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Inquest into the death of Aunty Tanya Day — how did we get here?

The inquest, running until September 13, is the culmination of twenty months of intensive advocacy and investigations. How did we get here?

On a crisp late-August morning on Kulin Country, two figures carried the smoking coals of the branches and leaves of eucalypts from Kings Domain Resting Place to the Victorian Coroners Court.

The smoke drifted over a crowd of some sixty supporters, reporters and family members.

Image credit: Charandev Singh

Apryl Watson held close to her chest a picture of her mother, Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day.

Over the coming weeks, that picture will sit in front of the bench of Coroner Caitlin English, before a flitting crowd of lawyers, family members, supporters, and journalists. As Coroner English sat, family and supporters did not stand.

The inquest, running until September 13, is the culmination of twenty months of intensive advocacy and investigations.

How did we get here?

Tanya Day is remembered as a person who fought for her people her entire life, as someone who loved deeply and lived her life to its fullest.

In her children and grandchildren she instilled resilience, passion and strength.

Her family embody all of these qualities and it is through their unrelenting fight to withstand every barrier to justice, along with their brave and sustained advocacy, that the coronial inquiry into her death is being heard this week.

At Invasion Day protests in 2017 in Melbourne, community members along with Aunty Tanya’s family harnessed the growing public attention around January 26 to platform her case.

Aunty Tanya Day’s family led the march.

They wore t-shirts bearing their mother’s image.

They asked us to remember her name.

Image credit: Charandev Singh

Behind her family, a row of people held placards bearing the photos of other Indigenous people who had died in police custody. They detailed names, ages, dates, places and circumstances of the deaths.

Her children and grandchildren stood together and addressed the 50,000 strong crowd from the back of union truck. While police tried to shut the address down and move the protest on, family and supporters moved through the crowd, clipboards in hand, gathering signatures for the petition to end public drunkenness in Victoria.

The petition would also be taken door knocking through inner Melbourne.

Just four days before the inquest, the Victorian Government announced that it would decriminalise public drunkenness.

Around the same time, the family printed a second run of t-shirts. On the back of these shirts, her grandchildren had drawn bayadherra (The Yorta Yorta totem, the long-neck turtle) with the words ‘Love you Nan’.

Anyone sitting behind the family would see how her grandchildren will remember her — while witnesses, lawyers and the Coroner would see Aunty Tanya Day herself.

Over the last two years, the family have been engaged in endless public addresses, panels and interviews.

They have carried the end to public drunkenness petition everywhere including events and concerts. These emotive appearances have been tempered with work in the Coroners Court to prepare for the inquest — including a recently failed application to remove the investigating police officer.

In the two weeks leading up to the inquest, the family extended an invitation to all of the community to come to meetings held in Echuca and in Preston.

On the flyer, they wrote that “we value the community’s support”. The meetings were to give an update and to prepare people about what was going to happen and what they would be witnessing at the inquest over the coming weeks.

Apryl Watson told the attendees at meetings just how much her mum loved the colour pink.

At the Preston meeting she laughingly spoke of how her mum came to her granddaughter Kirrawai’s birthday party in pink high heels. Her mum’s nails were always painted pink. She told the room that her mum was wearing pink activewear on December 5, the day she boarded the train to Melbourne to visit her daughter Kimberely.

In her mum’s memory, Apryl explained, pink ribbons were going to be handed out for supporters to wear in court.

Yorta Yorta Elder and Tanya’s Uncle, Colin Walker, explained to the court that he was 85 and had lived on Cumergunga Mission his whole life. His niece Tanya, he told the court, was not doing anything wrong, was not violent and never had been. He told us how he had bought sand from one of Tanya’s favourite places, Dhungalla, whose river banks she walked when she needed respite, rejuvenation and healing.

Her footsteps, Uncle Colin told the court, were in the sand he bought today, and that sand which held her steps would be returned to those same river banks once the proceedings were concluded in mid-September.

Coronial inquests’ terms and scope are determined by the matter that is being investigated and determined.

What makes these next few weeks especially remarkable as an inquest is that the inquest can consider systemic racism as playing a role in Aunty Tanya Day’s death.

If her family are heard, as they wish to be by the court, this will also be an opportunity for the inquest to critically examine how the colony relies on structures, not just direct prejudice, to dehumanise Indigenous people.

If this inquiry is a testament to anything, it’s the continuation of the long fight Aunty Tanya Day had fought while she was alive.

Image credit: Charandev Singh

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