That's the Spirit: Pat Canty - Bourke NSW

When she was growing up in Bourke, Patricia “Pat” Canty, never dreamed she’d ever join Rotary, let alone take the reins as the local club’s president for two years running. As an Aboriginal woman, the perception was that Rotary was about as far from a “good fit” as she could get, but in recent years, the club has pioneered the breaking down of those barriers through what she says has been “a wonderful shift” in that reality.  Pat talked to Jen Cowley about the importance of challenging misconceptions.

Pat: I’m the president of Bourke Rotary Club, for the second year running. I was born in Bourke and have lived here for the majority of my life so far.

My history goes back a long way in the district – my father is a Barkindji man from down Wilcannia way, my mum – who isn’t Aboriginal – she’s from Cunnamulla.


Jen: What’s your “day job” and how did you get involved with Rotary?


Pat: I work in health services – I’ve spent all my working life in health care. I’ve always been involved with lots of community organisations over the years, and I’ve been a member of lots of different committees. My husband said one day that he’d like to do something for the community, get involved with some organisation, and he said, “What do you think about Rotary?” so he joined up.

My husband, Noel, is a shearing contractor and to be honest, I really didn’t think Rotary would be the sort of organisation that would be for him – I didn’t think it would be a good fit for either of us with Rotary.

I’d heard about lots of great things that Rotary does for the community, but I didn’t think it was for us – I guess I just didn’t know it would be so inclusive.

When I was growing up in Bourke, it was predominantly older white men who were the town’s leading businessmen, or well-to-do members of the community – there were never Aboriginal people involved, or people from working class sectors.

But Noel was invited to go along and he saw how that was no longer the case, and he wanted to be a part of it. Then I was invited to go to a dinner and over time, with Noel being away a lot for work, I just started sort of stepping in to help at things and go to community activities.

I thought, “Well, I might as well join.” So that was the start.

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President of the Rotary Club of Bourke, Pat Canty  (second from right), with fellow Rotarians.

Jen: So once you started to get involved you saw that the image you had of Rotary was different from the reality.


Pat: Exactly, but in a good way. Bourke has to a degree pioneered that breaking down of barriers, particularly with Aboriginal people as members. I really didn’t think about it until after I accepted the role of president, but that’s when it struck me – I am probably one of the very few female, Aboriginal presidents in Rotary at the moment. One of our former presidents is a woman, and she and our former treasurer were so committed, as have so many people been over the past few years. I think that’s why Rotary in Bourke is such a success story, because of all those people, like those two women, and their commitment to being inclusive.

It was a real shock, a nice shock, to come to Rotary from a perspective of thinking I could never be involved, and then to see just how inclusive it is, and to have the opportunity to be a part of something like Rotary. 

Our secretary at the moment is also a young Aboriginal woman.

So there’s just been this wonderful shift, and it’s amazing.

That whole pre-conception I had of Rotary, as I was growing up in Bourke, is now so far from the reality.

So now, I spend a lot of time trying to encourage other people from the Bourke community to join, regardless of what their background is or what industry they’re involved with.

There has been a great increase in the number of Aboriginal people who are getting involved with our activities, coming to events and letting us, as Rotarians, help them and do things for them.


Jen: Breaking down some long-held barriers.


Pat: Very much so, and how good’s that? The committee that’s been in place in Bourke Rotary for a while now has been really committed to that.


Jen: What are some of the things you see Rotary doing in the community that makes you proud to be part of the organisation?


Pat: I guess it’s the fact that it’s community based and puts a lot back into the community. That’s one of the reasons I was so happy to get involved, because it wasn’t one of these groups that raises money locally but doesn’t put it back into the community locally. And yet, it’s a worldwide organisation, so you get so much exposure to what’s going on around the world, that’s really interesting. It’s extraordinary when you get to know what Rotary does around the world and in Australia. You get exposure to all the different members and people across other communities.

One of the things I value about Rotary is the friendships you develop along the way, but mostly it’s the fact that it’s an honest organisation that’s genuinely committed to giving back to the community.

Again, I think of the perception I had that Rotary was an organisation for well-off white men who just looked after their own. That is so far from the truth. Just one example is how much Rotary did during the drought to help everyone, not just a particular sector.

Rotary is there for everyone. It’s not judgemental.

You’re welcome no matter who you are, and you’re part of a bigger family. 

Jen: On a personal note, what do you love about Bourke?


Pat: Apart from the beautiful Darling River and the ancient ground I walk on, the thing I love about Bourke is the same thing I love about Rotary – giving to others in need and supporting each other. This community is so good at that. Regardless of who you are or what your circumstances are, if you’re in need, there’s always someone who will stand up for you.

Rotary reflects the values of Bourke, and Bourke reflects the values of Rotary. I see that every day and I can actually attest to that whole concept of giving what you get – what Rotary stands for is what you get when you live in a small community like Bourke, that whole sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.


Jen: Bourke sometimes gets a bad rap – what would you like to tell people about your home town that they might not otherwise know?


Pat: People need to come here and experience the love! There are so many good people in this community. There’s always a disruptive element, and you get that anywhere, but the good stuff far outweighs the bad. By far.

I’ve always said about Bourke that if you’re down and out, there’s always someone who’ll give you a feed, give you a hand, offer you some help. Bourke is a very generous community, even if you’re not a born and bred local.

If you’re ever down on your luck and in need, Bourke is the place to be.

If you give to Bourke, it gives back. It rewards you. Just like Rotary, Bourke will give you more than you get if you’re prepared to contribute.

NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020. ​​

Click here to order a copy of the 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book.

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Afternoon Sun, Bourke NSW

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Bourke Historic Wharf, Bourke NSW