Fear and harassment in Kalgoorlie: Indigenous youth report alarming alienation

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In the wake of Elijah Doughty’s death, 33% of young Aboriginal people in WA town say they would not go to the police in an emergency

Calla Wahlquist

Pictured: A memorial to Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie. The 14-year-old’s death in 2016 was the catalyst for the study. Photograph: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian

At an Indigenous youth summit in Kalgoorlie-Boulder on 6 October last year, a 10-year-old boy brought his expensive mountain bike on stage.

He wasn’t showing off. The bike was part of a story, one of dozens shared in a federally funded study about life for young Aboriginal people in the remote Western Australian mining town about 600km east of Perth.

Earlier, the boy had told researchers a non-Aboriginal woman had harassed him from a car when he was riding the bike home.

“She was shouting at him, saying that he had stolen the bike,” a report on the study released this month said. “Using her mobile phone, the woman took photographs of the young man whilst still yelling profanities to a 10-year-old.”

The case is similar to stories that emerged after the death of the Indigenous teenager Elijah Doughty, who was run down and killed while riding a stolen motorbike in Kalgoorlie in 2016.

Indigenous children in the town reported being followed or harassed by white people in cars, often because they had been accused of theft.

Doughty’s death and subsequent protests heightened racial tensions in the town. It was the catalyst for both the study and the youth summit, which were part of a project called Guthoo, a Wongutha term meaning “we are one”.

A series of youth-led initiatives were proposed by the summit under the banner of the Guthoo Youth Movement, including holding the world Indigenous youth gathering in Kalgoorlie every two to three years.

The study, conducted by Koya Aboriginal Corporation and Pindi Pindi Centre for Research Excellence in Aboriginal Wellbeing, surveyed 192 Aboriginal young people aged between 11 and 17 – more than 70% of the total Aboriginal population in that age bracket in the Kalgoorlie-Boulder area.

It found 33% of respondents were experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress. Yet 83% said they would not attend Headspace, the youth mental health service, if they had mental health problems.

Asked whether they would go to police if they needed urgent help, 40% said yes, but 33% said they would not contact police even in case of emergencies.

About 80% said they wanted police to treat them with respect and a number reported police did not treat them well or treated them differently to non-Aboriginal people. Almost all – 96% – said they were proud of their Aboriginality.

Participants said they wanted to attend school and engage in community activities but said there were few options for Aboriginal people and they were uncomfortable attending mainstream services. They were also concerned about the difficulty of finding jobs.

About two-thirds said life in Kalgoorlie was boring and 19% said the town was racist. About 74% said they did not feel safe walking around Kalgoorlie at night.

“Aboriginal people get treated differently sometimes by others and police officers or even shopkeepers,” one respondent said. “Kalgoorlie used to be a peaceful town, but now it’s very different.”

The federal Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, said he had attended the summit and met many of the young people who took part in the study.

“I want to support the Kalgoorlie community to come together as much as possible following a couple of rough years for the town,” Scullion told Guardian Australia. “I will be working with my federal ministerial colleagues as well as my state and local government counterparts to progress the various initiatives recommended.

“Some of these appear to be fairly straightforward, while others will require longer-term commitments … I feel optimistic that if we all work together we will be able to achieve a brighter a future for all Kalgoorlie youth.”

A trial of the cashless welfare card is due to start in Kalgoorlie and the wider Goldfields region in July.

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