a little east of reality

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

today we finally say sorry

Whoever said ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’ really didn’t understand people very well. Relationships are destroyed by people who can’t, or won’t, say sorry when they should.

In the wider world it’s even more complicated. Sometimes we even need to say sorry for things we didn’t personally do. There are several aspects to this kind of apology. Partly it expresses sorrow for suffering – we’re sorry that happened, we’re sorry you were hurt by it. Partly it’s about calling to account past perpetrators in the only way possible. We’re sorry they did that and we as their modern equivalent will represent them in this apology. Partly it’s an acknowledgment that wrongs were committed at all and a declaration that we do not condone those wrongs. All of those aspects were addressed today when the current Australian government apologised to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

All Australians know that the land in which we live was taken from people who lived here first. It's a historical characteristic shared by most developed nations. I think this is seen by many as having happened so long ago that it’s not relevant. However, not only do the consequences of that history still affect indigenous Australians today, but white Australia’s crimes against its Aboriginal peoples are also a lot more recent than that. Today’s apology specifically acknowledges the suffering of the ‘Stolen Generations’. These were part-indigenous children (in some cases children who simply looked part-indigenous) who were taken from their families under an assimilation policy that started in the early 1900s and was still official practice as late as the early 1970s. Some kids were fostered into white families, most went to group homes until they were old enough to be sent out as domestics or farmhands, with any money they earned being sent to the home. This FAQ from the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission website is brilliant and explains the facts of the policy and practices, and also the surrounding issues.

In the years after the policy was abandoned, many Aboriginal families were frustrated at the lack of support from official sources to find and be reunited with their family members. Part of the problem was that much of the Australian population was unaware of what had happened to these families. A lot was denied and information hidden. In 1995 an official government enquiry into the stolen generation was launched. This enquiry took hundreds of submissions, including 535 group or individual submissions from Aboriginal Australians. The official report Bringing Them Home was tabled in parliament in 1997.

The personal accounts in the report (only a few given in that link) are heartbreaking. These quotes, from an account told by a woman named Millicent, are representative of what many children experienced:
They told me that my family didn't care or want me and I had to forget them. They said it was very degrading to belong to an Aboriginal family and that I should be ashamed of myself, I was inferior to whitefellas. They tried to make us act like white kids but at the same time we had to give up our seat for a whitefella because an Aboriginal never sits down when a white person is present…

The first time I was sent to the farm for only a few weeks and then back to school. In the next holidays I had to go back. This time it was a terrifying experience, the man of the house used to come into my room at night and force me to have sex. I tried to fight him off but he was too strong.

When I returned to the home I was feeling so used and unwanted. I went to the Matron and told her what happened. She washed my mouth out with soap and boxed my ears and told me that awful things would happen to me if I told any of the other kids. I was so scared and wanted to die. When the next school holidays came I begged not to be sent to that farm again. But they would not listen and said I had to.
The next time Millicent was sent to that farm she fell pregnant. After being beaten and blamed, she had the baby, only to have her daughter taken from her just as she had been taken from her mother. When she tried to find her later she was refused the information and was later told her baby had died. She only found out this was a lie when her daughter managed to locate her in 1996.

Over and over the same themes appear: children taken from their families with no warning and often no explanation, cruel living conditions, physical and sexual abuse, their heritage either hidden or used to make them feel inferior, paternalistic decisions made for them without their consent, constant racial discrimination, enforced religion, no contact with their families, no access to their culture or native languages, no access to their own information, no personal power whatsoever.

Everyone agreed that the findings of the enquiry (which the previous government had commissioned) were appalling, but the Howard government refused to make any kind of apology to indigenous Australians. Paramount in its reasoning was the argument that saying sorry would lead to compensation claims, something they refused to consider. Today, just over a decade later, PM Kevin Rudd made good on last year's campaign promise to say sorry. February 13th was declared 'Sorry Day' and the following apology was tabled in parliament:
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. 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.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great
continent can now be written. We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
I'm so glad this finally happened. Reading the personal accounts today I realised that my knowledge of the stolen generations was pretty superficial. There are a lot of people alive now, some of them only in their 30s who were directly affected by that policy. Nothing can erase history, but I really hope this official acknowledgment of the experiences of indigenous Australians can be the start of a healing process for them.

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