The Vehicle of Sport How the Murri Carnival is changing the lives of Indigenous Queenslanders

By Finn Morton

Redcliffe’s Dolphin Stadium will host the rescheduled 2020 Murri Carnival from January 18-23 next year, which promises to be another popular celebration of Rugby League and culture for Queensland’s Indigenous communities.

With COVID-19 restrictions having eased throughout the State over the past couple of months, event organisers were able to reach an agreement with Queensland Health and Queensland Rugby League to have the 10th Murri Carnival go ahead.

The Carnival will also create history of its own in January when the junior and senior Carnivals are held alongside each other for the first time. 76 teams from across seven divisions are set to take the field in Northern Brisbane, and don their communities colours and compete.

Run by the Arthur Beetson Foundation, the Carnival aims to provide a safe, healthy and educational event for its community members to attend.

"It's a Rugby League event but there are so many more elements built into this event over time that have enabled us to ensure that we provide a culturally safe, healthy environment." - Ian Lacey. Photo: Jackson Canuto.

Former Brisbane Broncos forward, Ian Lacey, is the Carnivals’ Operations Manager, and he can’t wait for the Indigenous communities from across Queensland to come together again, 15 months since their last event.

Having grown up in Inala, Lacey is fully aware of the negative perception that the suburb and others can have, but has also witnessed first-hand how the Carnival challenges these opinions.

“What the Carnival does for communities like Inala, it provides a platform for them to showcase their family and cultural heritage through the vehicle of sport,” Lacey said.

“There is such a negative persona around our communities like Inala, Cherbourg and Woorabinda, those really densely populated Aboriginal populations. A lot of our communities have lost their way to a certain degree in terms of things occurring in the community which have been the result of years of trauma, the introduction of things like alcohol, drugs and violence.

“The only shining light that has stayed constant within our communities has been sport. Sport has always been something that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have excelled at.

"It gives the communities the chance to put their community on show, and let their sport do the talking."

Even though, according to the 2016 Australian Census, Indigenous Australians only make up around three per cent of the nation’s population, there’s growing success from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country’s premier sporting codes.

The NRL reported in August that they had over 60 Indigenous men and women playing professional Rugby League, while 11 per cent of the AFL’s playing pool are Indigenous Australians according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Sport has always been something that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have excelled at." - Ian Lacey

Lacey, who also played for the Murri representative side against the United States in 2012, added that the principles of sport and the values of the Carnival have always been engrained into their culture.

“Sport has always been something that’s given our community members the ability to maintain the ability to lead a healthy life which is something that our culture has practiced for a long time.

“Back in a cultural lens, it wasn’t through practised sport, it was through hunting and gathering. Sport is the closest thing that associates with that sort of lens, so for our community members to then have that vehicle to participates in a big sporting event, the Carnival brings that element of a modern-day corroboree.”

The Murri Carnival has introduced a number of unique initiatives to promote healthy living amongst its community members. As part of their Healthy Carnival Initiative, the event has banned alcohol, drugs, sugar, and tobacco.

All participants are also required to complete a health check before playing, and all junior players also need to have followed a 90 per cent school attendance before the event.

Former NRL players Steve Renouf, Preston Campbell and Petero Civoniceva are ambassadors for the event. Photo: Jackson Canuto

While altering some of these behaviours might not have been a quick or easy process for event organisers, Lacey spoke eagerly about the need to change these habits and the negativity that they can cause, which “are things that aren’t part of our culture.”

“The Healthy Carnival Initiative around having healthy food and drink, no smoking and no drugs, you look back 10, 20 years ago, a lot of Aboriginal Carnivals had a history of alcohol sales which caused domestic violence and other things at the actual event.

“These are things that have been embedded into our culture and we had to make that stand to say that ‘these Carnivals aren’t part of that type of behaviour and if you want to participate in these types of events, it’s going to be a healthy and culturally safe event.’

“We’ve had to change the behaviours and attitudes of our community members through this Carnival, which isn’t an easy process. When you’re making mandatory requirements for participation around getting a health check, that requires people to change their behaviours.

“Historically at Aboriginal Carnivals, whether it’s Rugby League or any other sport, there had been a history of community members dying on the field just due to the fact that they weren’t seeing physicians prior to the event.

“Is there any concrete data to say that we are changing lives? No, we probably don’t have those systems in place. But just based on the feedback and the successes that we see in the Carnival, we can determine that we are making some really good changes in people’s lives that are only for the better.”

The junior division have an education day before they play where Universities, Deadly Choices and Containers for Change campaign their importance. Photo: Jackson Canuto

The Carnival in January will mark 471 days since the 2019 event finished on the 5th of October. Lacey added that the event going ahead is exciting as it'll allow people to "unwind" and "reconnect" with people that they may not have seen since.

"For people to travel outside of their communities these days is very difficult for some, so they don't get to see some of their family members or some other communities that they normally would see.

"When people lose that it does have a significant strain on their mental health and wellbeing.

"Having a Carnival like this gives them the ability to attend and connect, play some sport and practice some good health."

After January, normal timetabling is expected to resume with the junior Carnival set to take place during the June-July holidays, while the senior Carnival will be held in September or October.


Photo credit: Jackson Canuto