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History of Winnunga

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The Ngunnawal people are the Traditional Owners of the lands that the ACT is located on. However, there are many Aboriginal people from other parts of the country living in and visiting Canberra. This is mainly due to the mobility of people generally, connecting with family, the histories of displacement, and employment opportunities particularly in the Commonwealth public service.

Winnunga was established in 1988 by local Aboriginal people inspired by the national mobilisation of people around the opening of the new Parliament House in May and the visit by the Queen. The late Olive Brown, a particularly inspirational figure who worked tirelessly for the health of Aboriginal people, saw the need to set up a temporary medical service at the Tent Embassy site in Canberra and this proved to be the beginning of Winnunga.

Mrs Brown enlisted the support of Dr Sally Creasey, Carolyn Patterson (registered nurse/midwife), Margaret McCleod and others to assist. Soon after ACT Health offered Mrs Brown a room in the office behind the Griffin Centre to run a clinic twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday mornings) and on Saturday mornings. Winnunga operated out of this office from 1988 to 1990. The then Winnunga Medical Director, Dr Peter Sharp, began work at Winnunga in 1989. Other staff worked as volunteers. In January 1990 the t ACT Minister for Health at the time, Wayne Berry, provided a small amount of funding. By 1991 the clinic was operating out of the Griffin Centre as a full time medical practice. In that same year the ACT attained self-government.

Olive Brown passed away in 1993 and this was felt as a great loss to Winnunga and the community. On the passing of Mrs Brown a Health Board was formed that comprised Judy Harris, Bonnie Brown, Lorna McNiven, Julie Tongs, Chris Jard and Glenda Humes.

In 1993 ACT Health provided a part-time worker to assist in the organisation of the clinical service. The following year they provided space in their offices at Moore St for the administration of Winnunga. The clinical service continued to operate from the Griffin Centre.

The National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH) undertook an analysis of the needs of Canberra/Queanbeyan Aboriginal people, especially with regard to alcohol and other drug problems and HIV/AIDS risk in 1993. Survey data indicated that Aboriginal people were more likely to access services provided by either Aboriginal specific agencies or by agencies employing Aboriginal workers. Only those services with Aboriginal workers reported a high proportion of Aboriginal clients.

In 1996 the Framework Agreement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health was signed by the ACT Minister for Health and Community Care, the Commonwealth Minister for Health and Family Services, and the Chairperson of ATSIC.

Winnunga provided a report entitled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Needs of Mainstream Services based on the ACT region to the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health in 1996. The strategies to improve access to mainstream services included:

  1. Improve awareness of mainstream services including location, nature of services provided, costs involved, subsidies and rebates
  2. Develop a consultative process such as a working party made up of personnel from services, to meet regularly with members of Winnunga, Gugan Gulwan and others from the Aboriginal community
  3. Appropriate resourcing of Winnunga
  4. Cultural training of staff in all services
  5. Establishment of Aboriginal crèches and occasional child care centres
  6. Employment of Aboriginal outreach workers (either based in single agency or shared by a number of similar small services)
  7. Funding for research to ascertain from Aboriginal communities exactly what their needs are in the health, welfare and childcare areas
  8. Provision of an information service for Aboriginal people and which is provided by an Aboriginal organisation.

In October 1997 Julie Tongs resigned from the Board and took six months leave without pay to work at Winnunga as an administrator. At that time the organisation employed 5 staff members. Ms Tongs' first task was to secure the full amount of funding for Winnunga that was coming as a specific purpose grant from the Commonwealth through the ACT Department of Health who deducted the salary of the ALO at The Canberra Hospital from this budget. She was also given the task of getting the service relocated as the Griffin centre was inadequate in terms of space and general conditions with a physical separation of the clinical and administrative work (Moore St).

The clinic entrance was at the back of the building - from a small concrete veranda about a metre wide with a mesh and barbed wire fence around it that fenced off the Total Care car park. It was not uncommon to find used syringes lying on the veranda or stuck in the fence. The fenced off car park was also used as a dumping ground for used syringes. Many times staff and clients were confronted by someone ready to self-inject within a metre of the clinic entrance. The clinic comprised four rooms - a reception area, a waiting room, a tiny office off the waiting room (for counselling and administration) and a doctor’s room. The toilets and shower were down a dark stairway. The service had two telephone lines and a one-page photocopier. There were three vehicles including a small bus for pick-ups.

The administrator borrowed a lap top computer from ATSIC, bought a fax machine and worked as a health worker by day and an administrator by night to progress the service. The Chairperson at that time was Judy Harris and she and Julie worked through many nights to ensure that the service was given the priority it deserved and the health needs of Aboriginal peoples in the ACT and region were being addressed. In March 1998, following negotiations with ACT Health both the clinical services and the administrative staff relocated to Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie. In July 1999 Winnunga received funding directly from the Commonwealth government.

The year 1999-2000 was a tumultuous time for Winnunga as there was a very public takeover bid for the service. A small group set up a ghost Board that resulted in Letters of Offer not being able to be signed off and an action in the Supreme Court. The judge dissolved both Boards leaving the CEO and appointing an accountant. The CEO and the accountant were finally able to sign off on the Letters of Offer. The membership was opened up and a special AGM was held to elect a new Board. 101 Aboriginal people turned up to vote at the special AGM and 80 voted for the members of the initial Winnunga Board.

In 1999, Winnunga developed its first Strategic Plan. An infrastructure review of Aboriginal community controlled health services (ACCHSs) was conducted by Ove Arup for OATSIH at around the same time. This review concluded that Winnunga had significant infrastructure needs even though at the time there were only 7 staff members.

In March 2000 Winnunga and ACT Corrections developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and medical visits to Belconnen Remand Centre commenced. In July 2000 clinics at Goulburn Jail commenced. In this same year a number of other programs commenced.

An Health Promotion Officer position was established; a psychiatrist was employed and a consortium comprising Winnunga, Katungal Aboriginal Corporation (Narooma) and Riverina Medical and Dental Aboriginal Cooperative (Wagga Wagga) was established as the Regional Centre on Social and Emotional Health.

Negotiations for the establishment of an outreach service to Queanbeyan began in 2000. The proposal was that Winnunga staff would deliver a clinical service based at Queanbeyan Hospital. A section of the Queanbeyan community vigorously opposed this proposal through a petition and the service never eventuated.

In January 2001 Winnunga employed a fulltime finance officer and the Midwifery Program commenced. In May 2002 an Opiate Program in partnership with the ACT Division of General Practice (ACTDGP) and funded by ACT Health commenced.

In 2004 Winnunga moved to its current premises at Boolimba Cres in Narrabundah, and employs over 60 staff. Winnunga has grown into a major health service resource for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of the ACT and surrounding region, and delivers a wide range of wholistic health care services. In 2011, Winnunga reported over 32,000 episodes of care.

Winnunga celebrated its 20th anniversary in May 2008, and continues to go from strength to strength - providing responsive, appropriate services, tailored to the needs of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.