I know many of you will be thinking that this blog entry doesn’t have anything to do with Tropical North Queensland. And you may be right, but yesterday was a very important day in Australian history and it deserves an entry in our blog.
I’m sure that, for most of you, the term ‘Stolen Generation’ rings a bell. In case it doesn’t I tell you briefly. Throughout the early and mid 1900’s, it was not unusual for the Australian Government - under the banner of child welfare - to remove an Aboriginal child from their family, and place them either in the care of a white family, or more commonly in an orphanage. Records were poorly kept, but estimates indicate that during that period, between 10 and 30 percent of all Aboriginal children born in Australia during that period were taken from their families, a number totalling in the tens of thousands. In a small minority of cases, the separation was voluntary, with the parents conceding that they were unable to properly care for their child, or that their child could have a better future with a white family. But in many cases, children were forcibly removed by armed police officers, without any attempt to even justify the act.
Although the removal of children remained policy until 1969, public awareness of the issue seemed low. The Stolen Generation only began to gain attention in the late 1980’s through the efforts of Aboriginal activists, artists and musicians. When under scrutiny, the Australian Government - and church groups who had also had a hand in the practice - used the defence that it was done in the best interest of the children, to offer them a better life than they could have with their parents. But records show the far more sinister underlying motive of biological absorption, an attempt to ‘breed out’ the Aboriginal race. A Federal Government conference on Native Welfare, in 1937, concluded in its final report that “…the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.”
Often, the parents were not told where their children had been taken, and in many cases children and parents never saw each other again. The treatment of these children was often appalling, with up to 8 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls reporting that they were sexually abused either by staff at the orphanages, or by their foster parents. But the long term repercussions are still being felt through Australian society. Whole generations of indigenous Australians have grown up without parents or grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in many cases, not even brothers or sisters, since siblings were routinely separated. But perhaps even more tragically, they have lost the connection to their past, something which carries extreme importance in Aboriginal culture.
In 1992, as media attention and public interest began to mount, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating made the first formal acknowledgement of the Stolen Generation, by saying in a speech that “… we took the children from their mothers … It was our ignorance and prejudice.” A formal inquiry was commissioned three years later.
Between the commissioning of the National Inquiry and the release of the final report in 1997, the conservative government of John Howard had replaced the Keating government. The report proved to be a considerable embarrassment for the Howard administration, as it recommended that the Australian Government formally apologise to the affected families, a proposal actively rejected by Howard, on the grounds that a formal admission of wrongdoing would lead to massive compensation litigation. Howard was quoted as saying “Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies.” As a result Commissioner Dodson resigned from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, saying in a newspaper column that “I despair for my country and regret the ignorance of political leaders who do not appreciate what is required to achieve reconciliation for us as a nation.”
As a result of the report, formal apologies were tabled and passed in the state parliaments of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, and also in the parliament of the Northern Territory. On 26 May 1998 the first “National Sorry Day” was held, and reconciliation events were held nationally, and attended by over a million people. As public pressure continued to increase, Howard drafted a motion of “deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents” which was passed by the federal parliament in August 1999. Howard went on to say that the Stolen Generation represented “…the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.” However, some felt that his motion stopped too short of saying “sorry”, and therefore was unacceptable.
In May 2000, a “Walk for Reconciliation” was staged in Sydney, with up to 400,000 people marching across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a gesture of apology. A similar walk was staged in Melbourne later that year. In July of that year, the issue of the Stolen Generation came before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva who heavily criticised the Howard government for its manner of attempting to resolve the issues related to the Stolen Generation.
Global media attention turned again to the Stolen Generation issue during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. A large “aboriginal tent city” was established on the grounds of Sydney University to bring attention to Aboriginal issues in general. The Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman (who was chosen to light the Olympic Flame and went on to win the gold medal for the 400 metre sprint) disclosed in interviews that her own grandmother was a “victim” of forced removal. The internationally successful rock group Midnight Oil obtained worldwide media interest when they performed at the Olympic closing ceremony wearing black sweatsuits with the word “SORRY” emblazoned across them.
In November 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology on behalf of the Vatican to the affected Aboriginal families for the actions of any and all Catholic authorities or organisations in connection with the Stolen Generation.
However, Aboriginal people still felt that they needed the Prime Minister and the Parliament to say the word ‘Sorry’. And it was Kevin Rudd, the newly elected Prime Minister, who did it yesterday. And he didn’t say sorry only once, but six times.
“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry,” Rudd said.
“To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
And the apology went on…