On May 26th of this year, Australia witnessed an event without precedent across the world. In cities, towns, and rural centers, in schools and churches, people stopped to commemorate Sorry Day, expressing their sorrow for a tragic episode in Australian history – the practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families with the aim of assimilating them into Western culture.
This practice went on throughout most of this century until the early 1970s. In recent years, a national inquiry has been investigating this practice. Last year its report, Bringing Them Home, was presented to the Federal Parliament. The report told in heart-rending detail of the agony endured by Aboriginals as a result of government policy.
The policy was not just wrong, the report stated. It was “genocidal.” This was not a judgment on the families and institutions in which the children had been placed – some were well cared for, though many were not. But the policy's aim was the disappearance of Aboriginals as a distinct group, and this was genocide, as defined in the Convention on Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949. A national apology was called for, as well as measures for reparation.
White Australians have grown up believing that Aboriginals were altruistically taken out of wretched conditions to be offered the immense benefits of White society. Now a national inquiry was describing the practice in terms of a horrifying crime. For eight months, the government made no response except to say that there would be no national apology, and no compensation would be paid.
Their silence was not echoed in the country. Bringing Them Home sold far more than any comparable report. It became a frequent topic of media discussion. State parliaments and churches held occasions to hear from representatives of their Aboriginal communities and to ask forgiveness. Eventually the government announced that it would make available $63 million (Australian) over four years for counseling and Aboriginal family reunion services. Clearly it had been surprised by the response to the inquiry's revelations.
The report had also recommended that a national Sorry Day be held. Several of the “stolen generations” – as they are now called – told the inquiry that this could help overcome the trauma still resulting from the policy. The Government ignored this recommendation. So a coalition of community groups, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, came together and launched a people's Sorry Day.
The idea spread like a brushfire. Churches gave strong backing, and education authorities produced study material. One community group had already launched “Sorry Books” – blank manuscript books that offered everyone the chance to express, in their own words, their apology for the removal policies. Demand for the books grew, until eventually over 1,000 were in circulation. Half a million people wrote messages in them.
On Sorry Day the books were handed to members of the “stolen generations” in hundreds of civic and community ceremonies.
In Melbourne, the Lord Mayor handed the keys of the city to representatives of the stolen generations, in welcome to people who had been long ignored, and the city churches rang their bells in tribute. In Adelaide, a memorial was unveiled at the site of a former home for children who had been removed. In Sydney, thousands rallied at the Opera House. Among them was Luigi, with his gelati van, handing out free gelati. “We Italian-Australians need to say sorry, too,” he explained.
Next morning, Sorry Day was front-page news in many towns and cities. Sorry Day has profoundly moved the “stolen generations,” who have often felt isolated by the wider community's reluctance to hear their story. It has given a burst of hope that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians can be reconciled. The Sorry Day networks are continuing to meet, with the aim of ensuring that the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report are implemented across Australia. Though the networks see Sorry Day as a one-time event, they will use May 26th of each year to focus afresh on the needs of those who were forcibly removed from their families.
John Bond is a freelance writer from Canberra, Australia. Portions of this article originally appeared in For A Change magazine. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is at 3-5 National Circuit, BARTON ACT 2600, Australia E-mail: car @dpmc.gov.au. The full text of the Bringing Them Home report can be downloaded at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/bth_report/report/index.html
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