Freeman family in `debt' 50 years on

THE family of Olympic hero Cathy Freeman has been forced to pay a 50-year-old debt of two pounds and five shillings for a pauper's grave left unpaid by the Queensland Protector of Aborigines before they were allowed to bury a relative yesterday.
In 1950, the Queensland Protector of Aborigines -- the body that had government-mandated control of Aborigines' lives at the time -- failed to pay the money to buy a plot when the family matriarch, Annie Sibley, was buried as a pauper.
Freeman's mother, Celia Barber, told The Weekend Australian she discovered that her family would have to pay the 1950s bill at ``today's rates'' -- $990 -- when she went to Morley's funeral parlour in Townsville on Wednesday.
She was arranging for the burial of her niece, Anne-Maree Sibley, 33, who died of a heart attack. The family had agreed that Ms Sibley should be buried in the same grave as her great-grandmother -- Mrs Barber's grandmother -- Annie Sibley, who died on August 29, 1950, aged 50.
But she was told the burial could not go ahead until the family settled the government's ancient debt.
``When I went to the funeral parlour, they said they could not go ahead with the burial this week until I paid for the grave of my grandmother because the Protector of Aborigines had never paid for it,'' Mrs Barber said.
``I was told the amount outstanding was two pounds five shillings, but we would have to pay at today's rates, which was $495 for the back cost of the grave, and the same amount to re-open it.
``I was devastated. We just wanted to put our little girl to rest. We didn't want to deal with this other issue. I had no choice but to pay it.''
Until the 1970s, legislation in Queensland placed all Aborigines under the control of the government.
No Aborigine could obtain work, move residence, or even marry without the prior permission of `The Protector'.
Any wages they were paid were given to The Protector (who, in many cases in remote places, was the local policeman) and he doled out small amounts on request, if he agreed with the proposed purchases.
The hated legislation is known among Queensland Aborigines as ``The Dog Act''.
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History shows much of that money was stolen and Aborigines never received it.
Thousands are now fighting for the ``stolen wages'' in Queensland from a multi-million dollar fund that is held by the Queensland Government.
Three years ago Queensland Premier Peter Beattie -- under pressure to repay the wages to the people from who it had been kept -- offered amounts of $4000 and $2000 in a ``final'' settlement for all who could ``prove'' they had not received their pay kept by the Protector.
However, it was not previously known that Aborigines were buried ``on the cheap'' in pauper's graves.
The manager of Morley's Funerals, Ray Valdetta, said his firm collected the money but the cost was imposed by the Townsville/Thuringowa Cemetery Trust. He said the policy of charging for graves such as this originated in the 1980s and occurred on a reasonably regular basis.
The spokeswoman for the Cemetery Trust, Trina Moore, yesterday said Mrs Barber's family thought the grave was paid for by the Protector of Aborigines in 1950, but the money had never been received, so the debt was outstanding.
``Most of those not paid for were pauper's graves and if they are not paid for people cannot put a monument or headstone on the grave until it is purchased,'' Ms Moore said.
``Our records showed the Protector never paid for that plot and all I know is the grave wasn't purchased and it has to be purchased.
``Actually they were lucky we re-opened it for them before the money was paid.''
Family members attending yesterday's funeral were incensed when they were told of the ``final indignity'' that had occurred to Mrs Sibley in 1950 when she was buried in a pauper's grave, but even that had not been paid for by the government of the day.
Freeman's aunt, Lyla Murison, said blame for the whole issue lay with the Queensland Government.
``Why wasn't this money ever paid?'' she said. ``We just want to bury our loved ones.''
Freeman said it was ``not appropriate'' for her to speak publicly about the death of her cousin or the subsequent treatment of her mother.