Nancy McGinness


When I hear that and see that they still remember me after all these years, I realise what a difference I made to those girl’s lives.

As a Teacher’s Aide and volunteer in the Cairns community for decades, Nancy has helped generations of women across her community – often across the same family.

My mum was born over at Yarrabah and my Dad is from the Cape. He was actually a stockman in the North over Chillagoe way.

I was born outside of Edmonton and my family used to live up at Rice Creek where the cane farmers are – they actually gave my family a bit of the land there to work for them.

My Grandparents and parents all lived there but I was born coming down from the hills. They called an ambulance to come get Mum, but I was born before I got to hospital. Although I was born miles out of Cairns, we always say that I’m a Cairns girl.

We lived on a farm with my parents and my four brothers and one sister. My sister and I are still alive, but the others are all gone now. We had a lovely time on the farm, we all grew up there. We never went anywhere, we only went to the movies on a Saturday and played our sports.

When we was growing up, we went to a little school that only had one room and it had all the kids from prep right up to Grade 7. All the students were families of cane farmers, so we had mixture of cultures including Italians and Japanese students.

I have two children of my own – a boy and a girl and now my Grandchildren have started having kids – I guess I’m a Great Grandmother now!


Tell us about your community work in Cairns

I worked at the Parramatta School as a teacher’s aide. I worked there for around ten years, and part of my role was to give the Indigenous kids breakfast if they didn’t have. I also used to take the names of the kids who came to school without lunch and made sure they had something to eat as well.

The Mothers would often come in as well and have a talk with us and a cup of tea with us in the morning when they dropped their kids off. Then we used to have the big festival there, with different Islands up there and come down and have a big dancing event at the Parramatta School – it was great to see such a mixture of culture there.

It’s actually amazing to see the ones who left that school go on to High School, become parents themselves, and then come back down and bring their kids to school.

I also used to work with the Housing Co-Op, Kozan – it’s a housing organisation for Indigenous people. I joined there in 1980 and I finished up in 2005 and I was Vice-Chair and Chairperson there for over a decade.

I had a good team there to guide me because I was just shoved in those Board positions. I was too quiet to know what was going on but I learnt from them all. It was very rewarding as we had so many houses for Indigenous people, and later on we set up a scheme where they could buy their houses.

What does NAIDOC Week mean to you?

My husband’s father, Joe McGinness, was very active in the community with NAIDOC and we also participated in the celebration.

My nieces also work in the community sector and contribute a lot to NAIDOC celebrations, so I help out a bit with making jewellery. I do struggle though as I’ve got Leukaemia and have just finished a round of treatment.

I used to go down and help look after the Elders during the marches, and I’d also be cooking at Koonyum as well. I don’t go to the ball or anything though as I’m too shy for that.

I do like to celebrate culture with kids. At the school, all the kids were Aboriginal. We used to take the kids out and a group of us would teach them Island and Aboriginal dances.

I used to make the costumes for them at school, and my Island friend used to sew as well. She actually couldn’t sew before this, but she learned how to sew once we were finished with her.

All the kids we worked with see me around Cairns a lot. If I’m out shopping or something they always call out ‘Grandma’ to me.