The 10th Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations

by Bishop Chris Mcleod

 L to R: Bishop Chris' grandmother, Dolly, aunt Sylvia, and my mother, Margaret. The photo was taken on the banks of the Todd River, just outside the ‘Telegraph Station’, Alice Springs, circa 1942/3. Dolly died of tuberculosis very shortly after this photograph was taken.

L to R: Bishop Chris' grandmother, Dolly, aunt Sylvia, and my mother, Margaret. The photo was taken on the banks of the Todd River, just outside the ‘Telegraph Station’, Alice Springs, circa 1942/3. Dolly died of tuberculosis very shortly after this photograph was taken.

February 13th this year saw the 10th Anniversary of the ‘National Apology to the Stolen Generations’ by the then prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd. It was a significant event in the life of Australia and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; especially for the stolen generations and their descendants. It was a moment of great hope and promise. At last a government of Australia was prepared to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and the trauma inflicted upon the stolen generations and their descendants. It coupled Paul Keating’s 1992 ‘Redfern Speech’ as a high watermark, in my opinion, of responsible and courageous political leadership. At the heart of the ‘Apology’ was the issue of ‘truth-telling’. An acceptance that Australia for all its greatness does get some things very wrong, and certainly did in the past with the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents.

It has also been 20 years since the release of ‘Bringing them Home: the report of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families’.  This report still makes for very important reading, especially given that only 19 of the 54 recommendations have been fully implemented.[1] The question most often asked is have things become better or worse since ‘Bringing them home’ and the ‘Apology’.

The issue of inter-generational trauma has risen in prominence over the last two decades. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples carry within their family networks deep scars of trauma. This often leads to a cluster of issues and problems. Some of which can be depression, anxiety, acute low self-esteem, emotional ‘numbness’, unexplained feelings of deep sadness, anti-social behaviour, interpersonal and relationship issues, poor mental and physical health, and at the more extreme end, violence and aggression, substance abuse, and suicide. There is often a pall of a sense of worthlessness that hangs over many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; especially those who have the forced removal of children in their family histories (which is just every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person!). This inter-generational trauma increases with each new generation as the issues surrounding this trauma are not dealt with: one generation hands it onto another.

Some of these things I know at a personal level. My Aboriginal grandmother and my mother and her sister were members of the ‘Stolen Generations.’ My mother was taken from her mother and placed in an orphanage at three years of age and lived in a number of institutions from thereon. My own mother was deeply traumatized by this experience and lived with severe and debilitating depression all her adult life. She lived in constant fear that her children would be removed from her or something sinister would happen to us. We were taught to ‘lay low’, and not draw attention to ourselves, just in case. It made for a complex upbringing. I should quickly add, however, that we experienced great love from her, and she did her best to provide a healthy home for her children. My sister, Ronda (a retired primary school teacher), and I turned out alright, I think. I would also hasten to add that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, members of the ‘Stolen Generations’ and their descendants, have achieved much and live perfectly healthy and productive lives, go to school and university, have jobs, have families, and contribute greatly to the well-being of society. Yet, we do so in the context of having to face our own traumatic histories; often on a daily basis.

I have written in the past about the importance of ‘truth-telling’ [2], and that is the issue that seems to confound many who struggle with the idea of Australian ‘Stolen Generations’. There are some in the Australian populace who are in deep denial about the existence of the ‘Stolen Generations’, and seem to be unable to accept that Australia has a troubled history with the treatment of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Christians have nothing to fear from the truth, and we of all people know the power that sin has in shaping our personal and collective actions. The misguided belief that Australia has, and can do, no wrong is simply fantasy.  The reality of the forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and its consequences need to be squarely faced. I believe it to be an essential component of the healing that needs to take place in the heart of our nation.

The ‘Apology’ was an important step on the journey towards reconciliation, yet there is much more still be done and more truths to be faced.

 

[1] http://www.reconciliationsa.org.au/20 -years-since-bringing-them-home

[2] ‘Trinity and Reconciliation’, Guardian, The Magazine of the Adelaide Diocese of Adelaide, July 2015; Anglican World: Magazine of the Anglican Communion, Issue 143, December 2016.