Monday, February 12, 2018

Reflecting on the national apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations

IofC worker John Bond served as Secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee from 1998 to 2006, campaigning for the national apology that was finally made 10 years ago. He reflects on what has and has not changed since that time.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was taken by surprise at the extent to which his apology to the Stolen Generations attracted international attention. The news resounded around the world.

His action inspired many who live under injustice, and who long for their leader to acknowledge the wrongs they have had to endure. A passionate peacemaker from Lebanon told me that when she was in despair about her work, she would play the video of Kevin Rudd’s apology. ‘I must have watched it a hundred times,’ she said.

In Australia the emotional impact was powerful. ‘It seemed for that moment the shackles of Whiteman control had been finally broken and our minds and spirits set free,’ wrote Mark Bin Bakar, Chair of the Kimberleys Stolen Generations.

No community could thrive in the climate of denigration which Aboriginal people have endured for two centuries. The apology has diminished that climate. And it has given many Aboriginal people hope that they can thrive in Australian society.

The apology was not just words, important though those words were. Kevin Rudd gave a commitment to close the gap between the condition of the Aboriginal community and the wider Australian community. As he said, speaking at Caux, Switzerland, in 2012, ‘An apology without action is meaningless.’ The Closing the Gap programme has contributed significantly to Aboriginal wellbeing.

Since the apology more funding has been made available for Aboriginal education at all levels, including scholarships to overseas universities. One Aboriginal student at Oxford University – where I now live – told me that without Kevin Rudd’s apology she would not have had the confidence to apply for the scholarship – ‘Until then I never dreamed that we would be considered for opportunities like this’.  She is now an Associate Professor.

Much is still needed. Twice as many Aboriginal children are in out-of-home care as at the time of the apology. That shows the depth of trauma and dislocation among Aboriginal Australians. In 2004 James Haire, President of the National Council of Churches, spoke of ‘the profound hurt experienced by many of the children removed into the care of church-run homes’. He went on: ‘Some of the Stolen Generations were abused by those who should have protected them.  In many cases, these wrongs have still to be dealt with.’

They have not been dealt with. Certainly not as thoroughly as Canada has responded to their ‘Stolen Generations’ – the Residential School survivors. Canada has funded an Aboriginal Healing Foundation, held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, jailed sexual miscreants and compensated every Residential School survivor. In all, the Canadian Government has spent about $6 billion. Australian Governments have spent less than a tenth of that.

Some Australian States have compensated their Stolen Generations, and all should do so. Most of the Stolen Generations have endured decades of exploitation, and deserve compensation.

If they are not treated justly on this matter, this makes community involvement even more vital. The people’s movements for reconciliation have been Australia’s strength. The Executive Director of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, visiting Australia in 2001, said that whereas Canada had done more at Government level to resolve the grievances, Australia had done more at a community level. ‘Both are needed for healing to take place,’ he concluded.

Many of the Stolen Generations, after their draconian childhood experiences, feel isolated; they don't fit fully into either white or Aboriginal society. Simple acts of neighbourliness can do much for their morale. Everyone can play a part in healing the wounds inflicted by cruel and misguided past policies which still hold many Aboriginal people back from making their unique contribution to Australia’s national life.