NSWALC Councillor Stephen Ryan

NSW Aboriginal Land Council Councillor for the Central Region 2007 - 2019.

Redfern 1983. Two men pored over a large map of NSW and a long list of cities and towns, discussing their impending travels and who they would meet with.

The two men were Stephen Ryan and Chris Kirkbright. Kirkbright was the first Registrar of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1983) which had commenced in June that year. Stephen Ryan was working with him to establish and incorporate Local Aboriginal Land Councils and the land claims process.

In fact, the men were key to the establishment of 104 Local Aboriginal Land Councils and eight Regional Aboriginal Land Councils, during the eight short months between the legislation's enactment and NSW Aboriginal Land Council's incorporation in February 1984.

Aboriginal Land Rights in NSW was an area that Stephen Ryan knew he had to be involved with.

The Thubbagah Wiradjuri man from Wellington had spent his life deeply immersed in his community, had marched for Land Rights on numerous occasions and was one of many people keeping vigil outside Parliament House in the early hours of 4 May 1983, when the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed through NSW Parliament.

He was a Project Officer with the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs at the time and quickly secured a secondment to the Office of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Those first months travelling were frantically busy, and Stephen Ryan and Chris Kirkbright spent a lot of time working out of their cars as they traversed the state.

Stephen Ryan says despite the cracking pace, the process of setting up LALC boundaries was straightforward and effective.

"Ten people in a community had to sign a request to have a Land Council set up. Chris or I would visit with detailed maps of NSW and the community would decide where they wanted their boundaries to be. Most agreed that their boundaries would go halfway to the next community. Western Region had several meetings about traditional language boundaries before agreeing, but for the most part that's how we did it."

Stephen Ryan was responsible for setting up most of the Local Aboriginal Land Councils in the Wiradjuri and Central regions, and dozens more around the state.

And it was all done without a computer.

"I had my map and Chris had his, and we took them to the Central Mapping Authority in Bathurst and told them to mark the agreed boundaries using whatever natural markers they could, such as creeks, rivers, gullies and the like. We left space for later starters like Wellington and West Wyalong, because we knew that they would want to be part of this powerful legislation."

It was with great pride that Stephen Ryan became the founding member of Dubbo LALC, and he kept up the pace for five years before abruptly leaving his work and going into what he calls self-imposed exile to deal with some personal issues.

But Stephen Ryan didn't sit completely still across his healing years.

He became Co-ordinator of Wiradjuri Regional Aboriginal Land Council 1985-86, worked in the family violence area, sat on the Board of the Wiradjuri Legal Service, was an inaugural Board member of the Aboriginal Legal Service and in 1998 became an elected Councillor in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's (ATSIC) Binaal Billa Region for two terms.

Meantime, Land Rights continued to develop and in 2007 Stephen Ryan left a long-term position with Native Title Services Corporation (NTSCORP) after successfully running for Councillor of NSWALC's Central Region.

He says the biggest job for the new Council was reuniting the Network.

"There was a lot of anger and distrust in the network as NSWALC came out of administration, and we worked hard to regain the respect of not only our Local Aboriginal Land Councils, but government. We consulted communities and gradually broke through the grievances to help LALCs work with us to comply with the Act."

Stephen Ryan believes the government's 2011/2012 ALRA review process was a serious challenge for the Network which led to one of its greatest achievements, an increasingly focused Economic Development strategy.

"Setting aside funds for economic development and setting up the NSWALC Community Fund were positive directions. Finally, the more disadvantaged LALCs had better access to resources for land and land management."

Proud recent memories include being Chair of the Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations (CAPO), sitting on the NSW Government's Aboriginal Taskforce in 2012, and NSWALC's 30 Year Statewide Conference in 2013, where LALCs were invited to contribute on stage for the first time.

"I was NSWALC Chair at the time and had pledged to ensure that LALCs were given time to engage in a meaningful way, as they told us they wanted to."

Stephen Ryan is a man who's spent his life working for his community and remains adamant that the powerful legislation of 40 years ago, continues to play a crucial role in self-determination and prosperity.

He leaves NSWALC with a world of achievements behind him and his continuing hopes for Aboriginal advancement.

"Representing the Central Region as a NSWALC Councillor has been a privilege. I've enjoyed my time and look forward to the next Council continuing to progress the Land Rights network and all communities' prosperity. And for our youth, my message is to learn all you can about Land Rights so you and your children can receive the benefits it can provide."