Turning trauma into a life of fighting against injustice

Queensland Indigenous barrister Joshua Creamer. Picture: Sian Donazzon.
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Indigenous barrister Joshua Creamer converted his suffering into strength to help others. Sian Donazzon reports.

Joshua Creamer has come a long way since a childhood filled with trauma.

The welcoming look on his face hides it, but the Waanyi and Kalkadoon man faced domestic violence and racism, and had to step into paternal shoes from a young age.

The 38-year old runs his own legal practice in Queensland, fighting for Indigenous rights to ensure a better Australia for the disadvantaged. 

One of only 16 Indigenous barristers in the country, Mr Creamer is inspiring other Indigenous people all around the nation.

His humble beginnings in Mt Isa were ruled by domestic violence. “[My family] all had PTSD and trauma associated with [the domestic violence situation]. As the oldest of four, I took on the responsibility of helping my mum and siblings. You feel like you have an ongoing obligation to help … it was a really big shift,” he says.

“I used to say that I was basically in a domestic violence relationship: I went through a divorce and I raised three kids.”

Mr Creamer then thought only one future career awaited him. “Growing up in Mt Isa, it was a given [to work in the mines],” he says. “You see your friends and family all working there, so that’s where you expect to end up.”

Mr Creamer with Judge Nathan Jarro, the first Indigenous judge in Queensland, Tony McAvoy SC, Australia’s first Indigenous silk, and Mr Creamer’s wife, Cr Kara Cook. Picture supplied

Laughing now, Mr Creamer says his girlfriend at the time was the one person who pushed him into tertiary study at Griffith University.

But it was his three-year involvement in the Oxfam International Youth Parliament that turned him towards studying law.

“It was the flame that lit the torch,” he says. “Over 300 young people [gathered] from all around the world, [with] maybe 50 Australians.

“That was the first time that I was ever in a group with people my own age who were interested in the same things that I was: social justice, human rights … I think I heard the word ‘sustainability’ for the first time while I was there.

“Going to school in central Queensland where all the kids just cared about football … no one’s sitting around and talking about Indigenous rights or human rights, so that [experience] was really empowering.”

As a young boy, he always read the paper, stayed on top of the news and wanted to bring justice to other disadvantaged people. He didn’t want people in the community to face the same struggles with discrimination he had.

I would go to work every day and they would call me a c— or a n—–, and this was all while I was [studying law] at uni.

Mr Creamer says direct and indirect racism are huge issues in Australia. “That’s definitely been a factor in the things I’m passionate about in my work.”

He specialises in human rights class actions and native title law and has worked on two landmark cases – the Palm Island Case, which helped to remedy racial discrimination, and Stolen Wages QLD, which improved Indigenous human rights. 

From the successful Palm Island case.

Mr Creamer says he has at least six more legal cases in the works aimed to amend Australia’s indirect racism.

“In my view, institutional injustice and the indirect racism [faced by Indigenous people] was entirely created by legislation with prohibitions of education [and] retainment of property.” he says.

“There’s much more work to be done.”

Graham White, director of Sector Engagement and Communications at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in Queensland, says there’s a need for Indigenous Australians such as Mr Creamer to have a voice in the legal system. 

“[Indigenous Australians] are best placed to understand the historical factors and social and economic disadvantage that First Nations people have had to deal with,” Mr White says.

It provides clients with a face that they can relate to and make an instant connection through culture and families.

Mr Creamer sees himself as a role model for other young Indigenous people and wants his work to show them it’s possible to rise up and achieve your dreams.

“I hope my story is [one] that a lot of people can relate to,” says Mr Creamer. “I’m no one remarkable – I just had the opportunities and I made the most of them.”

“I hope young people also use their own opportunities to empower themselves and [reach] their own goals,” he says.

Curveballs have been thrown at Mr Creamer throughout his life, yet he recognises the greater issues of Indigenous injustice and the need to rise above his own hardships to help others like him.

“I could have this amazing legal career, but if I don’t do anything to address Indigenous disadvantage, then what’s the point of it?”

Mr Creamer will be part of an expert panel hosted by Swinburne Law School on Friday, November 6, for the webinar Spotlight on the Discrimination against Indigenous Australians in the Criminal Justice System.