That's the Spirit: Christine Corby OAM - Walgett NSW
Christine Corby grew up in western Sydney, but moved back to her Gamilaroi mother’s country as a young mother in the mid-1970’s. It was a spur of the moment move that she now credits with, quite literally, saving her life. Now, the long-time head of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service has a career spanning more than 40 years in the service of her community, for which she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal – an accolade she says belongs to Walgett itself. Chris sat down for a yarn with Jen Cowley about her town, her career and her fight to level the playing field.
Chris: I’m a Sydney girl originally, but my mother is from Walgett – she’s a Gamilaroi woman – and my father is an Englishman, who came across on one of the ships in 1900. So, I have dual citizenship apparently.
My dad, being an ex-serviceman who spent a terrible time as a POW (prisoner of war) in Changi prison, received a soldier-settler’s house out at Blacktown. So that’s where I grew up.
I went to school and had my first jobs out there, but then we had a family friend in Walgett who moved down to Sydney and rented a flat in the city, so I moved in there and spent a few years working in various jobs there.
Then she went back to Walgett and I followed her. We initially went back for a 21st birthday party, and I liked it so much I thought, “I could live here…” so I did.
Jen: Was there a sense of belonging?
Chris: There was, definitely. Mum’s one of 11 children – and they were all here at the time. With ten siblings, Mum had loads of family – I was an only child, but I was the only one! All Mum’s other siblings had more than one child, so I had a load of first and second cousins. So that was nice.
I always say Walgett saved me.
Christine Corby OAM, Walgett NSW
Jen: How so?
Chris: Ah, well…I guess when you’re 18 you fall in love, or you think you fall in love.
I had a relationship that wasn’t very pleasant, so I ran away from it and from him with my child, and Walgett saved me and my daughter.
I was very fortunate to come straight into work here, with the Aboriginal Legal Service, where I learned so much.
I learned about society, and how rural communities operate. That was in about 1975.
At the time, when I first arrived, I hated it though. As far as I was concerned, it was all about Sunshine (powdered) milk and the fact that the papers were three days old by the time they got here. You talk about going “out back of Bourke”, well I was out back of Walgett and I didn’t like it.
But now of course, Walgett has caught up with the times, and that’s great and I love it.
I love the intimacy of being part of a small community, and yes, that sense of belonging. It felt right, and it felt like I had my place.
If you can imagine what it was like for my parents – Mum and Dad got together just after the war when he returned to Australia and I was born in 1953. At the time, it was very black and white that we, as Aboriginal people, didn’t exist and didn’t until the 1967 referendum, so my parents would have had their own trials, but they never told me about them.
Being English, Dad’s family was wherever in the world, and Mum’s family was here, so I naturally gravitated to them. I needed strength and Walgett gave me that strength. It’s been an interesting journey, as you unpack it.
Jen: How was it having a foot in both worlds, so to speak?
Chris: Well, I had no idea of it when I was growing up, I never knew about a divide. It wasn’t until I got to Walgett that I heard the term “half caste”, and all the crap that went with it. Mum’s family would come to Sydney and yes, they had dark skin, but to me they were just family. I still think family is family and if you look at the colour of skin, you’re a fool.
When I came to Walgett I had my place, because I was my mother’s daughter, but I also became “half caste”.
That hasn’t changed – I’m 67, and I still get strange looks because I have red hair and pale skin – I’m not your traditional, flat-nosed Aboriginal. I find it a combination of amusing and degrading, but all I can do is remember that it says more about them than it does about me. In other people’s ethnocentric worlds, they think people should look how the story books tell them to look.
When you break the mould like I have, it’s a good thing.
Jen: What are the sorts of things you’ve done for the community of Walgett?
Chris: Working in the Aboriginal Legal Service was a fantastic thing for me because it showed me the depth of disadvantage people suffer, and that’s not just Aboriginal people, that’s for all people who live in any form of poverty.
There’s a social divide between the poor and the business people or the property owners, and that’s the case in most places and societies, but sometimes in small communities you can see those gaps more clearly. The gaps are wider and quite unnecessary, because when there’s a drama in the town – like the loss of the river, the drought, the supermarket burning down – we all come together, but then we all go back to our little burrows.
That makes you think it’s such a shame.
Many of us can cross those divides and work together – I work with the cops, the shire, other agencies and so on – but then most of us go back to the way it was and we forget that we are all just cogs in the larger wheel of our small community.
Christine Corby OAM, Walgett NSW
Jen: Tell me about your OAM (Order of Australia)?
Chris: It’s meant everything to me. I’ll preface this by saying that it was because of the late George “Bandit” Rose, himself the recipient of an OAM, who gave me my first job here in Walgett as the office manager of the Aboriginal Legal Service. I guess he saw that I had some intestinal fortitude and I became his secretary. I did that for 11 years, from ’75-’86.
At that time Aboriginal organisations across Australia were looking to establish legal and medical services, and in the early ‘80s, Walgett along with Bourke and Brewarrina, was seen as a bit of a trifecta along the river, so the Aboriginal Medical Services were offered to the communities.
George suggested that I could help set these up, and I did and I’ve been with the organisation ever since.
George has died now, but he certainly left a great footprint for both the Aboriginal Medical and Legal Services, and also in my heart and in my mind to continue the fight.
I say fight in a tacit way because it is a fight. People talk about the red, black and yellow (Aboriginal) flag, and say I should get out and protest or whatever, I tell them we do that every day, simply by opening our doors.
Consider us – the Aboriginal Medical Service – as a business, not just as an Aboriginal organisation or the poor citizen within the health system, we open our doors with pride. We’ve been doing that for 34 years.
I always say that if we were in the Melbourne Cup, we’d win the race every time because we’re a safe bet.
We’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve had the occasional blue, but we pick ourselves up and we keep going, and we do that in the service of the community.
It’s not just the Walgett community, either. We took over the Brewarrina service about 13 years ago, and we’re respectful and inclusive of that community. We also have outreach services to Goodooga, Pilliga and Collarenebri.
Over the years, we’ve had a great positive impact on health services for Aboriginal people. Through our advocacy and our presence here in Walgett, we’ve been responsible for consistency and support for the whole community, both black and white. In 1986, we opened our doors to everyone in the community – we would not perpetuate the racism that we’d been subjected to. We aimed to reverse that, and now some 40 per cent of our clients are non-Aboriginal people.
It’s been a real success, but you don’t always look at where the potholes are, do you?
Jen: Your OAM was awarded in 2006 for services to the community of Walgett.
Chris: Yes, that’s right, but I consider that it’s Walgett’s medal. I’m only the face. It’s really to honour the people who have been behind me supporting and pushing me through the organisations I’ve been involved with. I’ve been representative on national, state and regional bodies and committees and had the opportunity to help put our communities on the map. Yes, I’ve had the voice and I’ve gained the confidence over the years because you get to speak with all kinds of people, you share ideas and you learn, but that OAM is for the community I serve. It’s a shining light for a lot of people.
I’m not sure if people would realise this, but there are a lot of Aboriginal people who have received an OAM, and quite a few in this area – there are five of us. If you look at that in terms of per capita, for those who call us the “wild west”, well, I think we’re pretty smart people.
Jen: What else makes you proud to say you’re from Walgett?
Chris: Everything. It’s my heritage. It’s my mother’s country. Why wouldn’t I be proud?
I love the environment – although with the water quality as it is right now, that’s not so much the case! – but with the two rivers, it’s unique and it has character. My history is here, in Walgett and Collarenebri, and that’s very important to me.
It’s that sense of belonging that we’ve talked about.
It’s the people who have come through our town and through our business here, we’ve made some wonderful memories with these people and we’ve been very sad to see some of them go.
I’ve had wonderful experiences here in Walgett with people, and I don’t think I’d have had those experiences or made those connections in a larger community.
Because it’s my community, it makes those experiences and connections all the more special.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.