‘Unity and Strength through Caring’: CATSINaM celebrates 25-year anniversary

Roianne West

The Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) has launched a new campaign, focusing on its powerful history of collective and individual activism, to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

From March, CATSINaM will pay tribute to its ancestors, Elders and members for the next 25 weeks by sharing a series of profile stories, films, webinars, social media posts and holding special events to mark key dates such as Close the Gap, NAIDOC Week and National Reconciliation Week. The celebrations will culminate with a national gala dinner on 20 August.

The organisation evolved from the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses (CATSIN), established in 1997 at a national forum attended by 35 Indigenous nurses.

CATSIN’s founder and first CEO was Wiradjuri academic Dr Sally Goold, who at age 17 became the first Aboriginal student nurse at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and went on to be the first Aboriginal nurse at the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service in 1972. The original aim of the national network of Indigenous nurses and midwives was to develop strategies to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in nursing.

Dr Sally Goold

Current CATSINaM CEO Professor Roianne West says Indigenous nurses and midwives draw on the strength of the organisation’s founders to face current challenges.

“Our model of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community control that our Elders and ancestors envisaged 25 years ago provides a strong foundation and the words ‘Unity and Strength through Caring’ gifted then have guided us through these turbulent times,” Professor West says.

“Strong Indigenous leadership has helped us navigate some of the profession’s most challenging times – through COVID, bushfires, floods, and Black Lives Matter.

“We are also grateful for the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives for putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nursing and midwifery on the national agenda and contributing to national debate and policy on the quality and safety of our health and education systems.”

From the Indigenous nursing pioneers excluded from hospital training because of their Aboriginality, to the nurses and midwives today demanding culturally safe workplaces and practices, Professor West says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives have long been on the frontline of health policy and Indigenous rights, often in the face of racism and discrimination.

She says Indigenous nurses and midwives are the backbone of the Australian health system and play a pivotal role towards achieving nursing and midwifery workforce and health equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

CATSINaM activists to be featured in the 25th anniversary campaign include founder Dr Sally Goold, inaugural patron Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Auntie Dulcie Flower, Auntie Jane Jones and Dr Lynore Geia.

In a video message at the launch of CATSINaM’s 25th anniversary, inaugural chair Ghungalu nurse Aunty Nola White urged current members to never lose sight of the motto ‘’Unity and Strength through Caring’.

“The motto, chosen by the founding members, means: “Unity, us all getting together; the strength would be the strength from each other; and caring because nursing is a caring profession,” Aunty Nola said.

Today, CATSINaM has almost 2,000 members and is a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Coalition of Peaks. The organisation promotes, supports and advocates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives in numerous ways, including collaborating with government and universities on nursing and midwifery workforce planning and curriculum, and targeted support, assistance and cultural safety education for university students and practising nurses and midwives.

In 2021, there were 5,037 nurses and midwives who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, accounting for only 1.3% of the nursing and midwifery workforce, yet, Indigenous people comprise 3.3% of the Australian population. About 2,500 Indigenous students at university account for 1.3% of the total nursing and midwifery student cohort.

“Attracting and retaining Indigenous nurses, midwives and university students remains a key issue for CATSINaM, as it was for our founding members,” Professor West says.

“Based on population parity of 3%, we require 5,400 Indigenous registered nurses and midwives in Australia; this is four times the number we currently have.

“We need to make it a national priority to increase our Indigenous nursing and midwifery numbers otherwise we will continue to grapple with inequities in nursing and midwifery workforce and health inequities, given the low Indigenous nursing and midwifery numbers and the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people in the health system.”

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