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Channeling change through cultural awareness

The Australian Water Association’s Victorian branch committee and Young Water Professionals (YWP) sub-committee recently attended an Aboriginal Cultural Awareness training session with Karen Milward. Melbourne Water hosted more than 25 attendees, and Karen, a proud Yorta Yorta woman, spent time enhancing our collective awareness.

Building cultural awareness improves our ability to operate sensitively and inclusively, which is why we thought it helpful to share some useful tips from Karen’s session including:

  • The difference between ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgment of Country’
  • How to perform an Acknowledgment of Country and what to include
  • What you might need to specifically consider when working and meeting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 

Acknowledgement of Country

As a committee we have been unsure at times about what is the right protocol for an Acknowledgement of Country. Karen shared the following tips.

Acknowledgement of Country contributes to providing a safe and welcoming space. It acknowledges the unique position of Aboriginal people in Australian history, culture and society and shows respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A Welcome to Country must not be confused with an Acknowledgement of Country. A Welcome to Country is an important ceremony performed by traditional owners to welcome people to their land.

We mentioned to Karen that, during an event with multiple speakers, there can be confusion over whether every person addressing the room should undertake a separate Acknowledgement of Country. Karen noted that individual speakers can each separately deliver an Acknowledgement of Country and thereby also show their respect and continuance of the sentiment delivered by the first speaker.

This Reconciliation Australia fact sheet has more details about the differences between the two and some suggested wording for an Acknowledgement of Country.


Not sure who is an Elder or how to address someone? It’s best to ask and not assume.

Karen suggested asking if you should refer to someone with the title reserved for Elders: ‘Aunty’ or 'Uncle’.

You can also check if any Elders attending a meeting or event would like to be included by name during the Acknowledgement of Country, as some Elders could be inadvertently offended if an Acknowledgement of Country does not specifically note their presence in the room by individual name.

When using terms such as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous, Koori(e), etc, Karen said that generally in Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is appropriate. 

Building cultural awareness helps people operate more sensitively and inclusively 

Meeting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

When planning to meet with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there are a few key elements to consider to avoid creating an uncomfortable situation or inadvertently causing embarrassment or shame.

Wherever you can, Karen suggested arranging to meet ‘on Country’ and allow enough time. You might think the meeting should only take an hour but you should consider allowing half a day so there is no pressure to rush.

When presenting information and speaking, take time to listen carefully and reflect. Ensure you are respectful and be mindful of things you say or do that could cause embarrassment.

It is important to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have other obligations that are of greater priority than your meeting. Elders or meeting participants could be late or need to cancel for this reason.

Karen explained there are six seasons recognised in Victorian Aboriginal culture applying to traditional land management practices, but these can sometimes lead to miscommunication when trying to align with the four that we are usually taught.

We were inspired by Karen’s description of the inclusivity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and language. For instance, there is no word for ‘disability’. Traditionally, everyone in a community has a role and place, so there’s no label or exclusion.

Aboriginal identification

If you are not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, this one is easy; you don’t have a role apart from respecting someone’s identification. 

Karen noted that a person’s Aboriginal identity is theirs and their Aboriginal community’s concern, and is not for others to decide. Karen referred us to the following quote:

Aboriginality cannot be expressed in words as it is a feeling of one's own spirituality. It is a sense of deep, proud cultural identity. Aboriginals live it and express it every day through art, language, humour, beliefs and familial and community relationships – Dr J Huggins (2003)

Aboriginality is not defined by whether a person looks a certain way. ‘Cultural safety’ is connected and includes not assaulting, challenging or denying identity. 

Sorry Business

Sorry Business refers to the requirements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family and community members to properly mourn and complete cultural practices after someone dies.

There are many different ceremonies and requirements, each depending on a community’s customs. In a cultural audit Karen completed for Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, she recorded more than 25 different bereavement practices.

Sorry Business must be prioritised before work commitments by community members so as not to bring shame. Time off work could range from a day to a week or so, depending on a person's Sorry Business obligations. 

Sorry Business usually involves the broader community, not just immediate family members. 

Key takeaways:

  • When running an event, it’s important to try to determine if Elders will be present and, if so, ask whether they would like to be referred to by name during an Acknowledgement of Country. To not do so may be received as disrespectful.  
  • Wherever you can, arrange to meet on Country and allow enough time. 
  • Slow down, especially when you talk, and listen. Be conscious of the language you use and of causing embarrassment.
  • Building relationships takes time; be patient and put in the effort.
  • Be aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a number of family and community commitments, including Sorry Business, which takes precedence over work commitments.

We appreciate Karen’s openness to our curiosity and willingness to learn. If you would like to find out more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness training, click here

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