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Australia Learns to Say “I’m Sorry”

4 minute read
Elizabeth Keenan/Sydney

Australia is about to apologize for six decades of social engineering that took tens of thousands of children from their parents. The apology, to be made by Australia’s new government on Feb. 13, has been taking shape since 1997, when a 600-page report titled “Bringing Them Home” hit politicians’ desks. Studded with heart-wrenching personal narratives, the report — based on a 17-month inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission — found that between 1910 and 1970, perhaps 100,000 children had been “forcibly removed” from Aboriginal families.

Arguing that they would be better off raised in the Australian mainstream, officials and missionaries had put the mostly mixed-race children in orphanages, boarding schools or white homes. The report concluded that while removal had benefited some, for a majority it had had “profoundly disabling” effects. They were cut off from their mothers’ culture, yet — despite the do-gooders’ dreams of assimilation — they were seldom fully accepted in white society. The report urged the government to apologize and make reparation to the people affected by removals, whom the media dubbed the “stolen generations.”

In 1999, the conservative government of John Howard 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 it balked at the terms “sorry” or “apology,” saying it was not responsible for the actions of past governments and that admissions of wrongdoing could open the door to compensation suits.

“Sorry” instantly became a fighting word in Australian politics. In 1998, a coalition of community groups declared May 26 National Sorry Day (it’s since been renamed National Day of Healing). In 2000 an estimated 250,000 people joined a “Sorry” walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sir Ronald Wilson, the former judge who authored the “Bringing Them Home” report, made impassioned pleas for a government apology, saying, “An apology begins the healing process. Apology means … a willingness to enter into the suffering. It implies a commitment to do more.”

Opponents of an apology said most of the allegedly stolen children had in fact been abandoned or taken in for their own protection from assault, sexual abuse and neglect. “People involved in the removal of children genuinely believed they were doing the right thing,” the nonprofit group Reconciliation Australia counter-argued in a statement. “But as we know now, they were not.”

In last November’s election, an apology was one of Labor’s key campaign promises. “Simply saying that you’re sorry is such a powerful symbol,” said now-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “powerful simply because it restores respect.” Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesman Tony Abbott said Jan. 30, “We are skeptical as to what a formal apology will achieve… I think it would be fair to say we don’t regard this as anything like the highest priority in indigenous affairs.”

Since the “Bringing Them Home” report was released, about 16 Aboriginal people claiming to be part of the stolen generation have tried to bring suit against the government. All cases but one were withdrawn or failed. Last August a South Australian court awarded $525,000 (about $468,000 in U.S. currency) to Bruce Trevorrow after agreeing that his lifelong depression resulted from his 1957 separation from his mother. On Feb. 1, the South Australia Supreme Court granted him a further $250,000 (U.S.$223,000), representing 50 years of interest on the compensation award.

Prime Minister Rudd has said the apology will not be an admission of responsibility and that no compensation claims will be heard as a result. Zita Wallace, of the Stolen Generations and Families Aboriginal Corporation, told ABC Radio, “I hope that the gates will be left open for us to talk further and maybe way down the track maybe get compensation. Or open some avenues where people can apply for compensation by going through the courts.” A recent survey by the Stolen Generations Alliance found that some Aborigines want an apology to all indigenous people — about 450,000, or 2%, of Australia’s 21 million citizens — because “we have all had something stolen from us.”

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