Australia

Tanya Day inquest: 'Systemic racism' played part in Aboriginal woman's custody death

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A lawyer representing the family of an Aboriginal woman who died in police custody in Victoria says racism played a role in her arrest and death.

Systemic racism played a part in the death of Aboriginal woman Tanya Day in Victoria Police custody, her family's lawyer says.

Tanya Day, a mother, grandmother and Yorta Yorta woman, was taken off a train and arrested for being drunk in a public place in December 2017.

While in custody the 55-year-old hit her head five times and eventually died from a brain haemorrhage.

Family members, including Tanya's daughter Apryl Watson (centre), march to the Coroners Court after smoking ceremony in Kings Domain Park.
Family members, including Tanya's daughter Apryl Watson (centre), march to the Coroners Court after smoking ceremony in Kings Domain Park.
AAP

An inquest into Ms Day's death began in Melbourne in Monday.

The lawyer acting on behalf of her family said there was no doubt racism played a role in her arrest.

"She was vulnerable not simply because she consumed alcohol, she was vulnerable because of who she was," Peter Morrissey SC told the inquest.

"There is no doubt that there was a failure. The extent of it will be looked at."

Mr Morrissey said there were other options rather than arresting Ms Day at Castlemaine station.

A smoking ceremony is held at Kings Domain Park in Melbourne.
A smoking ceremony is held at Kings Domain Park in Melbourne.
AAP

The three-week inquest before coroner Caitlin English will look at whether racism was a factor in Ms Day's treatment and ultimate death - a first for a Victorian coroner - after successful campaigning by Ms Day's family.

The proceedings were opened by Ms Day's uncle Colin Walker, who performed a welcome to country.

"Tanya Day is my niece, a beautiful young woman who's life was taken away from her," he said.

"They failed her duty of care and neglected her. They never went near her for hours. She was never violent."

Before a three-week inquest into her death starting on Monday before coroner Caitlin English, Ms Day's family and friends took part in a traditional smoking ceremony at a nearby park to honour her and other Aboriginal lives lost in police custody.

They are calling for CCTV footage of Ms Day's time in custody to be made public.

Our mum should be alive today.

"Our mum should be alive today. We know that racism played a role in mum's death and that Victoria Police failed her. We want truth and accountability through this coronial inquest," her daughter Belinda Stevens told reporters on Monday.

"Our mother had so much more love and life to give - to us, to her grandchildren and to the broader community."

After the smoking ceremony, the group marched to the Coroner's Court for the start of the inquest, which will look at whether racism was a factor in Ms Day's treatment and ultimate death - a first for a Victorian coroner - after successful campaigning by Ms Day's family.

Aboriginal women are more likely to be targeted by police for being drunk in public than non-Aboriginal women, Ms Stevens said.

Ms English has been investigating Ms Day's death for some time, and in December last year, she called for the state government to abolish the offence of being drunk in public.

On Thursday, the Andrews government announced it would do so. A new health-based model will replace it, promoting therapeutic and culturally appropriate ways to assist alcohol-affected people in public places.

Family of Tanya Day
The family of Tanya Day during a rally in Melbourne on Saturday, January 26.
Charendev Singh

Ms Day's daughter Belinda Stevens welcomed the commitment but said it shouldn't have come at the cost of her mother's life.

"It's not good enough in this day and age that Aboriginal people are targeted by such a racist law," she told ABC Melbourne radio on Thursday.

"People go to the footy they have a drink and they'll get on public transport and get home, or they'll go to the races and get themselves into quite a state but they are not victims of this law."

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