Skip to main content

Site navigation

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

National Sorry Day Committee event:
Stolen generations track home

Speaking notes

Tom Calma,Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner
of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Parliament House, Canberra
21 May 2007

Honorable Senators and Members and distinguished guests,

I would like to begin by paying my respects to all of the Ngunawal peoples, and thank them for their welcome to country this morning.

Thank you to Helen Moran and Tiffany McComsey,
Co-Chairs of the National Sorry Day Committee for the invitation to participate in this event.

I also pay my respects to those members of the stolen generations who have joined us here today.

We are here to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Bringing them home – the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

It seems like only yesterday that the Report was released.  It remains an important report – one that has played a vital role in validating the life experiences of many Indigenous peoples and making public their experiences of removal from family, and the ongoing, inter-generational consequences of such removal.

The 10th anniversary is a bittersweet one.  For many Indigenous peoples, they have benefited greatly from the responses that governments have provided to the report’s findings over the past decade,  and also from the public groundswell of compassion and support that has resulted.

Many people have been reunited with their families.  Others have been able to trace and learn details about what happened to their families.  And the vital services that had previously been provided by organisations such as Link-Ups - without much funding and without recognition – have been able to obtain ongoing funding so that they can better service communities of Indigenous peoples who were removed.

These are important outcomes and ones that we must celebrate as we look back on ten years since the report was released.

But it is a bittersweet anniversary because others have not benefited similarly from the responses to the report. 

There were two aspects to the awareness created by the report – it had an effect of validating the experiences that many people had lived.  But it also raised the ghosts of those experiences – the trauma, the grief and the memories.  Left unresolved, this can have the effect of re-traumatising people and creating a ‘limbo’ world in which they have not been able to go home. 

It is unfortunate, but the hostility towards the reports findings by the government has contributed to this re-traumatisation.  That is why an ongoing commitment to reconciliation remains such an important need in our country today.   

So as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the report, we must also remind ourselves of the suffering that many of our brothers and sisters have continued to endure, and the challenges that remain unmet for those who were forcibly removed, and for their children and their children’s children. 

The findings of the report – and the experiences that it told of – are as relevant today as they were in 1997. 

In speaking to you today, I am quite deliberately associating myself with a range of organizations who are continue to highlight the plight and the needs of Indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed.  I will do so again a number of times this week when I speak at other events to commemorate the anniversary.

Community control is such a powerful thing.  The National Sorry Day Committee – and the active participation and management of it by Indigenous peoples and stolen generations members - is one of the great achievements over the decade since the report.  As a constituted body with membership across the country, it provides a platform for the input of Indigenous peoples removed from their families to state their needs and voice their views.   

This National Committee has chosen to focus on pursuing the continued implementation of the recommendations of the Bringing them home report over the coming decade.  In doing so, they recognise that the needs of Indigenous peoples forcibly removed are multiple and are inter-related. 

There is an ongoing need for a complex range of support services and programs to fully address the consequences of the forcible removal policies of the past, and to confine its impact to past generations.

I personally believe that we still don’t have in place the full suite of support services needed in communities to address the legacies of the past practices of removal.  This perpetuates the continuation of the impact of these processes. 

We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what a more holistic, ‘community healing’ process could achieve – and of what it would look like. 

We can learn much from our Canadian brothers and sisters in particular – where the Aboriginal Healing Foundation has, through community control, supported a range of community healing interventions and built the capacity for individuals and their communities to take control of their lives and to contribute to their social and emotional wellbeing.

I would like to see an expansion of the services that are currently providing by the Department of Health under the four areas of the Bringing Them Home and Indigenous Mental Health Programs so that the services offered are more holistic in their focus, and provide the opportunity for community based and group healing programs. 

This should involve expanded support for grants and other support for localised activities that stolen generations members want themselves – this could provide a valuable bridge to improve the accessibility of services and improve the outreach to existing programs.   

The recent evaluation report of the existing programs by Urbis Keys Young identifies a range of ongoing challenges for OATSIH in the Department of Health in the management of the existing support programs.  The responsibilities that the report identifies are broader than the health department of course and should be a focus of whole of government attention under the new, post-ATSIC administrative arrangements.

The evaluation report identifies challenges for Aboriginal Community Controlled Organizations in proactively reaching its target audience; for educators to provide appropriate vocational and skills development support to counselors and Link Up workers; for governments in easing access to all important records to facilitate family reunion and counselling, and to appropriately fund counseling services so that caseloads are not as over-burdening as they currently are; as well as to improve services for social and emotional wellbeing. 

Social and emotional wellbeing remains a great unmet need in the Indigenous community generally and it is an urgent challenge for all governments to ensure appropriate services are provided.  Addressing mental health in the community has been a major priority for COAG with several billion dollars of funding last year.  Priority attention must be given to Indigenous communities as mental health is one of the most pressing challenges we face in society.  Then additionally ensuring that specific, targeted resources are available for those people who were forcible removed is an additional complicated challenge – but a necessary one.

So let me conclude by saying that at HREOC we remain committed to working with Indigenous communities in addressing the findings of the Bringing them home report.  For the anniversary we are conducting a number of projects.  Perhaps the most significant is a magazine style publication with the voices and stories of people forcibly removed – we hope this will contribute to healing the experiences of the past while also celebrating our achievements in the past decade, and working towards a brighter future for Indigenous Australians. 

Thank you