Sadie Canning

MY STORY by Sadie Canning

(The beginning, childhood, ambitions, experiences and achievements.)

On April 11th 1930, I was born in the bush according to Traditional Aboriginal Custom.  Born under a tree, on the outskirts of the mining town of Laverton, in the North Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia.  Laverton is almost 300kms north east of Kalgoorlie.

There were no hospital births for Aboriginal Mothers then.  Aborigines were only allowed in town during the mornings.  There were then rounded up at Midday and told to get out.  By dusk, they were often whipped out by police.

Part Aboriginal children; (half caste as we were known then) like myself, were always on the move with our parents to avoid being caught by the police and authorities.  Government officials were always on the lookout to take half caste children and send them off to Moore River or Carrolup Native Settlements.  These settlements were operated by the Government of Western Australia, and these two were notoriously run institutions.  There were feared by Aborigines from the Kimberley’s through the centre of Western Australia to Albany in the south.  Hundreds of half caste Aboriginal children were caught and sent there to serve life sentences for being half castes.

Fortunately, for me I was never sent there.  I was put into the Mt Margaret Mission which was run by the United Aborigines Mission from Melbourne.  Mr Margaret was only 40km south west of where I was born – LUCKY ME1111

My mother was a full blood Aboriginal who lived a traditional lifestyle.  She could not read, write nor could she speak English.

I was taken at the age of 4 years and placed in Mt Margaret Mission which was in the area my parents traversed.

I was placed in the Graham home for girls with about 59 others, I entered the home speaking and hearing Wongutha, as English was completely unknown to me.

We grew up as sisters, with the older girls looking after the little ones.  My mother visited me on occasions when she returned to the mission, after going in the bush for traditional and cultural practices.

Our house parents were an English couple, Mr & Mrs Jackson whom we called mum and pop.  I have very fond and affectionate memories of them.  They came out from England separately, then completed their Bible training in Australia.  They arrived at Mt Margaret Mission as single people, they met, fell in love and married.  They never had children of their own and I suppose we were their children, about 150 of us over the years.

They cared for us until they retired to Leonora where we, the ex-home girls cared for them in their old age.  They had no-one of their own to care for them.  They had never been back to England to visit relatives, we ex-home girls were their family and we buried them.

They had never moved out of Mt Margaret, not even for holidays.  Their holidays were spent with us, so it really wasn’t a holiday.  They worked long hours and were devoted and dedicated their lives to the care and wellbeing of Aboriginal girls.

Mrs Jackson knitted a new jumper for each girl every year from the wool donated by her prayer partners.  We only had basic food, no luxuries whatsoever.  What we perceived as luxuries, was bread and butter with nestles milk.  From time to time we used to pinch from the Jackson’s fridge.  One day a group of us decided that we would like to have some – AND  we were doing exactly THAT, when a quiet, but deep voice from the darkened lounge said “You had better hurry before mum catches you”.

You can imagine our horror and surprise at being sprung, we were out like a shot!!!!

We all had out chores to do and my most humiliating experience in the home came when my team was tagged with a “LAZY” sign.  The sign was pinned to our backs and boys from the boys home who were delivering wood would tease us terribly.

We looked forward to Saturday nights as we played monopoly with the Jackson’s, it was great fun as we would try and outsmart them by ganging up and I suppose try to cheat.

I said before that I have many fond memories and you may be wondering why I’m talking of the Jackson’s.  Well, they were the kind missionaries who devoted their whole lives to the cause of Aboriginal Children.  Missionaries may not be the flavour of the day but I can thank the Lord for the Missionaries of Mt Margaret because it was there, that I found the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour.

I was educated at Mt Margaret by caring missionaries.  We only had one teacher.  She was also English, Mrs Bennett, straight from English aristocracy, who left that way of life to teach Aboriginal Children in the outback of Western Australia.

She was a good teacher, who believed that Aboriginal Children could succeed and always encouraged us with stories of successful Black Africans.  We only had two hours of lessons each day as she coped and juggled to teach 100 or more children of all ages with varying needs and learning capacities.

She was very strict in the class room as she believed we were there to learn English and to speak it correctly.  She never allowed us to speak Wongutha in the class room but as soon as we walked out of the class room, we could speak out own language.

The Missionaries never stopped us from speaking our language.  It was just not permitted in class.  I am still able to stalk the language

Whilst at Mt Margaret, we were taught a wide range of skills which included sewing, knitting and cooking.  We also sang in the Sunday school choir and boy could we sing!  Each song we sang we learnt by heart, verse for verse.

Sport was another area we excelled in.  Tennis, cricket, football, table tennis and basketball which was later known as netball.  Mr Jackson tried to teach us his type of football, which was in fact SOCCER.  Whoever heard of hitting a ball with your HEAD!

School concerts and school exhibitions were the end of the year grand finale.  These were organised by Mrs Bennett our English teacher.  She prepared us during the year with work that she could display so out parents could see what was achieved by their children.

Our parents were all straight out of the bush and we were proud.  We took our parents around to see all our work and they were very proud even though they could not read or write.  Food, fancy work, clothes made in sewing class, woodwork etc were all displayed to all the SEE.

Teachers aides (Monitors at school), Mrs Bennett allowed parents and elders to come in to encourage us – Snowy Gnugoonoo was such one, who could not read or write but encouraged us to work well and learn as much as possible. 

Many full blood Aboriginal people sent their children to the Mt Margaret Mission willingly.  When Government officials visited, the full blood children were ushered away until they had left.  The Mission was only for half caste children.

It wasn’t easy going – we missed our parents.  Each Christmas holiday we half caste girls were not allowed to go out with our parents because of the assimilation policy of that era.  We were part of The White Australia policy,  where it was believed that we would become lighter and the black Aborigines would become extinct.  But we had news for them; our black race did not die out!!!!!  This policy was also known as the “Die out policy” for Aborigines. 

If it wasn’t for the care and encouragement given to me I would not have had the opportunity to become a trail blazer in Nursing.

While still going to school I was placed in the care of the Mission Matron – Sister Mildred Murray who was my teacher and mentor.  I was, I guess an assistance to her, she taught me to take temperatures and to help out with the patients, very similar to a nursing assistance.

In 1947, an application was made for me to train as a nurse in Perth.  At that point in time. Aboriginal girls, were not accepted to train in Western Australia.  Another application was made to Bethesda Hospital, in Richmond, Victoria.  Discrimination of Aborigines was the order of the day, not much has changed today.  Covert discrimination is still experienced today.

I was accepted for training and commenced my general nursing in 1949.  It was an experience and a half, to say the least.  I had never been out  of the mission except for trips to Esperance for holidays with the other girls from the home.  We never mixed with white people.

This was traumatic in a sense, as I had never mixed with white girls, except for the mission Superintendants daughters who grew up at Mt Margaret with us and were like sisters and still are today.

During the first few months I was very stressed and homesick.  I was the only dark face, but friendship shown by the other white nurses in my school made life a lot easier.  I soon settled in, because of the friendship shown by the other student nurses and finally graduated in 1952.

My midwifery training was done at the Haven Hospital in North Fitzroy.   This hospital was run by the Salvation Army and was affiliated with The Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne.  We had excellent training at the Haven and it stood me in good position for my experience with maternity cases in the bush, where I delivered many babies, black and white.

The Haven was a small hospital and with only two students to a school, and therefore, most of the deliveries were done by the student midwives.

It was a place where unmarried mothers delivered (term used then) and for these mothers, the midwives and trainees did all the deliveries except for the complicated ones.

One incident that is still very clear was by first day on the ward.  The sister in charge of the Labour Ward asked me to stand in with a patient, while she went out for a minute.  I had no experience whatsoever, and the patient started to fit.  PANIC hit me hard and I rang for the sister.

Luckily, the young mother and the baby survived, but for me the experience made an impact.  Several years later in a country hospital, on my own, I was able to identify with the experience of the past, that, yes, I knew, what it was all about!!!!

My infant welfare training was at the Presbyterian Babies Home in Campberwell, Victoria, I graduated in 1954.  I was now a Triple Certificate Nurse!!  An achievement as the 2nd Aboriginal trained nurse.  I believe another Aboriginal nurse graduated from Bethesda Hospital before me.  I believe she was from South Australia and her name was Nelly Lester.

I was now able to wear the veil!!  The starched piece of Viol, which was the pride and prize of graduating as a fully fledged nurse.

I would have been the first Aboriginal Nurse from Western Australia.  After post grad nursing in Perth I applied for a position as a nursing sister at the Leonora District Hospital in the north eastern Goldfields town of Leonora.  In 1956, I was accepted to that position;  Leonora has a population of 2000 and is 250km NE of Kalgoorlie which had no bitumen roads until 1970.

I was the first Aboriginal Nursing Sister in a somewhat racist town.  White and Aborigines did not mix.

Leonora is not an Aboriginal Community it is a town  – although there is a large Aboriginal population.

To take up a position in that atmosphere was daunting especially when there was still segregated wards and in particular the maternity wards.

Aboriginal mums delivered in a tin shed just a few metres away from the maternity block of the hospital.   Aboriginal patients were also treated in a small shed away from the general wards.

My first and foremost desire was to, in some way, help our Aboriginal population of that town, but I had also to prove to the white community that an Aboriginal nurse could do the duties that was required.  It was very stressful to see Aboriginal patients having to wait till the very last to be seen b y the resident doctor and to be treated as second rate.  As a nurse, our code of conduct was to treat every one the same regardless of colour or race.  Thus, I began to plan in my mind, how things could be changed.

First of all my own professional integrity and ability to care for all patients, be they black or white, had to be such, that I could not allow any criticism of anything I did.

My strong desire was to integrate the patients on the maternity and general wards.  But how????  When, these practices had been practiced for years.

My chance came in the form of resignation of the Matron.  I applied for the position of Matron in 1958 and was accepted as Matron of the Leonora District Hospital.  Changes were made very gradually but full integrated wards were achieved by the end of 1958!!!!

The maternity section was my biggest achievement.  This was spurred on by a particular incident of one of my patients.

I may well have been an integral part of many decisions I made for the well being of all my patients.

My first Aboriginal mum was in Labour in the tin shed and the memory has never been forgotten, not to this very day.  It was very hot and even more so in that little tin shed.  It was here that I witnessed my first stillborn birth, which, I considered at that time as an unnecessary death of an Aboriginal baby.  I cried for the loss of that baby.

Today, Aboriginal people enjoy the same treatment as the rest of the community.  I was in charge of that Hospital for 34 years.  Nursing in a remote area is very rewarding, despite the shortages of trained nursing staff and even when there was no resident doctor.

For 15 of the 34 years, there was no resident doctor and nursing staff had the responsibility of the running of the hospital.  The Royal Flying Doctors service from Kalgoorlie was our saviour.  We had clinic days twice a week serviced by the RFDS.

We communicated via phone, and in emergencies, patients were flown either to Kalgoorlie or Perth.  The plane could be anywhere in the vast outback and waiting for emergencies was a tremendous stress for the nursing staff.  We somehow managed and for me it was both challenging and rewarding to have worked in such isolated circumstances.

The first years at Leonora Hospital was very difficult due to shortage of trained staff – often only working with nursing assistants.  Shortage also of domestic staff.

Often one had the role of cook, laundress or cleaner, as well as nursing and on occasions one had to these extra duties.  As it was a one Doctor practice town, with no back up from the Royal Flying Doctor Service, (as it is known today), no bitumen roads then to Kalgoorlie, high corrugations and Kalgoorlie being 247 kms away the Doctor did emergency surgery and some elective surgery i.e.;  herniorophies, appendices, tonsillectomies etc.  In these cases, as far as anaesthetics went, Dr induced the patient and then I had to take over while he operated.  Oxford vaporiser ether machine was used for the anaesthetics.  Huge responsibility but it had to be done.  At the time, if patients were transferred to Kalgoorlie, it was by road – and the only ambulance then was owned by the Sons of Gwalia mining company.

One of the more trying and taxing times was nursing sick babies with gastroenteritis under difficult conditions.  No air conditioned wards.  To keep temperatures down, we nursed these babies with wet towels and fans.  Sitting up night and day encouraging fluids and the only treatment was by subcutaneous fluids.

Aboriginal mothers did not bring up their babies early enough.  They were always dehydrated by the time they were admitted.  The reason for not bringing sick babies earlier is the fear of treatment given to Aborigines then.  Aborigines had to wait and were the last ones seen by the Doctor.  To me that was not right

During the 15 years without a resident Doctor, some horrific accidents occurred and we had to give the appropriate treatment from instructions from the Doctor per phone.  We had to be spot on with our assessments of the case in hand for the Doctor to give correct treatment.  One case to mind, was when a man had his arm blown off at the elbow.  Fortunately his mates had applied a perfect tourniquet which arrested the blood loss.  He also had injuries to his eyes, body and legs, he was flown directly to Perth by RFDS.  Initial treatment was carried out by nursing staff.

Another case where a family station wagon driven by a woman with a baby on board and her dog.  Following behind was her husband and toddler.  The first car rolled and was upside down, her husband having witnessed the accident.  He could not get his wife out who was pinned by the vehicle but managed to rescue the baby and drove another 20kms to the nearest station homestead for help and rang the hospital for help.  We went out in the ambulance and when I saw the baby bassinette my heart failed for the safety of the baby but fortunately she was safe at the homestead without any harm.  The mother was pinned under and she had her dog with her.  The dog kept us at bay and until the husband arrived with extra help from the station homestead.  Fortunately she had no internal bleeding but had a bruised back.  She was taken to Leonora District Hospital for observation.

The worst and most devastating for me was going to a plane crash.  The plane was returning from Leinster after some of the mining executives had gone up for Christmas celebrations when the accident occurred about 50kms west of Leonora.  There was no Doctor in the town, so it was the nursing staff who went out with the police and Ambulance to the accident scene.  Tragically, there were no survivors.  The plane had nose dived into the ground and exploded on impact.  The accident scene was so horrific that I could never ever forget or describe.

As nurses we became advocates for our patients, whether they be black or white.  Don’t be afraid to act as advocates when patients cannot speak for themselves because of language barriers, not understanding procedures etc, we must speak on their behalf.  Lot of Aboriginal people are too frightened to ask the Doctor about his or her condition and this is where, we as nurses enter in.  Doctors are not infallible and if decisions have been made about your patient which you disagree with – say so on behalf of your patient.  Doctors do appreciate honesty as well. 

As nurses working in rural and remote areas, we have great responsibilities to our communities.

Its has been a great privilege to have been a remote area nurse, because it has given me an insight into the family as a whole and I have been able to share with their joys and well as their pain.

I was awarded an MBE in 1964 for nursing services to Leonora.  A recipient of the Queens Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977 and in 1981 an RFDS plane was named in my honour – Sadie Canning.  A road leading to the Leonora District Hospital was also named Sadie Canning Drive in 1982.  Recently I received the Centenary Medal in 2003.  I retired from Nursing in 1990.

I have two children – my firstborn a son and second a daughter.  David who was born in 1967 has a degree in Commerce and has his own business.  Miriam was born in 1969 and is a Vetinarian, who has her own Vetinary Practice in Perth.  David is married with two small children – daughter Marisol aged 3 years and son Davidson aged 18 months.  Miriam is devoted to her animals at this point.

For Indigenous People to press forward personally and collectively, we must not dwell on the past, we cannot blame governments and a society (who have detrimental policies) for all of our problems, we must strive to achieve, and to get on with life as best we can.

That’s not to say, we can just wipe away things that have happened in the past and we can’t blame others for things that happens to us in life.  We have to pull ourselves out of this never ending syndrome of blame and of the ‘poor black fellow’.  Today we have many choices, choices that our parents never had.   It is up to us to succeed or not.

The past policies for Aboriginal People have been horrific, especially the removal of children, but I can look at it in two ways, one can never imaging the hurt and betrayal one must feel, and how unjust and cruel it was, but, it was because of this, that I was given the opportunity of education for which I am truly grateful.  Good can overcome evil!!

I made a choice at the age of 16.  Today I am living proof of that choice.,  I came from a very disadvantaged background only on generation from the bush,  I have made it because I grabbed the opportunities with both hands and said to myself “I can do it” and throughout life, I had an unseen Friend, my Lord, who has been my constant strength in everyday life.  You can make it too.  Today, you are privileged, to have so many unlimited opportunities.  Take what you can and DO IT.

In closing, I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, to encourage each of the students and other fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to get up, move forward, don’t look behind and Never say “I can’t”, only that “I can”.

God bless you all.

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