Kate George’s journey began at the 494-mile peg of the rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia when she was taken from her family at the age of three. The youngest of 10 children, Kate George GAICD, was part of the Stolen Generations, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions or foster care.
George could not speak a word of English when she was taken from her mother in 1953, was not used to wearing clothes and, in her words, was a “wild bush kid”. She lived in a Perth institution for the next 12 years, at times suffering cruelty and abuse, and describes her time there as being an “inmate”. Although she showed great aptitude for reading and history, George was trained for a domestic life of sewing, cooking and cleaning for others.
She has since become a qualified barrister and solicitor, ministerial adviser, consultant and company director.
George was the first Aboriginal woman at Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home to make it through high school, the first Aboriginal woman to study law at the University of Western Australia and graduate from the Australian National University and the first Aboriginal woman admitted to practice law in WA.
It is also clear that the three-year-old, who was taken from her family and separated from her sisters, is never far from George. “It meant estrangement from my mother and my sisters because we were split up,” she says. ”You never get that sense of family back and you end up in a different place to most.”
George adds: “When I was taken away I didn’t see Mum for three years and I lost my early memories of her, even though my Mum would later come and see us in the institution. A Putijurra aunty who had brought me up when I was little said she had been waiting 35 years for me to come home. The impact of children being taken away has affected so many Aboriginal families and continues to do so. I don’t know all of my family, but I’m one of the lucky ones who know where I am from.”
George comes from the Putijurra people, part of the greater Martu people who are believed to have lived in the Great Sandy Desert in excess of 20,000 years, with the last of the people emerging from the desert in the 1960s. She is a proud Putijurra woman. George describes the landscape and Martu communities as a “beautiful, difficult place”, full of incredible humanity, courage, kindness and loyalty.
The desert seems a long way from boardrooms in corporate towers, but it gives George the perspective to lead, for the benefit of others, in a shifting landscape of indigenous governance.
In 2011, she was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame. Less known are her views on indigenous governance; her belief that Aboriginal boards need more mentoring and support, possibly from non-Aboriginal boards and directors; and the need for new regional employment and training models to link business and Aboriginal communities.
“If you want to improve the standard of indigenous governance in Australia, you have to first improve the management standard of Aboriginal corporations,” says George. “Too many indigenous boards are being asked to govern organisations that are rife with problems and inefficiencies.”
Asked what the Aboriginal culture offers boards, George says: “Aboriginal communities are very structured, with lots of rules. There is no single leader among us. We are part of a team. In my situation, I am the interpreter or the enabler who understands the white world and its legal system and can translate that back to my community, or work with a translator. We draw everything on a board, listen and do oral transmissions of knowledge to pass that knowledge to others.”
Originally published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Company Director Magazine, August 2014
Law Society of Western Australia Reception
(08) 9324 8600
(08) 9481 3111
Continuing Professional Development
(08) 9324 8640
(08) 9324 8692
Professional Standards Scheme
(08) 9324 8653
Old Court House Law Museum
(08) 9324 8688
Francis Burt Law Education Programme
(08) 9324 8686
(08) 9324 8650