Dr Bonita Mabo, the Indigenous rights activist who died on Monday at the age of 75, has been remembered as a tireless campaigner who helped make Australia a more reconciled nation.
The widow of Edward “Koiki” Mabo whom she fought alongside for Indigenous land rights, Dr Mabo advocated for Indigenous schooling as well as the rights of Indigenous Australians and Australian South Sea Islands. She co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous community school, the Black Community School in Townsville, and worked for a decade on the Central Queensland Land Council.
She’s been labelled the “matriarch of reconciliation” and the “mother of Native Title”, and was just last week recognised with an honorary doctorate from James Cook University for her 45 years of campaigning work .
Raising ten kids, Bonita worked nights at a prawn factory while Eddie worked as a gardener at James Cook University during the many years they spent fighting the native title court case.
MP Linda Burney tweeted Dr Mabo was: “One of the great First Nations Women of our time. Fighting ’til the very end for the great truth of this nation.”
Senator Pat Dodson said that Dr Mabo’s death marked “the reconciliation of two proud Australian souls, a loving couple who have made our country a better place, a more harmonious place and a more reconciled nation.”
Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition leader Bill Shorten used Question Time on Tuesday to praise Dr Mabo’s work.
Morrison called her a “remarkable woman” with a deep, quiet strength.” He said she would be remembered for her “tireless efforts to advance Indigenous education as well as land and sea rights.”
“Her strength was drawn from her history, her family. And her deep sense of justice,” he said.
Shorten noted her “sharp mind and great heart”, as well as her “courage and determination that helped change the country.”
He spoke about Dr Mabo’s advocacy for Australian South Sea Islander culture. “This parliament should acknowledge of more than 60,000 were brought to our continent between 1863 and 1994 from Tanna and Vanuatu and 80 or so other islands,” he said.
“Sometimes against their will or through deception. So-called blackbirding, working as indentured servants in the cotton and sugar plantations.”
Shorten spoke of a 2015 meeting with Dr Mabo in which he said he was “struck by her vitality, by her fire.”
“She exerted the pride, the power and the presence of a true matriarch.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Dr Mabo empowered countless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to speak from the heard and stand up for what they believe in.
Bonita met Eddie in 1958, and they were married in 1959. They moved to Townsville in 1962 with their first child Eddie Junior. They went on to raise seven children of their own and adopt three more from their extended family.
Dr Mabo will receive a state funeral in Townsville in December.