Aunty Pat Ockwell is a respected Elder and proud Wurundjeri woman who has served her community through her work in hostels, housing and justice.
Patricia Wilma Nicholson was born on 17 September 1937 in Carlton, the first of 16 children. Pat's father, Patrick Nicholson, was of Irish heritage and served in the RAAF during the Second World War. At the time of Pat's birth her parents, Martha and Patrick were living with her maternal grandmother, Jessie Jemima Wandin Terrick, in Collingwood but there was a strong connection to country in the Healesville area. Jessie was the daughter of Robert and Jemima Wandin of Coranderrk.
As a youngster, Pat recalls going to Coranderrk where her grandmother showed her the hop kilns and taught her how to fish and collect berries for jam. As a consequence, Aboriginal culture and heritage was a big part of Pat's early life. She has vivid memories of her grandmother protecting her and her siblings from welfare authorities, telling them to ‘get under the bed, hide in the bush or climb up the trees’.
Her teenage years
Pat went to schools in many different places including Healesville, Toolangi and Warburton, but lost a lot of schooling because of the need to help her mother with her younger brothers and sisters. Pat was an extremely good runner, and while living in Toolangi she was approached to train for the 1956 Olympics. Unfortunately her family circumstances prevented this.
As a teenager Pat lived with her grandmother in Healesville and also in Collingwood and became very close to her mother's younger sisters – Winnie (Quagliotti) and Gloria – who were close to her in age. 'Aunty Winnie used to tell me a lot of things and how to cope with Aboriginal affairs as I was growing up'. As did Pat's mother: 'Mum was very strict in that way, she let us know who we were and we were proud too'. At the age of 15 Pat joined the workforce. She and her Aunty Gloria (only 18 months older) worked together at Dowd’s lingerie factory in Healesville in the 1950s. It was around this time that Pat enjoyed a short modelling career.
In 1958 she married Ted Ockwell, a farmer from Woori Yallock. The couple lived in Healesville for some years, where 4 of their children (Jenny, Edward, Karen and Margaret) were born, and then in Wangaratta where their last 2 children (Patrick and Michael) came into the world.
Community involvement and activism
While Pat was aware from a young age of the struggles of Aboriginal people, it was not until the 1960s that she became politically active. One of her first experiences of activism was travelling to Canberra with a protest group organised by Geraldine Briggs. Pat was also actively involved in protest groups at the time of the 1988 Bicentennial.It was the influence of elders such as Geraldine Briggs, Uncle Doug Nicholls, Kevin Coombs, her Aunty Winnie and other leaders from Fitzroy and Collingwood that set Pat on a path of community involvement and activism. 'I always wanted to make sure things were right for our people, that we were getting a fair go too, not be put down all the time just because of our skin.'
Work at Aboriginal hostels
In 1977 Pat joined the Dandenong and District Aborigines Co-operative and has served on its board at various times and also been Chairperson. The Co-operative was set up to assist and support Aboriginal people in health, housing, employment, education and general welfare. In the 1970s Pat also began working at Aboriginal hostels, first in a domestic capacity at the Roy Harrison (Gunai) Hostel in Dandenong, but soon progressing to managerial roles.
The hostels were largely set up to house and assist young Aboriginal people from country areas coming to the city for training and tertiary education. Within a number of years Pat had become a trouble-shooter for the hostels and was sent to many parts of Victoria to sort out problems. Her workplaces included the William T Onus Hostel in Northcote, the Harry Nanya Hostel in Mildura and the Lionel Rose Centre in Morwell.
Pat kept young offenders out of prison and help them to get their lives back on track
While working at the Morwell Hostel, Pat established a good relationship with local police. When Aboriginal people got into trouble the police would contact Pat. This usually resulted in an informal hearing held in the cell, with the offender released into Pat’s care at the hostel until they needed to appear in court.
Through this procedure, Pat was able to keep young offenders out of prison and help them to get their lives back on track. For those who had served their time and were due for release, Pat established an arrangement for them to come to her at the William T Onus Hostel in Northcote for the final 28 days of their sentence. There she helped them to get jobs and make the transition back to community life.
She introduced the same arrangement at the Dandenong Hostel, with the Corrections Department allowing released Aboriginal prisoners to work in the hostel gardens under Pat's supervision. It was a natural progression then for Pat to become a sitting member of the Koori Court system when it was established in the 1980s. Pat currently attends Broadmeadows Koori Court, the Magistrates' Koori Court and Children’s Koori Court in Melbourne and the Children's Koori Court at Dandenong.
Aunty Pat's passion and commitment for her community is undiminished
For over 30 years Pat has also played a major role with the Aboriginal Housing Board of Victoria, (now Aboriginal Housing Victoria) serving on its board and various committees and assisting with policy matters. Pat recalls that while she was working at the hostel in George Street, Melbourne, she got into trouble for finding homes for all the occupants and leaving the hostel empty. Nevertheless, Pat laments that many Aboriginal families still need to wait up to 10 years for subsidised housing.
Pat is currently Vice Chair of the Aboriginal Community Elders Services(ACES), an organisation committed to maintaining services for elderly members of the community. Pat is actively involved in overseeing the maintenance and expansion of facilities at the ACES East Brunswick property. It is important to Pat that 'the sick and elderly are warm and happy and well cared for' and she encourages young members of the community to visit and engage with their Elders. Pat is a Senior Elder and Life Member of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council.
Now in her seventies, Aunty Pat's passion and commitment for her community is undiminished. She continues to work tirelessly for fairness and justice and provides inspiration for all.
Reviewed 29 September 2019