Sometimes it's what a country owns up to, rather than what it is most proud of, that reveals its strength. Such was the case last week, when Australian political leaders united to apologize to Aboriginal people for the policies that created the so-called stolen generations, those who as children were separated from their families. Just before 9 a.m. on Feb.13, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in his government's first parliamentary act, rose in a hushed chamber to deliver the apology indigenous people had long sought. It was time "to remove this great stain from the nation's soul," he said. "We can today resolve that this is a new beginning for Australia." Men and women wept; when he finished speaking, they stood and burst into applause in the parliamentary chamber, on the manicured lawns outside, where tents and concert stages had sprung up, in city squares, and in bush communities around the nation.
It's estimated that some 50,000 children, mostly of mixed descent, were taken from their families between 1910 and the 1970s. The goal was assimilation. The effect, for many, was ruinous. Placed in state or church orphanages or with white foster families, they lost their kin, culture and connection to traditional lands. Many never saw their relatives again. Frank Parkes, a Western Australian coordinator of Link Up, the national network that reunites Aboriginal people, says plenty are still searching. "There are people who still know nothing about their families," says Parkes. "Some don't even know when they were born." Often the long trek through old files and fading memories doesn't have the perfect ending. "They're very happy to meet, but just getting people together doesn't fix the problem," says Parkes. "Too much time has passed."
Years, too, passed before the governments that sanctioned the removals began to acknowledge the suffering they caused. The question of an apology has haunted race relations in Australia since the "Bringing Them Home" inquiry called for one in 1997 to acknowledge what it called genocidal policies. Then-PM John Howard expressed regret but refused to say the word sorry. By the time his government lost office last November, its relationship with most Aboriginal leaders had become toxic. While state governments and churches offered formal apologies, Howard, who didn't join other former PMs in Parliament for Rudd's speech, argued that today's Australians should not be held responsible for the well-intentioned errors of the past. His successor as Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, has inherited the resulting distrust: although he supported the apology, at public gatherings around the country people jeered and turned their backs as he spoke.
Nelson's speech voiced the concern of many Australians that Rudd's apology ignored the complexity of the issue. Not all children were ripped from loving, nurturing families, and not all removals were motivated by racism. Some children were neglected, abused, or shunned because their white descent deprived them of tribal identity. Others were living seminomadic lives in what officials saw as dire poverty. Several MPs in Nelson's own party opposed the apology, and a handful boycotted it. "Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel guilt for what was done in many, but not all cases, with the best of intentions," Nelson said. "But in saying we are sorry and deeply so we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its decisions and actions."
Speaking after the apology, Patrick Dodson, one of the country's most respected indigenous leaders and a long-time champion of reconciliation, acknowledged the complexities: "To those who participated in the removal process and who have looked into their own hearts and found that their intentions were good, I thank you for the care and the love that you showed to those in need," he said. "But to those whose intent was malign and motivations racist, your actions have now been exposed and repudiated." In his graceful speech, Rudd made clear that the apology was "unequivocal ... There comes a time in a nation's history when its people must become fully reconciled to their past … we've reached such a time," he said. "Unless we confront the truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us as a nation."
With lighter hearts
Christine King says she already feels that shadow lifting. Her mother, Nanna Nungala Fejo, was four years old when, one day in the 1930s, white men in a truck pulled up at her family's bush camp. Parents had dug holes for their children to hide in, but Fejo and several others were taken away. She was taken to a mission station, and never saw her mother again. Fejo met with Kevin Rudd as he wrote the apology, and he recounted her story in Parliament. "A lot of us didn't think we would live to see this," says King. "Even the air feels different now. The heartbeat of this country has changed." Her mother, visiting Canberra along with hundreds of other Aboriginal people to witness the apology, is "very happy," says her daughter. "And if we can get it right for our elders, we can get it right for the next generation, too."
Many Australians share that conviction. Crowds of people, black and white, gathered to view public telecasts, and in hundreds of schools, classes were stopped and televisions turned on. Locals in Broome braved a cyclone warning to gather for a celebratory breakfast barbecue. In Redfern, in inner-city Sydney, people cheered in the rain. Many people traveled thousands of kilometers some to the national capital for the first time by plane, car or in buses covered in desert dust. Tents mushroomed on the grass outside Parliament, where campers gathered around a fire of scented wood, while a group of invited guests were welcomed into Parliament by Rudd and his wife, Therese Rein. Seventy-year-old Murray Harrison, who came from Victoria with other stolen generations members, heard exactly what he wanted to hear: "This to me is a closure of that period," he says. "Now I can sleep again. I'm very thankful the Prime Minister has done this." Mavis Garrett, whose mother was taken from her family, traveled from Queensland. "I don't like planes," says the 67-year-old, "but that's how much attending this sorry day meant to me. If I see Mr. Rudd, I think I'd just run up and give him a hug. This is a healing." And not just for those whose lives were changed. "It's a watershed moment not just for indigenous people but for the whole country," says Shelley Reys, a board member of Reconciliation Australia. "It's a new beginning."
Though it has ruled out compensation, the Rudd government will remain under pressure to change its mind. Of a dozen "stolen generations" cases prepared for the courts, all have failed but one: Bruce Trevorrow, who was fostered out while in hospital as an infant, was awarded $525,000 in damages last year in South Australia. Lobby groups want governments to bypass the legal system and pay compensation directly. Helen Moran, co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee and a stolen generations member, doesn't think reparation needs to be made in dollars alone: "Anything is possible. After all, we never thought we would get an apology." Her skepticism about government has given way to hope: "I now believe there's a genuine commitment there."
The Australian apology has given hope to other indigenous peoples. Phil Fontaine, national chief of Canada's Assembly for First Nations, watched the speeches with his staff in his Ottawa office. The Canadian government has agreed to a $1.9 billion settlement fund for the 80,000 former students of Indian residential schools, a $5 billion fund for individual compensation, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear people's stories. But a national apology is yet to be offered. And without it, says Fontaine, true reconciliation won't happen. When it does come, "We hope it will be as dramatic, as profound and as complete as the apology we witnessed in Australia yesterday. It was a moment for the ages."
If it is to endure, the apology must bring action. Countless inquiries and billions of dollars have failed to fix chronically poor Aboriginal health, education and housing, but Rudd believes the new atmosphere of goodwill will invigorate the quest for solutions. "Let's seize the day," he told Parliament. "Let this not be a moment for mere sentimental reflection." Rudd knows that while inspiring words can shape nations, it is deeds that write a people's history.