range of political arguments and differences of opinion regarding the treatment of Indigenous Queenslanders that existed amongst the parliamentarians of the era. Several arguments were posed as justification for the 1897 Act, but three points detailed in the debates were specifically emphasised. The first concerned the establishment and enforcement of legislated penalties for supplying liquor to ‘Aboriginals’ and ‘half-castes’. The second referred to similar provisions outlawing the supply of opium to ‘Aboriginals’ and ‘half-castes’. The third referred to making it a punishable offence for non-Aboriginal people to possess government blankets that had been issued to ‘Aboriginals’ and ‘half-castes’ by the State appointed Protectors of Aboriginal Queenslanders.[8] As historian Rosalind Kidd has noted: ‘Protectors were directed to see that they do not get any liquor or opium, that they keep their blankets’.[9]

In general, the focus of these parliamentary debates centred on the belief that a system of ‘care and protection’ for Aboriginal people would work for their betterment. The passing of the 1897 Act empowered the Queensland government to regulate, discipline and control every aspect of Aboriginal Queenslander’s lives. It meant that the government dictated where Indigenous Queenslanders could live, where they could work, how they could spend their wages and whom they could marry. In many cases the government decided if they could keep their own children.

With the knowledge of hindsight, it is clear that in reality, ‘care and protection’ was in fact regulation through ‘control and incarceration’ most particularly via the removal orders of Section 9 of the 1897 Act. This Section 9 gave government officials the legal right to remove Aboriginal people from their homelands and elsewhere and place them onto reserves and missions.

Section 9: It shall be lawful for the Minister to cause every aboriginal within any District, not being an aboriginal excepted from the provisions of this section, to be removed to, and kept within the limits of, any reserve situated within such District, in such manner, and subject to such conditions, as may be prescribed. The Minister may, subject to the said conditions, cause any aboriginal to be removed from one reserve to another.[10]

Other parts of the 1897 Act were equally oppressive and reveal the extensive powers of the Chief Protector in regulating Indigenous lives and communities. They included the authority to control and restrict all movements on and off reserves (Section 11), determine, regulate and revoke 12 month employment permits issued to ‘Aboriginal and half-castes’ (Sections 12 and 13), supervise all ‘Aboriginal and female half-castes’ in employment (Sections 15 and 16) and prevent any removal of Aboriginal people to other districts or outside the colony of Queensland (Section 17).

It is now recognised that the removal system created by the 1897 Act delivered a trans-generational impact on the lives of Aboriginal people that is still felt today. Many researchers and writers have noted that the process of removal resulted in the demise of Aboriginal societies, with the loss of homelands, kin, culture, language and identity.[11]Queensland’s ‘protectionist’ system can be characterised by an ongoing multi-faceted and systematic attempt to transform Aboriginal societies and culture. With the many removals fragmenting families and kinship groups, numerous Aboriginal languages and sub-cultures were transformed to the point of extinction.[12] The certificate of exemption itself was introduced originally in Section 33 of the 1897 Act, which stated that:

It shall be lawful for the Minister to issue to any half-caste, who, in his opinion, ought not to be subject to the provisions of this Act, a certificate, in writing under his hand, and that such half-caste is exempt from the provisions of this Act and the Regulations, and from and after the issue of such certificate, such half-caste shall be so exempt accordingly.[13]

The exemption certificate represented the only legal mechanism by which Indigenous Queenslanders could live independently away from reserves or missions, out from ‘under the Act’. However, it required severing all ties with their Aboriginal kinship and culture including connections with country, or the exemption could be revoked by the state.[14]

Historian Thom Blake has noted:

Exemption Certificates were granted only to those Aborigines who demonstrated to the Chief Protector’s satisfaction the capacity to survive in the outside world. In other words, they were imbued with capitalist values concerning money, time and work. But the standards required for exemption were high; certificates were not freely issued.[15]

In his view, exemption from the ‘under the Act’ was offered as an incentive, a reward for working hard and obeying the rules. He argues:

As well as punitive measures; there was one incentive for workers to give faithful and diligent services – exemption from the Act.[16]

Castle and Hagen, in the only, albeit unpublished, article written entirely about the certificate of exemption, ‘Turning black into white: the exemption system in Queensland 1908-1965’, emphasise the economic situation concerning Aboriginal workers’ labour relations and unionism issues, triggered by the government’s ‘protectionist’ policy. They argue that ‘[t]he aim of the 1897 Act was to establish a system which would cover all Aborigines in the Colony and regulate their contacts with other inhabitants of Queensland’.[17] The financial and logistical advantages for government would be less Aboriginal people to care for. In effect the system established by the Act enshrined the distinction between Aborigines and ‘half-castes’.[18]

My research into official exemption statistics found that over the 60 years from 1908 until 1967/8, a total of 4092 certificates of exemption were issued. This figure included 2520 males and 1570 females, as well as 1165 children on their mother’s certificate. The age groups of exemptees varied from the very young (9 months, in 1908) to the very old (88 years in 1958). It is likely that the older applicants were seeking their certificates of exemption so that they could claim their entitlements as Age Pensioners. Prior to 1958, Commonwealth benefits for Aboriginal people were only given if the person lived off a ‘reserve or mission’.[19] In another example, information found in the 1958 Register of Certificates of Exemption Issued involved Aboriginal people at the Lazaret on Fantome Island, where inmates applied for Invalid pensions and other Commonwealth benefits after being exempted.[20]

One personal highlight during my research was to actually hold the original ‘The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 (Qld)’ document in my gloved hands for a few minutes. Whilst I realised that this was a great privilege, I also realised that I held in my hands the very document that had literally enslaved my family and countless other families over many decades. I was aware that this piece of paper was responsible for so much loss and heartache for thousands of Indigenous Australians. The loss of kinship, culture and traditional land, which also encompassed stolen wages[21]and even stolen children, was the painful legacy of this aging document. The 1897 Act had come close to achieving the genocide of Australia’s original inhabitants and it was certainly responsible for generations of despondency and helplessness that persist to this day.

Aboriginal writers, when writing their autobiographies, typically seem to skip quickly over the issue of exemption certificates. Was the certificate of exemption something that they were not comfortable writing about? Or was it that they knew very little about the exemption? To leave a State Reserve or church mission required an application for a certificate of exemption. I can understand now why many Aboriginal people sought a certificate as the only possible path to freedom and independence. This has been explained by such writers as Marnie Kennedy, Jackie Huggins, Albert Holt, Regina Ganter and Ruth Hegarty.[22] Their writings illustrate the varied lifestyles each was forced to adopt in order to survive injustices and live within contemporary Australian society. For those still living ‘under the Act’ it meant to live a life of subjection and servitude, with very few, if any, of the freedoms enjoyed and taken for granted by the wider community.

[6] Rowley 1970; Hall 1989; Kennedy 1985; Evans et al. 1993; Kidd 1997; Hollinsworth 1998; Huggins 1994; Blake 2001; Donavan 2002; Aberdeen 2002.

[7] Public Acts of the Parliament of Queensland. Aboriginals: An Act to make Provision for the better Protection and Care of the Aboriginal and Half-caste Inhabitants of the Colony, and to make more effectual Provision for Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Opium [Assented to 15 December 1897].

[8] Queensland Parliamentary Debates on the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Bill 1897: 1541.

[9] Kidd 1997: 48.

[10] Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld): 6175.

[11] See for example, Rowley 1981; Huggins 1994; Evans 1999; Reynolds 1999.

[12] Evans 1999: 116.

[13] Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld): 6182.

[14] The system of exemption was incorporated in protectionist policies later elsewhere after the federation of Australia in 1901. For example, NSW Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1943 and later the NSW Aborigines Welfare Act 1943-1968 in New South Wales, the Aborigines Act 1905, in Western Australia and the Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1939 in South Australia including the Northern Territory. Like the Queensland legislation, the conditions of exemption included the requirement of severing family connections and could be revoked at any time.

[15] Blake 2001: 136-7.

[16] Blake 2001: 136-7.

[17] Castle and Hagen 1997: 2.

[18] Castle and Hagan also make the observation that, by substituting the word ‘Aboriginal’ for ‘half-caste’ in its definitions, the amended 1939 version of Act made it possible for ‘full-bloods’ to become eligible for the certificate of exemption.

[19] Correspondence of the Office of Native Affairs, Queensland State Archives, Brisbane, SRS 10431/ Box 516 Batch 275.

[20] Fantome Island Exemptions Register, 1958 cited in Wickes 2005: 61.

[21] Kidd 1997. As part of her PhD, Kidd uncovered Queensland government records revealing the widespread practice of misappropriation of Aboriginal people’s wages, thus known as the ‘stolen wages’.

[22] Kennedy 1985; Huggins 1998; Holt 2001; Ganter 1998 and Hegarty 1999.