Vale Professor Colin Bourke MBE

Vale Professor Colin Bourke MBE
15 September 1936 – 10 February 2021

Tribute

 Presentation of cheque for Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs - Colin Bourke far left, Reg Blow, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ian Viner, Prof Ray Martin, Prof Louis Waller

From left to right: Professor Colin Bourke MBE, Reg Blow, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ian Viner, Professor Ray Martin, Professor Louis Waller.
Photo courtesy of Monash University Archives.

Professor Colin Bourke, MBE, was born in 1936, a year before the Commonwealth and States held a national conference on Aboriginal affairs in which it was agreed to adopt the assimilation policy, intended to absorb Indigenous people into white society.

In an era in which the movements, associations and employment of Indigenous people were still heavily controlled, Colin went on to become a prominent voice in academia and a beacon for social change through Indigenous engagement and education.

Colin came to Monash in 1977 as the first full-time Indigenous Director of the then Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs, within the Faculty of Education, remaining there until 1981. He was part of a new group of emergent Aboriginal professionals dedicated to changing the future of Aboriginal destiny. He also served two terms on the University Council and was the inaugural Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council.

Prior to his secondment to Monash, Colin worked with the Special Services Division of the Education Department where he became convinced that Aboriginal learning was composed of two distinguishable but dependent parts; namely “education of the Aborigines and education of the non-Aboriginal community about Aborigines,” and he saw his role in developing both aspects.

However, the hallmark of his time as director was the Aboriginalisation of the Centre, positioning Monash at the vanguard of the study of Indigenous affairs. Colin believed that Aboriginal people should be more than the mere objects of research and teaching activity indeed, such activities should be part of Aboriginal social and political activism. To this end, he employed Aboriginal people, such as the playwright and poet Kevin Gilbert, Colin Johnson, better known as the elusive and controversial writer, Mudrooroo, whom he had met at a friend’s house in Kew in the late 1970s and developed a deep admiration for, and Yorta Yorta man Wayne Atkinson, who later gained a PhD and went on to undertake important leadership roles in the Aboriginal Community of Victoria. As the late Louis Waller, former Sir Leo Cussen Professor of Law noted, Colin made the Centre a contributor in a small way to Aboriginal employment in Melbourne.

With the emphasis on action research and collaboration with living contemporary Aboriginal people, Colin embedded a set of core values. His colleagues described him as an outstanding theorist in Aboriginal education, and a man of deep integrity. Colin took a long view of history, and of identity and identification. As he put it, ‘everybody has got a history….you may not know what it is.’

During a period of turbulence in the nineties, when Indigenous studies at Monash became destabilised, he and his second wife, Associate Professor Eleanor Bourke (a descendent of the Wergaia and Wamba Wamba people) were commissioned to undertake a review of the Monash Indigenous programmes. The Bourke Report recommended a consolidation of research and teaching roles and the formation of a new Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies (now Monash Indigenous Centre) in 1997.

Colin John Bourke was born in Sunshine, Melbourne, in 1936, the son of an Aboriginal Gamilaroi mother and an Irish/Australian father. He grew up at Yarrawonga, and after attending parish Catholic primary schools, he enrolled at Wangaratta High School.

He initially trained as a primary school teacher at the Geelong Teachers College, on advice from his father because it offered employment security but deep down he had other ambitions. Colin was initially “knocked back” from undertaking a degree because of his low matriculation grades, but enrolled in a correspondence course to improve his marks. This gained him entry to Melbourne University where he graduated in 1974 with a Bachelor of Commerce, and a Bachelor of Education in 1976. A Master of Education at the Canberra College of Advanced Education followed in 1988. In 1998 he was awarded a Bachelor of Law from Adelaide University, going on to become an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Australia after a stint as Acting Pro Vice Chancellor (Equity and External Relations) and Dean of the Faculty of Aboriginal and Islander Studies.

On resigning from his post at Monash in 1981, he took up a position as General Manager at the recently created Aboriginal Development Commission. On his last day, when asked by the late Professor Merle Ricklefs, then a recent appointee of the history department, what could be done to increase the number of Aboriginal students, Colin replied that the University needed a bridging course, thus sowing the seeds of the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines, a ground-breaking initiative which saw the number of Aboriginal students enrolled at Monash increase considerably.

Colin wrote numerous published and unpublished papers on Aboriginal issues and was co-author of Before the Invasion, along with Isobel White and Colin Johnson. He coordinated the Open Learning unit on Aboriginal Studies, and co-edited and wrote several chapters of the accompanying text, Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader on Aboriginal Studies. He returned to Monash in 1999 with his appointment as Professorial Fellow in the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, and in 2001 was appointed Adjunct Professor.

Colin was the father of four children and two step-daughters, Chris, Andrew (dec.), Richard, Annie, Matthew, Sia and Kelly. His son, Chris Bourke, became the first Indigenous dentist in Australia and later, as a Labor politician, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly. In an interview about his childhood, Chris recalled how his parents were committed to life-long learning before it became a slogan and how achievement, and community service were highly prized.

Colin was an energetic committee member, serving on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), the National Aboriginal Education Committee and the National Aboriginal Employment Development Committee. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1978 for his efforts in providing leadership and support to Aboriginal welfare. Monash awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2016.

On the issue of Indigeneity, Colin wisely summed it up in an interview; ‘It is all part of the growing up of Australian society to recognise this properly ... you dig hard enough in anyone’s background and you might find someone different ... but the world is big enough for everybody to live in it.’