Geraldton tree planting event in honour of late QEII cancelled by Indigenous elders

Article by Katina Curtis and Jake Dietsch courtesy of The West Australian.

A cancelled tree planting to honour the service of the late Queen Elizabeth II is at the centre of a confusing impasse in Geraldton.

On Saturday, Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn claimed on his Facebook page the tree-planting event at Wonthella Bush Reserve was “shut down” because of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which came into effect on July 1.

Mr Van Styn told The West Australian on Sunday the city had checked online beforehand for Aboriginal heritage at the site and found no problems, but halted the event after one of the local traditional owners turned up and said the reserve was a significant site for her family.

However, a member of the family told The West Australian she was not concerned about the planting of the trees but rather what she believed was the renaming of the land to honour Queen Elizabeth II.

With the Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services yet to be established, needed under the new laws to assess applications, Mr Van Styn said the council was following the guidelines to “just work with the local groups”.

“But the fact that Kate (Ronan) showed up herself personally, and interposed herself into the hole digging was enough for us to go well, we have a knowledge holder here that we acknowledge as being one, let’s stop,” he said.

Local traditional owner Donna Ronan, who was on her way to the tree planting event but arrived after it had been called off, said she had been concerned that it was being used to honour Queen Elizabeth II straight after NAIDOC Week.

The plantings were funded with a Federal Government grant under a program to honour the Queen’s platinum jubilee. A requirement of the funding is that a plaque be installed acknowledging the trees were planted to commemorate the Queen’s 70th year on the throne.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti said there was no provision under the Act to shut down an event like this and the legislation provided for practical exemptions.

“In relation to the Geraldton incident, the modernised laws did not allow for the elder to shut down the event. The modernised laws do not provide authority for anyone to shut down an event,” he said.

“It’s important to note that a situation like this could have occurred for the past 50 years under the old legislation – and although rare, it has occurred in the past.

“In this rare event, we understand the mayor decided to respectfully acknowledge the elder’s wishes and defer the event.”

His department was speaking with Mr Van Styn and traditional owners to resolve the issue.