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Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

Launch of Us Taken-Away Kids: commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bringing them home report.

Tom Calma

Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner and
National Race Discrimination
Commissioner,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

11 December 2007

Customs House Library, Sydney.


Essentials for Social Justice

Between December 2007 and April 2008 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, will deliver a series of key speeches setting out an agenda for change in Indigenous affairs.

Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

The Hon Jenny Macklin,
Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs;
Professor Mick Dodson, Co-Chair of the National Inquiry into the Separation
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples from their Families and
Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia;
Helen Moran, Chair of the National
Sorry Day Committee; Mark Bin Barkar, Deputy Chairperson, National Stolen
Generations Alliance; My fellow speakers - Alec Kruger, Jeannie Hayes, Alfred
Coolwell and Lena Yarrey;

Contributors to the Us Taken-Away Kids magazine
– Lorraine McGee-Sippel, Elaine Turnbull, Robert Stuurman, Bev Lipscombe,
Mary Hooker, Emily Bullock and Charles Leon;

Members of the stolen
generations; Representatives of Link Up, Sorry Day Committees and
Reconciliation groups; My Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and
sisters; and Friends.

I begin by paying my respects to the Gadigal
peoples of the Eora Nation – the traditional owners of the land where we
gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, to the ancestors and to those
who have come before us. And thank you, Alan Madden, for your generous
welcome for all of us to Gadigal country.

Thank you also to the City of
Sydney for your assistance with this launch, and for providing this
venue.

On behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
(HREOC), can I welcome you to the launch of Us Taken-Away Kids – a
magazine commemorating ten years since the Bringing them home report was
released – as well as the updated Bringing them home online educational
resources.

The release of these materials brings to a close a year of
activities by HREOC for the tenth anniversary of the Bringing them home report.

The timing of the release of these materials could not be better.

Yesterday, we celebrated Human Rights Day. That is a time when we
honour the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the modern
world’s ‘Magna Carta’.

The language of the Universal
Declaration encapsulates, in the most poetic and moving way, the aspirations
of generations of peoples worldwide for peace and harmony. And it is directly
relevant to the continuing circumstances of the stolen generations. The
Universal Declaration reads:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable
rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice
and peace in the world...

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed
their faith in fundamental human rights, (and) in the dignity and worth of the
human person ...,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the
greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,...

The General Assembly, Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights
as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all
nations...

Human Rights Day is also the time where we celebrate the
achievements of our fellow Australians in contributing to the realisation of
these goals.

I am delighted that joining us here today we have Mark Bin
Barkar and Alec Kruger – two men who were honoured at the Human Rights
Awards yesterday for their contribution to the promotion of human rights in
Australia for work that predominately relates to the stolen generations.
Congratulations to both Mark and Alec, and thank you.

The timing of the
release of Us Taken-Away Kids could also not be better as it comes at a time of
great importance to the future of our nation.

The incoming Prime
Minister, the Honorable Kevin Rudd, has indicated that he intends to apologise
on behalf of the nation to the stolen generations.

So in the coming
months, the Prime Minister and his government will have a historic opportunity
to unite Australia by acknowledging the existence and the impact of this dark
aspect of our history; by paying respect to the stolen generations for their
suffering, their resilience and their dignity; and by laying the foundations
for a reconciled Australia, built on respect for human rights and a commitment
to social inclusion.

Unfortunately, we are all too aware that this is
not a once in a lifetime opportunity. This great challenge has been laid before
the federal government once before, and on that occasion, it did not seize the
opportunity. So this moment represents a very rare thing - a second chance.

In the words of the Universal Declaration, this moment is a test
– for the nation - of how truly we believe in the inherent dignity and the
equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

In
reflecting on the Us Taken-Away Kids magazine that is being launched by the
Minister for Indigenous Affairs here today, I intend to outline an agenda for
addressing the outstanding issues faced by the stolen generations and key
elements for the apology.

This speech is the first in a series of six
that I will be delivering nationally over the next four and a half months
outlining an agenda for change across all areas of Indigenous affairs.

I have termed this series of speeches Essentials for social justice.
Subsequent speeches will address issues ranging from the very serious problem of
a lack of engagement with Indigenous peoples in policy making and significant
failures in the whole of government machinery currently in operation federally;
to the Northern Territory intervention and child abuse issues; to a positive
vision for our communities such as by closing the gap in life expectancy, and
creating an equal life chance for Indigenous children.

It is
appropriate that today’s speech, the first in this series, is simply
titled: Sorry.

So let me begin by reflecting on the Us Taken-Away
Kids
magazine. At the beginning of the magazine is a quote from the
autobiography of Alec Kruger called, Alone on the soaks. It
reads:

As a child I had no mother’s arms to hold me. No father to lead me
into the world. Us Taken-Away Kids only had each other. All of us damaged and
too young to know what to do. We had strangers standing over us. Some were
nice and did the best they could. But many were just cruel nasty types...

Many of us grew up hard and tough. Others were explosive and angry. A
lot grew up just struggling to cope at all. They found their peace in other
institutions or alcohol. Most of us learnt how to occupy a small space and
avoid anything that looked like trouble. We had few ideas about
relationships. (but) No one showed us how to be lovers or parents. How to
feel safe loving someone when that risked them being taken away and leaving us
alone again.

Everyone and everything we loved was taken away from us kids.

The Us Taken-Away Kids magazine tells the stories of Indigenous
Australians removed from their families. It reflects on experiences of being
removed and life in foster-care and homes, stories of discovering what had
happened, of meeting their family for the first time, piecing together family
histories as adults, and of some who have still to re-unite.

The
magazine contains the stories, poems, photos and artwork of the stolen
generations. For many, it is the first time they have shared their
experiences in this way.

This is something that HREOC, and I
personally, am extremely grateful for. I think it is both extraordinarily
generous and brave. And in my view, it is something that we should all
respect as a contribution to reconciliation.

The magazine is a testament
to the resilience of the stolen generations. By acknowledging this resilience
and the hardship faced, we acknowledge the ongoing impact of our history on the
lives of our fellow Australians.

By recognising and paying respect to
this, the magazine provides hope that as Australians we can move forward united
on a basis of mutual respect, trust and good faith.

As the stories and
poems reveal, the experiences of the stolen generations differ significantly.
Some people have reconnected with their families and found peace. For others,
the passage of time has been too great and they have discovered their family
history too late. So the contributions in the magazine range from angry to
funny, from deeply upsetting to reflective, and to uplifting.

The
magazine vividly demonstrates the ongoing impact of forcible removal policies in
the lives of Indigenous families. This is not an abstract debate about the
past. It is about Australia, right now.

And the stories in the
magazine highlight that this impact is raw and emotional.

Page 13 of
the magazine tells the stories of Lena Yarry and Alfred Coolwell –
siblings who were reunited later in life. Their stories are accompanied by an
extremely poignant photo which shows Alfred meeting members of his family for
the very first time.

Page 15 reproduces a poem by Vickie Roach about
her friend ‘Jap’ who died in police custody some time ago. The
magazine was provided in advance to Jeannie Hayes a contributer to the magazine and who will speak to us
shortly about her experiences. Upon reading the magazine she told HREOC that
she too had been good friends with Jap and was moved to see her being remembered
in this way. She has never met Vickie Roach.

On pages 27-29 Eddie
Thomas reflects on his experience of speaking in the Tasmanian Parliament upon
the passage of the stolen generations compensation legislation late last year.
This is contrasted with Eddie’s story on page 50 of the magazine in which
he recounts when he first met his brother as he was about to play AFL, and how
he played the game of his life to make his brother proud, and the sadness that
ultimately prevailed over his brother’s life.

The magazine is full
of moving stories like these. And I repeat how privileged we are to be invited
to share in them.

Story telling – such as that in the magazine - is
crucial to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is integral to
the maintenance of our cultures and It helps us to understand our heritage.
And it is critical in defining our identity.

The story-telling
tradition of our peoples is one of the great strengths of our cultures. It
contributes to our resilience as peoples as it has throughout millenia.

But we don’t tell stories for the sake of it.

For the
stolen generations, story telling is an indispensible part of both recognising
the suffering of the past and its impact into the present; and of creating
the basis for the journey of healing to begin.

And this is the
significance of the apology.

What many people have failed to understand
over the past decade has been the emotional harm that has been caused by the
refusal to say sorry. On the face of it - a simple act – described in
denigrating terms by some as merely a ‘symbolic’ action.

For
many of the stolen generations, it is so much more than this.

The
refusal to apologise has amounted to a denial of the life experiences of many of
the stolen generations. They have not been able to tell their story in order
to heal.

This has been reflected in vicious debates about whether
children were stolen or saved. In debates about whether an ‘X’
on a page amounts to ‘consent’ to removal and therefore invalidates
a person’s claim to being forcibly removed.

And it is reflected
in legal actions that have demonstrated the manifest inadequacy of addressing
these issues through litigation. Such litigation, at great cost and emotional
toll, has found that the legal system under which children were removed was so
broad and sweeping in its scope, that there are hardly any circumstances in
which a child’s removal would be considered ‘unlawful’. No
duty of care has been found to be owed to a child removed – something that
is also quite extraordinary.

The apology issue has led to a denial of the
experiences of the stolen generations, and of peoples’ identity. And it
has played a real role in perpetuating the harm of the past.

An analogy
to the harm this has created is how, as a nation, we treated our Vietnam
veterans. Because of the divisiveness of the war, it took almost a
generation before the Australian public as a whole was able to embrace our
veterans as heroes who had sacrificed much in the name of our country.

The mental anguish caused to Vietnam veterans from their treatment is
well documented. And the consequent feeling of belonging that they have felt
when such recognition did finally flow is also well known. There was also a
broader feeling of healing and pride that was felt by Australian society, as a
whole, once we had faced up to this and finally embraced our war
heroes.

And this is the importance of the apology. By acknowledging and
paying respect, those who have suffered can move forward, to heal and
ultimately to belong.

The apology will directly benefit members of the
stolen generations by validating their experiences. And it will also benefit
Australian society as a whole by building a bridge for a reconciled Australia,
where we can all feel proud that our national story and aspirations are shared,
and that we are prepared to face difficult and dark experiences from our past.

It is not about black armbands and guilt. It is about inclusion and
learning from the past. And ultimately, it is about providing space in the
telling of our national story for the stolen generations.

I
must say I was deeply concerned when I saw the Guide to the teaching of
Australian History in Years 9 and 10 released a few months ago under the
auspices of the former Prime Minister as part of his push for national education
curricula. This guide identifies the importance of considering Indigenous
perspectives on dispossession and European settlement up to 1850, and also
encourages students to consider ‘missionary and colonial activity directed
to the ‘protection’ of Indigenous Australians’, up to 1900.
But it makes no direct reference to considering the experiences of the stolen
generations over the course of the 20th century nor does it refer to
Bringing them home.

This is quite simply a denial of history –
leaving the issues unspoken. This must cease, And The apology will go a
long way to setting us on a course for this to occur.

On page 65 of the
magazine there is a poem by Yveane Fallon called “I am to be”
which reflects the dangers if we continued such denial. In parts it
reads:

I am to be

Your history’s ghost returned

Haunting every moment

Despite your concerns.........

 

I am

The offspring of my ancestors

Bearing truth’s memory

Despite all of yours.

So to conclude, let me
outline six key challenges for saying sorry and moving forward together.

First, the apology must be done in a consultative and respectful
manner.

For the government, this requires that the views of the stolen
generations should be given prominence in determining the key elements of the
apology.

We know that there is certain wording – or at least, a
certain word - that must be included in the apology for it to have meaning for
the stolen generations. It requires more than this one word though. There
is a challenge to get the balance right between saying sorry for the practices
of past governments and taking responsibility, as the present government, to
address ongoing impacts and lead the nation to a better, shared
future.

For the stolen generations, ultimately the apology must be
written by the government for it to have any meaning. So there is a limit to
how far this consultation should stretch.

Second, the apology should
be specifically about forcible removals.

The purpose of the
recommendation in Bringing them home is to apologise for policies of forcible
removal and consequent harm, as well as to provide guarantees against
repetition in the future.

This is a very specific purpose. I note,
even in the past fortnight, that some of the far right commentators who seem to
dominate the opinion pages of our newspapers have presented this issue as about
anything that has ever happened in Australia since colonisation, or as
providing a shield against any child being removed from circumstances of neglect
or abuse, into the future. This is in my view, mischievous, misleading and
disrespectful.

It is timely for people to return to the exact wording
of the Bringing them home report to remind ourselves of the exact purpose of
saying sorry. It is not a catch all, and it is not intended to overcome the
need for other action.

Third, the apology should be done in such a way
that it unifies the nation, rather than divides it.

I have great faith
that leadership from the highest levels of both sides of politics can ensure
that this will occur.

I note, for example, comments by the Shadow
Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mr Tony Abbott at Sorry Day commemorations in
May this year. He stated:

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families is an episode
in our history of which we are rightly ashamed... There were some good
intentions, if misguided, behind the policy. Still, the fundamental
premise on which it was based - that children were better off away from their
black families - was wrong, indeed repugnant. It was a policy based on race
not reason. We should have known it then. We certainly know it now, and
we do have to atone for it.  

Similarly, the incoming Leader of
the Opposition Dr Nelson has stated that we all have a responsibility
‘to understand what happened in the past’ and that we ‘should
feel immense sorrow, in some cases shame’.

Dr Nelson has expressed
concerns about the apology, in terms of not being personally responsible for
events of the past, but he has also stated he will wait and see before deciding
whether bi-partisan support can be provided for the apology.

There is
not too much of a distance to travel to obtain bipartisan support for the
apology. However, Respectful dialogue will be necessary to achieve
this.

The apology will be all the more powerful for being from the
Australian Parliament. As it stands, our national parliament is the only one
across the country that has not formally apologised to date.

Fourth,
the apology should also be forward looking and set out an aspiration for a
united future for all Australians.

While the apology should be specific
to stolen generations, it should also affirm the commitment of the federal
Parliament to partnerships with Indigenous peoples and to continuing to work to
address the legacy of the stolen generations.

While the apology will have
a significant transformative and healing effect of itself, it will be necessary
for it to be accompanied by other measures that implement the full scope of the
recommendations of Bringing Them Home.

We can expect, for example,
that the apology will enable many of the stolen generations to break the cycle
of grief that dominates their current situation. They will then be ready,
and will need the support to heal. As was noted with the 10th anniversary celebrations for Bringing them home in May, there are many aspects
of the report that remain to be implemented and provide a holistic address to
the needs of the stolen generations.

Fifth, the apology should not be
rushed.

An artificial deadline should not be set for the timing of the
apology. The timing should reflect that the elements discussed above have been
met: that is, respectful dialogue has taken place; and the process has aimed to
build consensus and unify the nation.

The stakes are too high to get it
wrong by rushing it through, or not allowing the conversation for
reconciliation to take place. Without being prescriptive, it may be that Sorry
Day in May 2008 provides the ideal timing.

The apology should, in my
view, occur separate to discussions regarding Constitutional reform –
including a new preamble to the Constitution. But it is clearly a necessary
precursor to that broader discussion. The impact of a new preamble would also
be to provide a sense of inclusion for all Indigenous peoples that is missing
from the framework of our legal system at present.

Sixth, and finally,
the apology should provide a catalyst for the states and territories to be held
accountable for their responsibilities in implementing Bringing them
home.

The absence of an apology from the federal Parliament has left the
federal government without authority to drive the implementation of the Bringing
them home report.

The apology should therefore form the basis for a
renewed partnership between the federal government and state and territory
governments to fully implement the report.

For example, only Tasmania
has introduced a scheme to compensate for the impact of its forcible removal
policies.

It is interesting to note by comparison that at present the
Queensland government has introduced the Redress Scheme to provide ex gratia
payments to people who experienced abuse and neglect as children in Queensland
institutions. Up to $100 million is being made available for payments,
for legal and financial services to applicants, and for practical assistance in
completing applications.

It is not inconceivable to see how such a scheme
could become a model to address the experiences of the stolen generations.

All governments are responsible for the report’s
implementation. It is timely for the federal government to take a leadership
role in developing a national reparations process to be co-funded by the states
and territories. And this should be a priority for COAG to build on the work
that is already under consideration by the ministerial council for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

So let me conclude by returning to Us
taken-away kids. I want to finish by quoting a contributor to the magazine:
George Toongerie. George said:

When societies or cultures collide it is often the children who suffer
most... The past cannot be changed but some of the wounds can be healed. The
process of reconciliation must start with a candid recognition of what took
place – the forcible removal of many Aboriginal children from their
parents and communities.

The apology has the potential to be a landmark event in
‘righting’ relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples
in this country, by setting us on a new shared path to the future and by laying
the platform to take the reconciliation agenda to the next level.

Please remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity
comes hope.

Thank you.

Note: This is the first in a series of six
speeches outlining an agenda for change in Indigenous Affairs. The
“Essentials for Social Justice” series will be presented between
December 2007 and April 2008, and will be available online at www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/essentials/