Pattie Lees’ Question of Colour

Pattie Lees.

A few weeks ago I went to the Injilinji Aged Care facility to interview its CEO Pattie Lees about her autobiography “A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging” which she co-wrote with her son Adam C. Lees. Pattie was a member of the Stolen Generation and in 1958 from aged 10 she was taken from her mother and place in institutionalised care for eight years, the last six years of that in Palm Island. I hadn’t been able to read her book when I met her but I knew a bit about Palm Island’s troubled history and hoped I would be able to do justice to her story.

Among the many things I didn’t know was the foreword to the book was written by former prime minister Kevin Rudd who said Pattie’s was a story we all should be more familiar with, calling the legacy of the stolen generation “a blemish on our nation”. As PM, Rudd invited Lees to attend his 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generation. Lees turned it down in respect for those members of the stolen generation who weren’t invited. Rudd accepted that and noted that Lees had walked two conflicting worlds of protectionism and assimilation before rising to represent her people at the UN.

I didn’t know any of this. The lede of my article was that a new book by a prominent Mount Isan “looks back on the life of the stolen generation and growing up on Palm Island”. This was true to a point and Lees and her son praised my article after it came out. But I couldn’t wait to read the book to find out more. When I did I found I had missed the central point, the conflict in her life caused by the question of the title. The Queensland government made decisions about the lives siblings of Pattie and her siblings based on obsessive and archaic definitions of colour and race. Lees did not have the freedom to choose her own identity growing up.

Pattie’s best childhood memories are of her first 10 years when she lived with her Torres Strait Islander mother Agnes, two brothers and a sister in Cairns. Her Irish father was married to someone else and an irregular visitor. The kids were blind to the colour of their mother’s skin, she was just “mum” but was a beautiful singer from Mer (Murray Island) the same place as Eddie Mabo. As well as Torres Strait, she had Melanesian, Filipino and Aboriginal ancestry. Agnes was schooled on Thursday Island and moved to Babinba after marrying John Janke. They had one son also John and they separated in 1945.

Patricia’s father was Keron Patrick Glendon who was already a married man with 10 children when he met Agnes. They lived in a menage a trois with his wife Emma who turned a blind eye to their dalliance until Agnes became pregnant. Although Emma left Keron, he never formally moved in with Agnes though he fathered four children with her. Instead he married another women leaving Agnes to bring up the family and grief stricken she took to alcohol.

She played cabaret at local pubs to earn money but her drinking left her less time to look after the family. Though she married Kaj Eggertsen from Norway, they both drank heavily and had one child Elin. The children were unsupervised for long periods. Pattie was “Little Big Girl” and a defacto parent for younger siblings. Oldest son Terry was constantly in trouble and they had trouble putting food on the table. In 1957 the couple were charged with neglect and in 1958 the police intervened again.

Pattie was 10 when she and the other three older children were locked up at Cairns police station. Police were empowered to take neglected children into protective custody without a warrant, pending a court hearing. Agnes appeared in court without a lawyer and the hearing relied entirely on hearsay evidence from a local constable who said older brother Terry had broken into a neighbour’s house and stole crackers. At the house he found Terry feeding baby Elin with no mother around and took the children into custody (Elin was taken to hospital). He said the mother was addicted to alcohol and had been often arrested for drunkenness.

The magistrate removed the children from her care and declared them wards of state until 18. They were taken by train to Townsville State Children Receiving Depot as the state children’s department figured out what to do with them. They “belonged to neither race” but being “comparatively light-skinned” they weren’t sent to Palm Island. The Depot was a home for children deemed “neglected” or “uncontrollable” and the four children stayed there, enrolled at a local school while authorities sought foster parents. Johanne was fostered early and rarely saw her siblings again while misbehaving Terry was taken away on a “picnic” and didn’t return to the Depot, taken instead to Palm Island.

Pattie looked after younger brother Michael for almost two years at the Depot when they too were removed to the island in 1960. Unaccompanied as they landed on Palms they went to the police station where they though they had gone to the wrong place and should have gone to Magnetic island. “You’re a lot whiter,” the sergeant said, “You shouldn’t be here.” But here they were and they were escorted to island superintendent Roy Bartlam’s office. Bartlam’s power was absolute on the island and his reputation today is poor because of the 1957 rebellion but Lees says he treated her with nothing but respect.

She and Michael were separated, she to the girls dorm and him to the boys where he was reunited with Terry. Aged 12 Pattie was doubly disadvantaged, sent to Palms because she was too black and ostracised in the dorm because she was too white. All aspects of her life were controlled. She could not cross to the whites only Mango Avenue without authorisation, she was punished for failing to obey orders and could not leave the island without permission. Aboriginal people were expected to work 30 hours a week in exchange for accommodation and food rations which were poor. It was a womb to tomb experience for many.

Pattie was assigned to cooking, laundry, washing and yard work. She was constantly supervised and bad behaviour was not tolerated with lights out at 9.30pm. “We led silent lives”, she wrote. Pattie needed to convince her bullying dorm sisters she was a “proper blackfella” before they would accept her. One sympathetic girl rubbed soot on her face to make her darker and it worked, she finally started making friends.

It was tougher still in the boys dorm where Terry reported being beaten, set upon and sodomised within a month of arrival. He escaped in 1962 as indentured labour to a cane farm near Innisfail. Pattie earned pocket money cleaning the house of a white assistant and also discovered that house’s library where she devoured books.

Aged 14 in 1962 she met Father Cassian Double the Island’s new and unorthodox resident Franciscan friar. During her adolescence Double was her surrogate mother buying her her first bra and educating her on all matters female. Double became a guiding force helping her endure the agony of separation from her mother. She did well at school and got a scholarship to boarding school in Charters Towers aged 14.

Lees struggled to adjust to the freedoms of the mainland and her scholarship ended abruptly after a disastrous incident. On the weekend she was reading a book under a tree when the college principal took the book off her and start hitting her with it. Lees hit back and she was forced to leave college and return to Palms. Deeply ashamed she worked hard and got a clerical role in the island main office. In 1966 she saw a full page ad for the navy and wanting to “roam and explore at will” she applied and forgot about it. The same year aged 18 she left the island for good to go to Cairns to look for her mother.

She found her father first who said her mother had moved to Bloomfield River, 170km north. There Pattie and her mother had an emotional reunion after eight years. “Our years apart, the hurt, the pain, the loneliness endured without her, my sheer hunger for her presence all collided in one single moment.”

Pattie stayed at Bloomfield River for several months as she and her mother made up for lost time. She left when she found out her Navy application was successful and she enlisted three months after the 1967 referendum changed the laws relating to Aboriginal people. She trained up at HMS Cerberus in Victoria where fellow recruits had no idea of Aboriginal issues and assumed Palm Island was a paradise. Her comrades were shocked when she was not served in a Nowra pub but having come from Queensland with its segregation and colour bars, it seemed “no big deal for her”.

In the Navy Pattie met the love of her life Terry Lees, who had similar qualities to Father Cassian. They dated and married in 1969, forcing Pattie to leave the Navy. They lived in Canberra until Terry’s insurance business went under before returning to Cairns. In their five years together they had four children. But she couldn’t escape the ghosts of Palms.

Queensland’s Department of Native Affairs pettily chased her to repay the $20.39 advance on a new dress and other items while employed in the Palm Island main office. Her tally of receipts showed she owed $20.19 and she paid that back explaining the 20c difference. In the years that followed the Department sent more letters demanding the 20c. She learned they hassled her brother Michael for five years over a $5.44 debt.

In Cairns she found out she had another brother John from her mother’s first marriage. She also later discovered her sister Elin was still alive. Husband Terry was promoted to be an area manager for Carlton and United Breweries based in Mount Isa. Knowing no-one in the mining town she reunited with fellow Palm Islanders while Terry became well known for his Sports Time program on local television, his work as 4LM manager and his work with Rotary managing the growing Mount Isa Rodeo.

Pattie’s mother came to Mount Isa where she died at Christmas 1977 “a brilliant and talented woman but few of her dreams were fully realised”. But she spurred Pattie on. She found document that showed the effects her mother went to, to find her children after they taken. “We were simply caught in the scrutiny that befell her domestic situation”, Pattie wrote.

Her family’s story featured in the 1997 Stolen Generation report “Bringing Them Home”. Pattie ended up dedicating her personal and professional life to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage. She was CEO of an Indigenous legal services group for 17 years and an ATSIC councillor for seven years. She was a delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights draft declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2000 and also attended the UN General Assembly special session on women.

Pattie identifies as an Australian of mixed-race ancestry. She says that when the First Fleet arrived “one part of her mob greeted another part on the beach”. She says identity is shaped by the need, desire and necessity to belong. She finishes the story with a deeply emotional trip to her mother’s homeland Mer she took with son Adam in 2014. They visited the graves of family relatives and also the grave of Eddie Koiki Mabo. There her mother’s spirit was finally free to rest among the wind, the sea and the stars. The work of “Little Big Girl” was finally done.

One thought on “Pattie Lees’ Question of Colour

  1. Thanks for your thorough and very thoughtful review Derek. We appreciate your support and the care that you take when researching and writing your stories. Look forward to meeting you at some point. All the best from WA.

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