Who's Sorry Now?

Contrition seems to be universally fashionable these days. Look at all the statespeople who have apologized for the misdeeds of their nations. President Bill Clinton said sorry to the victims of Tuskegee. British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted regret for LondonÆs role in the Irish potato famine. French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged French assistance to Germany in World War II. Former South African President Frederick W. de Klerk apologized for apartheid (well, sort of). And, at the urging of a group of bipartisan white lawmakers, President Clinton is considering whether to issue an apology to African Americans for slavery.

But one leader has refused to capitulate to the trend. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has declared that he will not apologize to the "Stolen Generation"—as many as 100,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970, a removal sanctioned by law. European colonizers declared Australia Terra Nullius—"empty land." Aboriginal Australians were treated as part of the flora and fauna of the continent. Restrictive policies were employed to rigidly control every aspect of their lives.

One government policy was prompted by the belief that "half-caste" Aboriginal children were of superior intelligence and malleability than "full-blood" Aboriginals. Thus, without the permission of their parents, they were separated from their families and placed in state- and church-run institutions until they were adults. In 1909, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia wrote, "I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring." Aboriginal parents were prohibited from contacting their institutionalized children. In adulthood many of the separated children are unable to trace their families after parents and relatives have died.

IN AUGUST 1995 the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched an inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, inviting submissions from around the country. Last May the commission released its report, "Bringing Them Home," publicizing the hidden truth of Aboriginal Australian experience. In institutions, foster care, and adoptive families, according to the report, the stolen children’s "aboriginality was hidden, denied, or denigrated. Their labor was often exploited. They were exposed to substandard living conditions and a poor education. They were vulnerable to brutality and abuse. Many experienced repeated sexual abuse."

The inquiry found that Australian government policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families was designed to erase aboriginality and meets the international definition of genocide. The report recommended that governments should apologize for the wrongs done and compensation should be made. In response, Howard told parliament that he would neither make a formal national apology nor give compensation because it would indicate that "present generations of Australians are responsible and can be held accountable for the errors, wrongs, and misdeeds of earlier generations."

My experiences working with Aboriginal women showed me with devastating clarity that the forced removal of children is not ancient history. Separation from families is the life experience of even relatively young indigenous Australians. The grief and intergenerational trauma of forced removal are major causes of mental and physical health problems in Aboriginal communities today. Many non-Aboriginal Australians living now voted for governments that carried out child removal policies.

Even when events are further removed in time, those whose ancestors were oppressors benefit from the societal structures put in place. The recent spate of apologies have expressed regret for historic wrongs, but they have failed to acknowledge that the past is not gone and is not unrelated to us. Material circumstances and past assumptions are absorbed into the present, shaping our reality.

The racism that inspired the separation policies lives on in inequality and injustice for Aboriginal people today. Non-Aboriginal Australians continue to be beneficiaries of land acquired through the dispossession and separation of Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people deserve an official apology and compensation. An apology is also important to me as a non-Aboriginal Australian. My existence in Australia has been premised on the first Europeans’ assumption of Aboriginal non-existence. Until I acknowledge the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history of my birthplace, I cannot understand my identity as an Australian.

The Australian governor general explains that "the nation as a whole must remain diminished until there is an acknowledgment and retreat from these injustices." An apology to oppressed groups offers nations an opportunity that can lead to action for justice and wholeness. Contrition is an indispensable step on the path to reconciliation.

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"Who's Sorry Now?"
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