So much to be sorry for
March 26 is National Sorry Day in Australia. It was instigated following a report* entitled Bringing Them Home, tabled in 1997. The report made 54 recommendations including healing initiatives, reparations and a formal apology for those affected by the policy of forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities – between the late 1800s and the 1970s – in the name of 'assimilation' and 'protection'.
These children become known as the 'Stolen Generations'. The children were raised in institutions or fostered by non-Indigenous families. Few were allowed visits from their families; most were so far away as to make that impossible. Such removal was official government policy until 1969, although the practice didn't stop then. In fact, it is alleged that these days far more Aboriginal children are removed from their homes than during the Stolen Generations, except that now they're described as being in 'out of home care'.
Some victims never recovered from the trauma of losing their family and the isolation from their culture and the all-important connection to country. Long-lost family members are still being reunited by means of organisations such as Link-Up Queensland which, as well as helping people search for and reunite with their relatives, provides counselling for those suffering from the trauma of separation.
The following day, the 27th, is also a significant day, being the anniversary of the referendum in 1967 in which Australians voted to include Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in the census and to empower the Australian government to legislate on behalf of those peoples. It took a number of years, however, for the government to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal people. Gough Whitlam established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1972, and in 1975 he gave the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory the title deeds to part of their traditional lands.
The 27th marks the start of National Reconciliation Week, a time to celebrate shared culture, history and achievement towards reconciling the peoples of Australia. Each year there is a theme, and for 2016 it is Our History, Our Story, Our Future. June 3 marks the end of that week and is the date of the famous Mabo decision in the High Court in 1992 that upheld the native title rights of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders over their lands post British colonisation. Eddie Mabo from the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait had challenged two assumptions under Australian law: that Indigenous peoples had no concept of land ownership before colonisers arrived in 1788, making the continent and its islands terra nullius, land belonging to no one; and that British sovereignty gave ownership of the land to the Crown and abolished any rights that might have existed previously.
The journey towards Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continues. Link-Up counsellors are still busy soothing the pain of the Stolen Generations, and not all the Bringing Them Home
recommendations have been realised. Debate rages about precisely where Reconciliation should go from here, and opinions are divided. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in Australia's constitution (see here) is one of the thornier issues still requiring national debate.
A formal apology for past mistreatment was made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 (below, the plaque in King George Square, Brisbane: click on image to read).
It included a proposal for a commission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of educational achievement, health equality and life expectancy, and economic opportunity. That gap is still considerable. I quote from journalist Stan Grant's speech as part of an Intelligence Squared debate in October 2015.
My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians, and we are far from free. We are fewer than three per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent, a quarter, of those Australians locked up in our prisons, and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.
If you are tempted to conclude that Indigenous people should 'move on' from, or 'get over' two centuries of mistreatment and disadvantage, then read Stan Grant's book published earlier this year, Talking to My Country. It makes for sobering reading, but you will be enlightened about how it feels to be an Indigenous person – even an enormously successful one – in Australia in 2016.
It is not my intention to insult my host country, but many Australians have a lot to learn about Indigenous culture and experience. I have learned a huge amount, especially from other recent publications. Lesley and Tammy Williams's Not Just Black and White tells of Lesley being sent away from home by the Queensland government to work as a domestic servant, aged 15. This was in the 1960s. Her wages were kept in trust by the government even though she didn't know she had earned them until years later. Her nine-year battle to claim back her 'savings' presented an almost bigger challenge than being separated from her family. Her enormous courage resulted in a more than $55 million reparation package for Indigenous workers in Queensland.
The case for greater attention to 'Our History' is made starkly by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu Black Seeds, recent winner of a NSW Premier's Literary Award. Pascoe systematically destroys the myth of a continent populated by hunter-gathering roamers prior to colonisation. Based on evidence from explorers, drovers and early settlers, he describes the construction of permanent dwellings, dams, wells and storage facilities; the cultivation of grain, the baking of bread, and the transformation of unpalatable plants into everyday staples; large-scale fishing methods; conservation, economics and spirituality. He has to conclude that deliberate and concerted denial of experience combined with wilful destruction and massacre was employed to justify the seizure of a land from its rightful occupants. The obliteration of facts has been perpetuated. 'Such is the tenacity of the Australian delusion', Pascoe says, 'it encourages an impoverished national debate.'
It was a glorious late-autumn day in Brisbane as we gathered to commemorate National Sorry Day in King George Square. It was a solemn and moving affair. What on earth was I doing there, you might ask. I was there in solidarity, I suppose, with a people sorely wronged in the past and still waiting for their chance at a fair go.
* The report was produced by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, established by federal Attorney-General Michael Lavarch (Labor) in 1995