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Australia's stolen generation

Saturday, February 02, 2008

IN 1909, the Aboriginal travelling protector James Isdell, who had formed the view that Aboriginal women were "prostitutes at heart", wrote in official correspondence: "The half-caste is intellectually above the aborigine, and it is the duty of the State that they be given a chance to lead a better and purer life than their brothers. I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief may be at the time. They soon forget their offspring."

But they did not forget, and their grief and the fearful tears of their children were not momentary.

Almost 100 years later, after a century of child removals under policies of protection, absorption, integration and welfare, the federal parliament stands on the brink of a historic national apology to the Aboriginal people we have come to call the Stolen Generations.

The apology will be the first order of business for Kevin Rudd's new government when the parliament meets on Wednesday February 13 and, at some point, it will contain the powerful little word that children are taught to say when they have done something bad, but which stuck so immovably in the throat of John Howard and his supporters when they were in power that it has taken on symbolic importance: sorry.

What does one word mean? The apology will not ease the indigenous nightmare of violence, alcoholism and poverty. It will not stop a drunk raping a child in Aurukun, or a riot in Wadeye. It will not make believers of unbelievers, or saints of sinners, and there will be some who say "not in my name".

Yet there will be purpose in it, as there is always purpose in a nation taking responsibility for institutional injury to its citizens.

It will turn back the pages of Australia's history to a time when parents would paint the faces of their light-skinned children with burnt charcoal so that they would not be taken away by the protector to institutions such as Moore River and Sister Kate's in Western Australia; Kahlin Compound, The Bungalow and Rhetta Dixon in the Northern Territory; Colebrook in South Australia; and the Bomaderry, Cootamundra and Kinchela homes and training centres in NSW, to name only a few.

Some children were taken from their families with good intentions and some who were taken have stared deep into the lives they left behind and concluded they were saved.

But many were taken only because they were light-skinned to absorb them into the fringes of the Australian dream.

These were children who were taken from their families with no intention of returning them, whose identities were changed, who cried themselves to sleep at night for want of their parents, who were taught to forget and were punished for remembering.

They were prepared for lives as servants and labourers in outback Australia.

In 1902, a father, pleading with the Aborigines Department for the return of his son, wrote: "I am afraid that (my wife) will commit suicide if the boy is not back soon for she is good for nothing only cry day and night ... I have as much love for my dear wife and churldines as you have for yours ... so if you have any feeling atole pleas send the boy back as quick as you can it did not take long for him to go but it takes a long time for him to come back."

The apology comes more than a decade after the 1997 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families Bringing Them Home, concluded that from 1910 to 1970 between one in three and one in 10 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and that not one indigenous family escaped the effects of forcible removal.

Controversially, and at the insistence of Human Rights and Equal Opportunity president and former High Court judge Ronald Wilson, the report also concluded that this was "an act of genocide, aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities and cultures".

It was not well received. When Howard responded two years later he expressed "deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices".

But former Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron, an advocate of integration, questioned whether 10 per cent of a generation could be called a generation. In the coldness of the response, the issue of the Stolen Generations and the cause of reconciliation were fused together.

Now, after more than a decade of equivocation and denial by the Howard government and its supporters, some of whom have called the Stolen Generations a myth, negotiations with Aboriginal people are rushing towards agreement about the substance and style of the apology.

Many Aboriginal people have been asked what they believe the apology should say. It has been suggested that the Prime Minister is writing the speech himself. It is likely that representatives of the Stolen Generations will fill the parliamentary galleries on February 13 and invited to sit in parliament.

There is an acceptance that the push for compensation will be put to one side, although advocates such as Lowitja O'Donoghue, Christine King, Boni Robertson and Michael Mansell have made it clear that they believe there can be no final resolution without compensation.

There is also acceptance that the apology will be given not in the name of the Australian people, but the Australian government and that no guilt will be attached to the present generation.

Emphasis has been placed on celebrating the apology and remembering those things that should not be forgotten. In the Northern Territory, Labor senator Trish Crossin and minister Warren Snowdon say they have been reminded the apology must not only remember those who were taken, but also those were left behind to suffer Isdell's "momentary grief". Snowdon has been told how it took one man, who was separated from his mother as a child, 60 years to find her again, by which time she was in an institution.

Asked his thoughts on the apology being the first order of the Rudd Government's business, he says it is "absolutely the right thing to do", to recognise the suffering of people who for so long were denied their basic rights as Australian citizens.

Throughout Aboriginal Australia emotions are building. O'Donoghue was born in 1932, given up to missionaries by a white father she never knew when she was two and did not see her Aboriginal mother again for 33 years, by which time her mother was drinking heavily.

O'Donoghue expects there will be "an awful lot of emotion" when the federal Government apologises. She believes "it will help people to move on".

Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson, who despaired of Howard's refusal to confront the dark aspects of Australia's history, says the nation can take pride in the apology.

"It's hugely important to us as a nation and obviously of huge significance to members of the Stolen Generations," he says.

In Canberra, Christine King, co-chair of the Stolen Generations Alliance, who was taken away from Darwin and sent to Croker Island, as her mother had been, says she is hopeful that the apology will give some peace to the Stolen Generations and their families. "Older people thought they would never live to see this day," she says. "It's very emotional for me and it's very important. It's fundamental to our healing, it's actually fundamental to the healing of the whole country and so we're very excited about it."

King says the word sorry, around which the rest will be constructed, "has great meaning in our community, it means having empathy and compassion and understanding".

In 1902, the chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, Henry Charles Princep, said he believed it was the government's duty to place children of mixed descent in missions to be trained as "useful workers ... and humble labourers". He complained that the "natural affections of the mothers" stood much in his way.

Almost 100 years later, O'Donoghue had this to say about whether or not it was appropriate to speak of Stolen Generations: "Certainly from the point of view of Aboriginal parents, stolen describes precisely what happened. From my own mother's point of view, she would have had no legal recourse. She would have had no moral support and no understanding that she might never see her children again. And no assurance that her children would all be together. From her point of view, of course we were stolen and her life destroyed."

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