Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Bruce McGuinness
1939 - 2003

Bruce B. McGuinness
17-6-1939 - 5-9-2003


ACTIVIST FOR ABORIGINAL, RIGHTS - Black elder's quest for dignity and justice

The Age, (Melbourne, Australia) - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Dr Bruce McGuinness , one of Victoria's most respected Aboriginal elders, who achieved significant gains for his people in health and education, was a pioneer in early indigenous activism. He empowered his community to seek self-determination, but also promoted harmony between white and black Australians.

McGuinness died in Melbourne at the age of 64 after a long battle with emphysema. He was wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator for the past five years but never stopped his tireless life's work. He was often referred to as the brave and sometimes angry voice of indigenous justice.

"I've always viewed Bruce as a renaissance leader," said Andrew Jackomos, manager of the indigenous issues unit of the Victorian Department of Justice.

Jackomos believes McGuinness made an enormous contribution to improving the living conditions of Aboriginal people and ensuring they had access to culturally relevant services.

"Bruce took us from being Aborigines to being Koori," Jackomos said. "He was a central figure, one of the core founders of the Black Power movement in Victoria."

The legacy of his work lives on in the Koori community. The Victorian Koori population were quick to honour this early pioneer of community-controlled health organisations and lifelong fighter for Aboriginal rights. This was reflected during the service held at the Aboriginal Advancement League on September 12, which was attended by more than 300 mourners.

McGuinness was of the Wiradjeri clan, born in Cootamundra, NSW, but spent most of his life in Fitzroy. In his early years he worked Jimmy Sharman's boxing circuit and drove trucks. He became politicised by the civil rights campaigns of the 1970s when he was a law student at Monash University.

McGuinness never turned up to accept his degree, nor practised law. Far more important to him was exploring the division between those seen as society's overlords and underdogs.

A trip to the US in the late '60s for a Pan-Pacific Conference that was attended by the Black Panthers gave him the impetus to bring the indigenous struggle to the attention of all Australians.

McGuinness was a prominent activist and a respected leader in the struggle for Aboriginal rights for more than 50 years. He disagreed with the formal limits of access to education and conforming to a white Australia, and devoted his life to the betterment of his people.

An early member of the Aboriginal Advancement League, McGuinness was instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in Fitzroy 30 years ago. He also worked with the National Aboriginal Council before becoming dean of the Koori College in Collingwood.

In the late '60s he joined the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. He later formed a breakaway group, the National Tribal Council, with fellow activists Gary Foley, Dennis Walker and Naomi Mayers.

Last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate for services to the Aboriginal community by Sydney's Tranby College.

A gifted writer and speaker, McGuinness was also a pioneer of Aboriginal filmmaking, producing Black Fire: A Time To Dream in 1974.

Dr Naomi Mayers, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, NSW, and deputy chairwoman of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, was a fellow activist and close friend of McGuinness.

Mayers said McGuinness played a significant role in the Black Power movement - which advocated a non-violent approach to establish equality and justice for all Aborigines.

She said McGuinness was a great initiator who saw Black Power as being about self-empowerment and indigenous people being responsible for their own communities.

"Bruce was part of the new movement of Aboriginal people taking control of their own lives. It was the beginning of community control and Aboriginal people acting for ourselves and making decisions for ourselves rather than having governments and mission managers making decisions for indigenous people," she said.

"He was a gentle man who could be very fiery. He had very strong beliefs and initiated a whole lot of programs for Aboriginal people across the board. He was a fighter - a really great fighter."

Lifelong friend Dr Bill Roberts believes McGuinness's death has left a hole in the indigenous community but is optimistic he will inspire future generations to continue his work.

"I'd be hopeful that his spirit will engender in indigenous people an even greater commitment to achieving the aims that Bruce so often held up," Roberts said.

He said McGuinness was not only one of the truly great leaders of Aboriginal Australia but also a great Aboriginal person and a great Australian.

"He led by his own actions and was interested in developing youth in particular - giving the next generation the opportunity he had not had and the great majority of his generation had not had.

"He restored to indigenous people a recognition of their own identity; restored their confidence in their own ability and developed that ability so they could contribute to their own communities."

Roberts said McGuinness was passionate about indigenous people having community control, particularly in the areas of education, health, children and women.

"Not control of the community but rather by the community," he said.

"With a total opportunity for all individual members within the community to reach their full potential and thus contribute to the development of the indigenous culture.

"He deplored violence but recognised the need for young Aboriginal people to see the violence and oppression that had occurred. He saw very strongly that need so that they would recognise - perhaps react to - that but come through the other side and be holistic to life and holistic to their community's needs.

"From my perspective, the legacy of Bruce McGuinness is as great as any elder has left.

"He sought excellence, he sought the establishment of human dignity and justice for all people, with compassion."

McGuinness is survived by his son Kelli and daughter Miki.