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Back to Your Roots 2017-18

​Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I recently lost one of my favourite aunts. She was a fahu, my father’s sister, and therefore one of the highest ranking members of my family because, in Tongan culture, it is the women who hold rank. She was important to me for this reason but also for many very personal reasons.

As soon as a death has occurred in a Tongan household, all family members will be notified immediately, and they would feel a strong desire to go to the putu or funeral vigil. I am grateful that I was able to travel to participate in this observance. The days leading up to my aunt’s burial were opportunities for extended family members to bring gifts of traditional Tongan mats, intricately painted tapa cloth (called ngatu), money and other goods for the family of the deceased. Attending this vigil and giving these gifts are signs of love and respect.

The vigil was held each night over the course of several days. A big tent had been erected at my aunt’s home for this purpose, and there we all sat together singing hymns and saying prayers. We also wore black clothing covered with a very large ta’ovala, a traditional woven mat that is bound around one’s body, again as a sign of respect. In addition, close family members, including me, also had our hair cut as a sign of mourning.

As I experienced all of this, it occurred to me that there were still many aspects of my Tongan heritage that I did not completely understand. As I came to better understand these traditional ways of Tongan life, however, I found myself developing an even deeper respect for my own culture, and this in turn has strengthened my identity as a Tongan-Australian woman.

As Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs and for Families, Youth and Community Services, it is my hope that young people in the ACT will likewise feel a connection to their heritage, regardless of what their backgrounds may be. I wish to encourage them to start the personal journeys now that will lead them to better understand the significance of certain parts of their parents’ or even grandparents’ cultures.

For this reason, I have designed a formal but fun way for kids aged from 8 to 18 years to explore and then share more about their cultures. Tongan people often describe the experience that I had attending my aunt’s funeral as going ‘back to our roots’, and I therefore wish to announce the Back to Your Roots 2017–18 writing competition for all children and young people who live, study and/or work in the ACT. Entrants will learn more about their cultural heritage and then produce either an essay, a short story, a poem, song lyrics, a script or a comic that demonstrates an insightful appreciation of one or more aspects of the participant’s cultural heritage.

The purpose of this competition is to encourage youths to either connect or reconnect with the culture of their parents, grandparents or even more distant ancestors. As studies have shown, knowing and appreciating who we are and where we come from gives people an empowering sense of identity and helps to support good mental health outcomes as well.

Next week I will be launching a web site that will provide further details regarding this competition. A panel of judges will be engaged to assess submissions. And to encourage participation, there will be fun and exciting prizes for the winners.

I hope that many Canberra kids will be inspired by this Back to Your Roots writing competition to learn more about their cultural heritage and draw closer to their families … and then use their creativity to share their insights with the rest of us. I look forward to announcing the winners in February.

Thank you.

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