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Grounded in truth: reconciling the past

Michael McLeod did not take the typical route to becoming one of Australia’s senior business leaders. Here, the proud Ngarrindjeri Monaro man reflects on how social policies impacted his life path, and how he is backing Australia’s future Indigenous leaders.

I was born in 1961 and am the youngest of six siblings. At just 12 months of age, my siblings and I were removed from our mother and became wards of the state of NSW. We became part of the Stolen Generation.

I grew up in many children’s homes and foster homes. The foster families were non-Indigenous families, but they tried to ensure that I understood my culture and learnt about being an Aboriginal man. However, there was still very little taught about our culture. This was the government’s intent; it was not in their policy.

It took until my late teens to learn about my family and my Aboriginal culture. It was a long, disruptive and difficult journey.

When I was young, I was introduced to drugs and alcohol. By the time I hit my mid-20’s, I was an alcoholic and heroin addict. I became homeless, living on the streets of Sydney.

I lived that lifestyle for ten years until I was introduced to my first detox program. Here, a very caring counselor asked me: “What keeps you locked into this cycle?”

I had an epiphany. For me, it was a reliance on welfare. It kept me from looking at my future, because my existence was to live for the minute or the hour of the day where I’d get my next drug or drink – and that’s how my life was.

Life changed for me then.

I made the decision to start my own business. At the time, I was going in and out of rehab so I thought if I started my own business then I would finally become independent.

As an Aboriginal man, I wanted to do something that not many people in Australia expect and start my own business. Fifteen years ago, Message Stick was born. I partnered with Dugald Russell, a non-Aboriginal man who was from the corporate world. We joined forces and grew the business quickly.

The success of the business spring boarded me from abject poverty to financial independency and it was absolutely extraordinary.

With a lot of support from people I knew. Today, I’ve been able to keep on this path of being clean and sober and doing something as a businessman.

Now I find myself, years down the track, with some of Australia’s top corporates, and federal and state government departments as my clients. As an Indigenous entrepreneur, I have to question how can I be more relevant to Aboriginal Australia, to corporate Australia and the government. That’s the big picture for me. Illustration: Dionne Gain. Source: SMH. Illustration: Dionne Gain. Source: SMH.

Looking back on my life, I feel privileged to have met extraordinary people. I have been able to see the perspective of others, especially Aboriginal people and see what we are confronted with. To be acknowledged as the first Australians and have the rest of Australia recognise what it’s been like for us since colonisation. It has made me realise, what we are going through is a healing process and I feel privileged to participate in changing the direction of how Aboriginal people are perceived.

To break the barriers of ignorance right across Australia, it’s about employment and education. The bigger picture is making sure we continue to grow future Aboriginal Australian leaders. Our youth are what our future looks like – that is reconciliation for me.

Reconciliation Week provides the opportunity for all Australians to learn more about Aboriginal Australia and to be proud of being an Australian, the culture and the legacy. We invite the rest of Australia to be part of our society and to share in the extraordinary legacy that we have; to ensure that we don’t lose more knowledge than we have to.

This means that we never forget the past policies that fragmented Indigenous Australia and make sure it never happens again. That’s most important.

I have implicit faith in the future of Aboriginal Australia and the path we are on. We need to do what’s necessary and walk together. Reflecting on my life, I realise that without the people who have reached out to me, I wouldn’t be where I am; and that is kindness.

Kindness is non-judgmental. It is being prepared with a helping hand, regardless of one’s situation. This kindness breaks down ignorance.

I remember what my business partner said to me: “Michael, do you want the truth or do you want a little white lie?” Many people want the white lie but the truth is the kindest thing that anyone has ever said to me.

Michael McLeod

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