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Pat, John Peter (1966–1983)

by Noel Olive

This article was published:

John Peter Pat (1966–1983), Aboriginal youth, was born on 31 October 1966 at Roebourne, Western Australia, eldest of three children of Mavis Pat, an Aboriginal domestic worker.  Len Walley, a labourer, was his father.  John spent his early childhood on Mount Florence station, in Fortescue River country, with an extended family steeped in Yindjibarndi culture.  When he was 9, Mavis, her partner Mick Lee and the children moved to Roebourne and settled on the reserve.  He attended the local school.  The reserve closed in 1975 and the community was forcibly relocated to the 'Aboriginal village', a State Housing Commission project.  Families, compelled to live side by side with people of other Indigenous cultures, fragmented, and the village became a place of tensions.  Alcohol abuse was widespread and the police conducted frequent patrols.  On leaving school Pat worked for two months as a station hand on Pyramid station.  Back at Roebourne and unemployed, he was soon abusing alcohol.  At 14 he was found guilty of assaulting a police officer and at 15 he was convicted again, for the same offence.  He was brought before the local Magistrate’s Court on several occasions on charges relating to liquor.

On 28 September 1983 several members of the Roebourne police force attended a meeting of the Western Australian Police Union of Workers at Karratha.  They adjourned to the local golf club for drinks, and then proceeded to the Top Bar of the Victoria Hotel at Roebourne.  A brawl broke out between the off-duty police officers and a group of Aborigines, including Pat, outside the bar.  Aboriginal witnesses later alleged that an officer kicked Pat in the head as he lay on the road.  On-duty officers were called, arrested Pat and four other Aborigines, and took them to the police station, where Pat died that night.  He was buried in the Protestant portion of the local cemetery on 5 November.

The coroner, D. A. McCann, found on 6 February 1984 that Pat had died of a 'closed head injury suffered during a disturbance in Padbury Street, Roebourne'.  Pat had also suffered two broken ribs and a torn aorta.  Four police officers and a police aide were charged with manslaughter; tried in the Supreme Court of Western Australia at Karratha in May 1984, they were acquitted by an all-White jury and reinstated to duty.  No disciplinary action was taken against any police officer.

The circumstances of Pat’s death were investigated by the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, established in 1987.  In his 1991 report Commissioner Elliott Johnston, QC, found that Pat’s fatal injury occurred in the fight in the street and not in the cells.  Pat had fallen backwards, hitting his head on the road.  Johnston declared that 'the action of the out of uniform and off duty police officers was . . . unprecedented and ill-advised given the state of Aboriginal/police relations in Roebourne' and that a particular officer’s actions were 'ill-advised, unprofessional and provocative'.  Although critical of the way in which those arrested had been removed from the police vehicle at the lock-up, he concluded that no police officer 'had used excessive force . . . or committed any criminal act'.  Pat’s death became for Aboriginal people a symbol of injustice and oppression.  The Aboriginal poet, Jack Davis, wrote John Pat (1988).  The John Pat Memorial Day for Deaths in Custody is observed each year with a ceremony at the old Fremantle Prison.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Davis, John Pat and Other Poems (1988)
  • E. Johnston, Report of the Inquiry Into the Death of John Peter Pat (1991)
  • N. Olive, Enough is Enough (2007)
  • Alternative Law Journal, vol 17, no 1, 1992, p 32
  • West Australian, 24 May 1984, p 1

Citation details

Noel Olive, 'Pat, John Peter (1966–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 4 December 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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