Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

31/01/2011 21:20

 Kristína Kallová (Australian and New Zealand Studies, Winter 2010)


Photo: Outback Movie House


Why otherwise would Australians have postponed saying this simple word for so many years if they knew the Aborigines and especially the Stolen Generation deserved to hear it? Maybe because they did not consider it necessary. The natives definitely did.

With the arrival of the first ships from Europe it began to be clear that the life will not be the same for Aborigines anymore. The hunter and gatherer had to settle down on the piece of land the white population reserved for him. He was disowned from his own land. White people considered him inferior and, what was worse, they wanted to change his children in their own image. These children are nowadays called “Stolen Generation”. The governmental policy, which was in force between 1910 and 1970, ordered that the half-caste and Aboriginal children be removed from their parents and be placed into boarding schools or white families. “[It] is unclear exactly how many children were taken from their homes, [but] some estimate that the numbers could be between 1/3 and 1/10 of all Indigenous Australian children born during that time” (Stolen Generations).  The government argued that they had in mind the good of the children. However, they had forgotten one thing - to ask the children whether they wanted to be removed from their families and communities and to ask the parents whether they would agree to have their children removed from them. Australian woman writer, Thea Astley, writes in her novel It’s Raining in Mango:

The morning the men came, policemen, someone from the government, to take the children away from the black camp up along the river, first there was the wordless terror of heart-jump, then the wailing, the women scattering and trying to run dragging their kids, the men sullen, powerless before this new white law they'd never heard of. (1)

The removal was obviously done by force and even if the motivation may have been good from the point of view of the white people, the policy didn’t meet the purpose. The placement into boarding schools or white stepfamilies usually meant a torture for the children. A woman from New South Wales recounts,

I was taken off my mum as soon as I was born, so she never even seen me. What Welfare wanted to do was to adopt all these poor little black babies into nice, caring white families, respectable white families, where they’d get a good upbringing. I had a shit upbringing. Me and [adopted brother who was also Aboriginal] were always treated different to the others … we weren’t given the same love, we were always to blame. (Bringing Them Home Report 42)

Families were torn apart and children deprived of the love and care of their parents. It is important to say that there were also cases when children were treated well and were happy, but it was only a small minority of the cases.

The violent interference into children’s lives was not left without consequences. Many members of the Stolen Generation are bearing their ‘burden’ their whole lives. An example is a story narrated by a woman, “who was taken away along with her siblings, [and] describe[d] how, when her sister was grown up (most of the siblings had found each other at this stage) ‘she didn’t know how to hug her babies, and had to be shown how to do that’” (Bringing Them Home Report 10). In fact there are many stories like this, when members of the Stolen Generation have problems to find their place in life. They have problems with their Aboriginality, which was supposed to be “uprooted” from them in schools, but they do not feel white, either. As a consequence, they do not know in what spirit they should raise their children. They are ‘stolen’. The Bringing Them Home Report states that “[t]he effects for the children removed range[s] from psychological harm to loss of native title entitlements [and] [m]ost [of them] suffer multiple and disabling effects” (11). Whatever the government would do for these people, it would not be enough because time cannot be reversed. A woman affected by the policy truly stated,

We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals. (Bringing Them Home Report 11)

Another member of the Stolen Generation explains that the consequences of what he has experienced cannot be erased:

Our life pattern was created by the government policies and is forever with me, as though an invisible anchor around my neck. The moments that should be shared and rejoiced by a family unit, for [my brother] and mum and I are forever lost. The stolen years that are worth more than any treasure are irrecoverable. (Bringing Them Home Report 4)

By trying to make life easier for the young Aborigines, the authorities made it even worse and now they have to put up with it. Therefore, it is important to make an official apology, even if the contemporary government is not directly responsible for what was done in the past. It is important to publicly admit that governmental institutions had made mistakes, which irretrievably affected peoples’ lives and that such a mistake cannot be repeated in the future. Furthermore, it is important to apologize to people affected by the policy and promise that some action will be undertaken in order to improve their situation.

The first bigger step towards the Reconciliation was the Bringing Them Home Report. In 1992 the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) chose for the theme of a year: “My family, where are you? Enquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Islander children” (National Aboriginal and Islander Children's Day themes 1988 to the present). This began to raise the awareness and necessity of the Reconciliation and also other organisations began to be active in this field. On 11 May 1995, an Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families started (Bringing Them Home Report 1). It included more than 700 submissions of Aboriginal people and it intended to

trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families ...; examine the adequacy of and the need for any changes in current laws, practices and policies relating to services and procedures currently available to those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were affected by the separation ...; examine the principles relevant to determining the justification for compensation for persons or   communities affected by such separations [and to] examine current laws, practices and policies with respect to the placement and care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and advise on any changes required taking into account the principle of self-determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (Bringing Them Home Report 1-2)

Apart from this, the Report also suggested that the members of the Stolen Generation should be compensated according to the van Boven Principles (244). Some people might oppose the financial compensation and see it as easily earned money, but it is important to admit that if the life of those children hadn’t been influenced, they would have developed in a fully different and, for them, more natural way and most probably they wouldn’t need such support now. The necessity of monetary compensation is also explained in this quotation: “People go on about compensation and all this. And they don’t seem to get the real reason as to why people want some sort of compensation or recognition. I need to be given a start. I just need something to make the road that I’m on a little bit easier” (261).

The Report recommended that the government help with location and reunification of the families by funding reunion assistance and funding the mental health services of the affected. Suggestions for churches and non-governmental agencies were as follows: they “can provide assistance to those suffering the effects of forcible removals [and make available] any personal records and other information held in the church archives, [as well as] return [the] mission and institution land” (355). The Report also required that the parliaments “officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal” (250). This happened first on the parliamentary level of provinces and territories, but the federal Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologize. He expressed his “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations” (Motion of Reconciliation 1999), but refused to apologize stating that “the current generation should not be responsible for the mistakes of the past” (Stolen Generations Fact Sheet). The long expected formal apology was finally issued in 2008 by the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. “During the apology the Prime Minister ruled out financial compensation for the Stolen Generations, but reconfirmed the Government’s commitment to focus on ‘closing the gap’ - to raise the health of Indigenous people so it matches those of other Australians. The Government and the Opposition also agreed to form a Bipartisan Committee to develop future Indigenous Policy” (Stolen Generations Fact Sheet). The official apology has been made and it seems that the conditions of Aboriginals are slowly improving. It is clear that the wrong which has been done cannot be compensated, but maybe more important is the new attitude which has been adopted. The attitude to make things right.

            From the point of view of a person living in the 21st century, it is easy to judge the whole matter. The policy has proven wrong in its consequences. What we can learn from it is the fact that it is important to listen to people and accept their wishes however imprudent they may seem to us. If we blindly assert our will we may one day find out that not even apologizing will make up for the irreversible harm we have imposed. Australian government’s task is now to do the thing which they have refused to do for so many years: to listen to the voices of the people who had been in Australia even before she was named Australia – voices like this one: “All our lives Aboriginals have lived in a secondary position to the white Australian. I no longer wish for this situation. Therefore I, and approximately 250,000 others like me, claim our ancestry. We are Aboriginal Australians proud of our country and our race” (Perkins 3).


Works cited

Astley, Thea. “It’s Raining in Mango.” 1987. Provided literature.

"The Bringing Them Home Report." Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997. .pdf-version downloaded from 1.12.2010

“National Aboriginal and Islander Children's Day themes 1988 to the present.“ Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. n.d. Web. 1.12.2010.

Perkins, Charles. “Letter to the Editor.” 1968. Provided literature.

“Stolen Generations.” ACTNOW. Version edited on 13.1.2009. Web. 30.11.2010.

“Stolen Generations Fact Sheet.” Reconciliation. 2010. Web. 1.12.2010.