People Building Peace
National Sorry Day – Australia
From Saying Sorry to a Journey of Healing
People Building Peace
A project of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention
published by Rienner, 2005
Every nation has cruelties in its history that it would rather forget. But these cruelties leave victims, who do not forget. When the federal government of Australia refused to apologise for the policies under which thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families, a million Australians apologised instead.
In Australia, for 150 years until the 1970s, many thousands of Aboriginal children were removed from their families to be raised in institutions, or fostered or adopted by non-indigenous families. The aim was to assimilate Aboriginal Australians into the dominant culture. The outcome was tragic.
For many years, Aboriginal people agitated for an inquiry into this practice. In 1995 the federal government agreed. To chair the inquiry they chose a former high court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson.
By the time the inquiry reported in 1997, an election had brought in the new federal government of John Howard. Their view was that Aboriginal interests had won too many concessions thanks to an undue sense of guilt among white Australians, and they took steps to ‘swing the pendulum back’. Then Wilson’s report, Bringing Them Home, landed on their desk. Its 680 pages told in heart-rending detail of the agony endured by Aboriginals as a result of the forced removal policies.
Australians had grown up believing that these children were altruistically taken out of wretched conditions to be offered the immense benefits of white society. Now a national inquiry described the immense harm caused by the policies. For eight months the government made no official response except to say that there would be no apology, and no compensation would be paid. Several government ministers attempted to discredit the report. And when two of the ‘stolen generations’ – as they have become known – went to court, the government spent over 10 million dollar to defeat them, and won on a technicality.
Many in the Australian community responded differently, and Bringing Them Home sold in far greater numbers than any comparable report. This polarization of views was a gift to the media, and the stolen generations became a frequent media topic. In 1997, no other Australian story received more coverage in the world’s press.
Sir Ronald Wilson spoke freely to the media. He had been profoundly affected by the inquiry. ‘It was like no other I have undertaken,’ he said. ‘Other inquiries were intellectual exercises, a matter of collating information and making recommendations. But for these people to reveal what had happened to them took immense courage and every emotional stimulus they could muster.
‘At each session, the tape would be turned on and we would wait… I would look into the face of the person who was to speak to us. I would see the muscles straining to hold back the tears. But tears would stream down, still no words being spoken. And then, hesitantly, words would come.
‘We sat there as long as it took. We heard the story, told with that person’s whole being, reliving experiences which had been buried deep, sometimes for decades. They weren’t speaking with their minds; they were speaking with their hearts. And my heart had to open if I was to understand them.’
This was no easy challenge. ‘I was a leader of the Presbyterian Church in Western Australia at the time we ran Sister Kate’s home, where removed children grew up,’ he said. ‘I was proud of the home, with its system of cottage families. Imagine my pain when I discovered, during this inquiry, that children were sexually abused in those cottages.’ He and the Presbyterian Church apologized wholeheartedly to the Aboriginal people. But neither the church nor the government has taken steps to help the victims of abuse.
As a result Sir Ronald became a crusader, stumping the country at the age of 75 and drawing crowds in their hundreds. ‘Children were removed because the Aboriginal race was seen as an embarrassment to white Australia,’ he told an audience in Canberra, the national capital. ‘The aim was to strip the children of their Aboriginality and accustom them to live in a white Australia. The tragedy was compounded when the children, as they grew up, encountered the racism which shaped the policy, and found themselves rejected by the very society for which they were being prepared.’
His words reached a responsive audience. Most of Australia’s state parliaments and churches held formal ceremonies to hear from representatives of their Aboriginal communities and to ask forgiveness.
Eventually the federal government announced that it would make available 63 million Australian dollars over four years for counseling and family reunion services – a sum that is grossly inadequate to meet the need. They ignored most of the report’s recommendations, including one that a Sorry Day be held.
Sorry is a potent word. It indicates understanding, a willingness to enter into the suffering, and implies a commitment to do more. In Aboriginal English it has a further meaning: ‘sorry business’ denotes a time when Aboriginal people come together to grieve. So a Sorry Day would be deeply meaningful to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
But the federal government was not interested. Could a Sorry Day be held on a community basis? Sir Ronald Wilson consulted spokespeople for the stolen generations, and they jointly invited thirty of us, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to meet and consider this question. At that meeting, in January 1998, we decided to try. We chose 26 May as the day, since the report had been tabled in parliament on May 26, 1997, and elected Carol Kendall, a widely-respected member of the stolen generations, as co-chair of our informal committee.
First we developed a statement explaining the Day. We described it as “a day when all Australians can express their sorrow for the whole tragic episode, and celebrate the beginning of a new understanding…. Indigenous people will participate in a Day dedicated to the memory of loved ones who never came home, or who are still finding their way home…. Sorry Day can help restore the dignity stripped from those affected by removal; and it offers those who carried out the policy - and their successors - a chance to move beyond denial and guilt. It could shape a far more creative partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with immense benefit to both.”
A former governor-general of Australia, Sir Zelman Cowen, accepted our invitation to be a patron. Then in March we launched the idea to the nation through the media.
The response amazed us. The Sorry Day Committee, so-called, was merely a group of people with almost no money, and no ability to organize events across the nation. But that didn’t matter, because people organized their own events. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians met to plan. Artists painted, musicians composed, writers and playwrights wrote. A well-known actor created Sorry Books – manuscript books in which people could express their apology. More and more books were produced as demand grew from schools, public libraries, and town councils. Soon several thousand books were in circulation, and a million people wrote messages, many of them telling of personal experiences which prompted them to contribute to a Sorry Book.
When the day arrived, it was commemorated by thousands of events. There were theatrical presentations, cultural displays, and town barbecues. Universities, government departments, local councils, churches held gatherings to hear from stolen generations people. In many of them, the Sorry Books were ceremoniously handed to local Aboriginal elders. Over half of the 30-minute national TV news that evening was devoted to Sorry Day events, and to the heartfelt response of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal leaders.
Why did Sorry Day touch such a chord? One person told me why he got involved. “I thought back to my primary school classroom,” he said. “I can name every person in that class except the four Aboriginal boys who sat at the back of the class, never asked a question, stuck with each other in the playground, never played with the rest of us. I looked on them as incredibly dull. When I read Bringing Them Home, I began to understand what they had probably endured, and why they acted as they did. And I felt ashamed.’
Many Australians, like him, have encountered removed Aboriginal children, but few asked why they had been removed. One of the deepest human pains is that of a mother who loses her child, or a child its mother. Yet the gulf between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians was simply too immense for even this pain to flow across it. Bringing Them Home exposed this gulf, and many Australians were shocked. Sorry Day was a chance to accept blame, and to do something about it.
The federal government was taken aback by the strength of the Day. They had no idea how to respond to a campaign which included many people active on their side of politics. So they stayed silent and aloof.
But the stolen generations were deeply moved. For the first time, they felt that the Australian community understood what they had gone through. Now the way was open towards healing. From across the country they met together. Out of their discussions came a decision to launch a ‘Journey of Healing’. A prominent stolen generations woman, Lowitja O’Donoghue, became its patron.
The Journey of Healing’s underlying concept is that, if the wounds are to be healed, both government and the community, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have a vital role. It offers every Australian the chance to be part of healing. And many have responded. Hundreds of events are arranged each year, bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, at which members of the stolen generations speak. When their local community understand the problems they face, some of these problems can be overcome. People who have felt alienated for years are experiencing the welcome of their communities. People who were hopeless, angry, despairing, now feel life is worth living.
One of them is a Sydney woman, Val Linow. In the year 2000, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation arranged a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for all who wanted to show their support for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Many of the stolen generations walked behind a banner proclaiming the Journey of Healing. But Val phoned me to say that after all she had been through, there was no possibility of healing for her, and she would only walk with us if we got rid of the banner.
She told me her story. She had been removed from her family at the age of two, and had been cruelly treated and abused. So I understood how she felt. But I urged her to walk, even if she could not come with us.
A quarter of a million people walked. It was the largest demonstration that had taken place in Australian history. As at Sorry Day, people made their views known in their own way. Some paid for a skywriting plane, which wrote ‘Sorry’ in the sky above the Bridge.
That night Val phoned me. “I went on the walk,” she said. “I looked at the thousands of people who had come. I looked up at the word ‘Sorry’ in the sky. “Suddenly,” she said, “tears began to pour down my cheeks. I have found healing.” Today she is active in the Journey of Healing in Sydney.
Walks took place in all cities that year, and a total of a million people walked for reconciliation. The federal government could not ignore such a demonstration. Prime Minister John Howard announced that a central area in Canberra would be set aside “to perpetuate in the minds of the Australian public the importance of reconciliation, and will include a memorial and depiction of the removal of children from their families.”
But the federal government still wanted control, as they made clear when they refused to include those who had been removed in developing the memorial’s design. This provoked demonstrations, and criticism even from party colleagues such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. The project ground to a halt.
We went to see the minister in charge of the project. “This memorial could be immensely healing,” we told him, “if it comes out of genuine consultation. We are prepared to consult the stolen generations, former staff of the institutions to which they were taken, and those who fostered or adopted children, with the aim of reaching consensus on the design of the memorial.”
Some months later the minister accepted our proposal. Quickly we organized consultation teams throughout the country, who met with several hundred people, bursting with ideas. These ideas were brought together in three days of passionate meetings in Sydney. Through the heartache, people listened to each other, and shifted from hard-held points of view. By the end, we had agreement on a provisional text. Further consultation refined the text, and we presented it to the government.
For five months the government did nothing. So we let them know that Malcolm Fraser had accepted our invitation to give the 2003 Sorry Day address in the Great Hall of parliament. Immediately we were invited to discuss our text. Our discussions enhanced the wording. But since we had reached consensus, we were able to resist attempts to remove words which the government found awkward.
Eventually, a proposal went to the prime minister. His response reached us two hours before Malcolm Fraser gave his address. Our wording had been accepted.
Today the memorial stands between the High Court and the National Library, where hundreds of thousands of people each year stop and see it. The text begins: “This place honors the people who have suffered under the removal policies and practices. It also honors those Indigenous and non-Indigenous people whose genuine care softened the tragic impact of what are now recognized as cruel and misguided policies.”
At the dedication ceremony in May 2004, our Committee released a media statement. “As South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown,” we said, “a public acknowledgement of shameful past practices is a crucial first step in healing the wounds caused by those practices. This memorial will inform Australians from all over the country and, we hope, will inspire a new determination to overcome the continuing harmful effects of the removal policies.”
This is desperately needed. Today thousands of Aboriginal people struggle because their removal left them vulnerable to despair within themselves and abuse by others. Perhaps this is why Sorry Day has become a fixture on the national calendar, despite the federal government’s lack of support. The Sorry Day gatherings which take place each year help the healing process. It takes immense courage and determination to break out of the despair in which many stolen generations people exist. In many cases, an expression of empathy from their local community has helped them find that courage.
But there is a further step which we, as a nation, still need to take. Our government must sit down with representatives of the stolen generations, and reach agreement on what needs to be done to end their grievance.
Until this happens, many Australians will feel the need for Sorry Day. Our sorrow means little unless it results in a serious determination to heal the wounds and address the continuing injustices. Sorry is not just a word, it is an attitude. When that attitude is felt widely enough across the Australian community, it will take hold of our government too. Then Sorry Day will probably fade away, or find another name. Sorry will have been said, in word and in deed.
John Bond is secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee and the campaign which it launched, the Journey of Healing. The Committee comprises Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from every State and Territory of Australia. Its patrons are former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Doris Pilkington Garimara, author of the book and feature film, ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’. Most of the Aboriginal members come from the stolen generations and, since there is no other national stolen generations body, the Committee has become their main national voice.
National Sorry Day Committee and Journey of Healing
151 Kent St. Hughes
ACT 2605 Australia
tel. +61 (2) 6281 0940
fax +61 (2) 6232 4554
‘National Sorry Day: Australians face up to their past’, by Michael Henderson. Forgiveness, 1999
‘National Sorry Day’, Australian National Sorry Day. www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/sorry/
‘The politics of Australia’s National Sorry Day, by Mike Head. World Socialist Web Site, www.wsws.org
The movie The Rabbit Fence was also on this programme