Sadie Canning - super nurse

Sadie Canning (nee Corner) was Western Australia's first Aboriginal nurse. She was a member of the Stolen Generations and grew up at Mount Margaret Mission in the north eastern goldfields.

Sadie Canning's outstanding contribution and devoted service to nursing, improving facilities and indigenous healthcare in Western Australia was recognised in the Queens' Birthday Honours in 1964 when she was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire). She was a Justice of the Peace and also served on many committees. In 1977, she received a QEII Silver Jubilee Medal for her service to country nursing in Western Australia. In her retirement, she was a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the State Reconciliation Committee. She also served on the Australian Children's Trust Board and was a patron of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses.

Sadie sat down with a State Library of Western Australia oral historian Stuart Reid to tell her story in 1996. You can access Sadie's oral history on the State Library catalogue, including a transcript. The transcript below is of the ABC Radio interview.

ABC Radio Perth's Hilary Smale recently interviewed Stuart on the life of the amazing Sadie Canning.

You can also check out a fantastic Facebook story on Sadie's oral history, complete with photographs.


HS: Well, for History Repeated today firstly I would just like to warn Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners that the following conversation will contain audio of a person who has died.

I wonder if you are familiar with the name Sadie Canning or Sadie Corner. Last year you probably heard that the seat of Canning which was originally named after Alfred Wernam Canning was jointly named in honour of Sadie Miriam Canning MBE. Sadie was an Aboriginal woman who defied the odds and even though she wasn’t allowed to train as a nurse in WA at the time, she found a way. She was the voice of many who were voiceless.

Stuart Reid had the privilege of sitting down with Sadie Canning for the WA State Library back in 1996 and interviewing her, Stuart is with you for History Repeated this afternoon.

Welcome to ABC Perth and WA, Stuart.

Stuart Reid: Thank you very much. Thank you.

HS: Great to meet you.

SR: It really was a privilege to be able to sit down with Sadie. She is a wonderful lady and a great host.

Someone actually posted on the stories on Facebook about the articles posted by the Library just recently, that they would love to have sat down with her and had a cup of tea and I feel really privileged that I was one of those who was able to do that.

HS: You were able to do that.

SR: Yes.

HS: Because you would speak to so many people as part of your work as an oral historian, but she was one that stood out to you?

SR: Yes, indeed. Partly it was the extraordinary nature of her story and the journey of her life, but also the kinds of contributions that she made. She made significant contributions to nursing particularly at Leonora where she was a nurse for many years and then matron of the hospital for 20 years, so she made a great contribution in that respect, but also through as an advisor to government on a variety of different bodies and forums. She made a real impact I think over her life.

HS: Where was Sadie born? Where did she grow up?

SR: So, she was born at…in the Goldfields. Her mother…She described her mother as a nomadic, tribal woman. Her father was a German man and she had never met her father, so she was born in 1930 and at that stage, any children who were born with a white father and Aboriginal mother were vulnerable to be taken away and that’s what happened with her when she was four years old. So, at four she and her older sister were taken to Mount Margaret Mission and that’s really where she had her education, where she grew up, where she became a Christian which was a really important part of her identity. The way she put it to me was that when she was baptised, she took on Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour and she actually meant Saviour and she spoke about this, Saviour in both the context of saving her soul but also saving her from some aspects of that life that she would otherwise have lived and the phase she used to me was, “I may not have had the opportunity to do many of things I’ve been able to do” but really, she also said her main concern was that she would have been married off to an old man as his third or fourth or fifth wife and that was really what upset her most about the….or what led her to value the alternative, which was the bringing up at Mount Margaret Mission.

HS: Well, let’s hear some of your conversation with Sadie and this is her talking about her early life at Mount Margaret Mission:

To my recollection, Mount Margaret seemed to be quite a happy place to me, you know, my recollection of Mount Margaret. Now there was always sort of singing and so on going around, you know, even though I wasn’t sort of involved in it as a child. You could hear other people and older people singing and they used to have other ...sing songs outside the shop and so on. I guess I must have cried, you know, being away from mother and my father but I didn’t recall those things. And we’re sort of in a dormitory and all the kids were all there together, you know, all our…age group we used to classify as the big girls, the intermediates and the little girls, you know, so there was three sort of groups.”

HS: So that’s Sadie Canning speaking to you.

What’s it like hearing her voice again?

SR: Oh, it sends shivers up my spine. It really did.

HS: Did she continue to have a relationship with her mother even after they were separated?

SR: Yes, yes, so her mother as she said was nomadic so when she would come back through Leonora, she would come to the mission and they would speak through the fence. So, it was…it was a restricted kind of relationship for many years.

HS: So that was the only way she was able to have that conversation with her was through a fence.

SR: Yes, but she retained her language which became very important for her later as a nurse…Leonora, to be that bridge between the doctor in the early days and the matron and the Aboriginal people coming into the hospital. They were allowed to…sorry, they weren’t allowed to speak their language in the classroom but they were in the mission, so the children would speak their language amongst themselves and exchange stories so she was able to learn Aboriginal cultural matters…traditional cultural matters through that and also through an old man who would come to the fence as well and talk to the children through the fence about who they were, who they were related to, what their skin names were and the other kinds of traditional knowledge that he conveyed to them so she was able to retain her identity in both worlds.

HS: When did Sadie become interested in nursing?

SR: Well, I think it was when she was around 14, the matron at the hospital took her under her wing and started to show her how to do various things like bandages and sutures and some basic nursing things. And she was there through till she was 18 and by this stage, she was convinced that that’s what she wanted to do. That was her career. She was going to be a nurse but there was no training in nursing for Aboriginal people here in Western Australia. It just wasn’t an option. So, she went to Melbourne and trained in a hospital in Melbourne for three years, got her qualifications and graduated as a nurse there and then did a further year at the Salvation Army Maternity Hospital (the home for unmarried mothers) and she did a year there of midwifery and maternity nursing and that was a shocking experience for her. The babies in those days were taken away. So, the unmarried mothers would sometimes come there as soon as they knew they were pregnant and be hidden away from their families. We’re talking sort of early fifties I guess…late…yes…early fifties and then they would stay there until they had their baby and then as soon as the baby was born, it was taken from them, so they wouldn’t even see the baby and this was terribly upsetting for Sadie.

HS: And she was working as a nurse?

SR: As a midwife.

HS: As a midwife.

SR: Learning to getting…the midwifery qualification there. So, she was there for a year and then did child health nursing as well. I think it was 6 months before coming back to Western Australia. Yes, to work as a nurse.

HS: It’s 20 minutes past 2. You’re on ABC Radio Perth and Western Australia.

Hilary Smale with you this afternoon and talking to Stuart Reid who is a history interviewer and he had the privilege of speaking to Sadie Canning some years back and recording her story and as you…hearing Sadie was a remarkable person who trained over in Melbourne to become Western Australia’s first Aboriginal nurse and left her amazing legacy as well for her work here in Western Australia and particularly in Leonora.

Can you tell us Stuart more about her returning to the bush and working in the nursing field?

SR: Yes, so she came back initially and worked at Bethesda Hospital in Claremont and then at, I think a maternity hospital in Fremantle, before deciding that the bush was where she wanted to be and so she went back to Leonora to work as a nurse.

Now, the hospital at that time was quite a busy place. You had…it was between Gwalia and Leonora and Gwalia was a mining township so there was you know there were mining accidents and all kind of interesting cases and about 30 people in the hospital at any one time, so it was reasonably busy. She tells some funny stories about that. One which I suppose wasn’t very funny for the person involved but they had someone brought in whose arm had been blown off in an explosion and when the police and his mates went out to the bush to find the arm, they couldn’t find it.

HS: Oh my gosh.

SR: And the rationale, the sort of understanding was that probably the blokes didn’t want to find it because what they’d been doing was they’d stolen a safe some time before and they were actually trying to blow it open. But it blew his arm off [laughs].

HS: Oh wow, and that’s what caused the accident? Is this on the mine?

SR: No, no this was out in the bush somewhere.

HS: Out and about [giggles]

SR: So she told stories about some of the difficult things with humour, so she talked about following an industrial accident she had when she broke her arm and she just laughed and said, “Ah, I just put up…I didn’t get them to take me to Kalgoorlie, I just put up with it and waited for the doctor because I knew he was coming in the next day.”

HS: That’s a classic person who works in the medical field. They don’t worry about themselves so much do they? Amazing. Can you tell me more about when she got the opportunity to actually start making some changes for Aboriginal people?

SR: For Aboriginal people at that time, they wouldn’t go into the wards of the hospital. They would be looked after on the verandas. Now, I don’t know if you know how hot it gets out at Leonora? I’m sure many of your listeners do, but it gets really cold in winter as well. So, it was problematic in all kinds of ways, so one of the things she was able to do once she became matron, was to have Aboriginal women give birth to their babies in the hospital…in the ward…the maternity ward proper. So, that was one of the things that she was able to change. There were simple things that were actually quite difficult to change. One was that the bedding there, they had these horsehair mattresses that the Aboriginal patients would sleep on and she was badgering the board to get some decent mattresses and they just wouldn’t spend the money. Then the wife of one of the board members came into the hospital for a few days so she gave her one of these mattresses and that was the end of that.

HS: Wow.

SR: The board then approved the mattresses for the hospital.

HS: So she was…

SR: She got things done.

HS: Did she get recognised for that kind of work while she was still alive and…

SR: Yes, yes she did. In 1964…and not just for that work, but for the other work she did, she got an MBE. She had other roles in the community as well, so she set up an organisation called LAMB (Leonora Aboriginal Movement Body) which was a self-determination organisation in the early seventies. She was an original member of the Aboriginal Lands Trust and that was an all-star - like looking back at the names like Albert Barunga, Jack Davis, Peter Coppin and Ernie Bridge and Sadie Canning.

HS: Yes, she’s there.

SR: I would have loved to have been in the room with that…at that meeting. So, she made an enormous contribution…she got the…and some recognition; the Silver Jubilee Medal in ‘77 was one. But she was regularly called on to sit on taskforces and she was actually on Gough Whitlam’s social welfare commissioner as one of seven commissioners; the only Aboriginal commissioner that was looking at reform of the whole social welfare system in Australia and they were just about to bring in their sort of report when the change of government came in and that all changed but many of the things I’m sure that she identified have since become part of the mainstream thinking about what should happen in social welfare.

HS: For people who just want to learn more about Sadie and the legacy she’s left here in Western Australia, particularly in the nursing field, what would you recommend?

SR: Well, I would start by going to the Library…State Library’s Facebook page because they just recently produced these three little stories I guess they are, with…summarising Sadie’s stories and they are sort of episodic and if you…I’d recommend even looking at the comments because they are so lovely. You’ve got people saying, “Oh, she must have been the matron when I was born there in 1960….”

HS: Oh wow, yes.

SR: So, you’ve got things like that. And nurses who worked with her praising the quality of her nursing or as a matron. So, that is really good. And then if that really captures your imagination, go the next step and have a look at the original transcript or even listen to the interview which I understand is now available as well.

HS: Yes, it’s fantastic just hearing people’s voices and in their own words, isn’t it?

SR: Yes. Yes, there’s several hours of her talking about her life.

HS: Yes, well you’re a very privileged person to have that cup of tea with Sadie. Thanks so much for coming in Stuart.

SR: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it very much.

HS: Stuart Reid, history interviewer there and as you heard, he spoke to Sadie Canning about her life and the work she did here as an Aboriginal nurse in Western Australia. The first to have the opportunity to do that and as you heard you can find more through the State Library of Western Australia.

26 past 2.

You’re on ABC Perth and WA. I’ll have news headlines for you in just a moment.


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