This week is Reconciliation Week. It is a time of national acknowledgement – of a fractured and broken past, of the ground that has been made in recent years, and more importantly, how far we have yet to go. The history of Australia is one of colonial occupation and dispossession, one that marginalised First Nations people and left a very fragmented and, at times, debased culture. It is time for a deeper understanding of a history that is yet to be properly written and openly acknowledged, for some aspects of it are too confronting. Among others, these include the Stolen Generations, the appalling record of Aboriginal deaths in custody, along with dedicated attempts over generations to see First Nations lands systematically occupied and appropriated in the name of development and progress. It is a troubled history that we need to confront in order to move ahead as one nation of diverse cultures, where all have fair and equal access to opportunity and resources.
As we move formally into Reconciliation Week, we acknowledge some key dates: May 26th, May 27th and June 3rd, each of which recognise failure in our national history that must open the door to further change moving forward.
- The first Sorry Day was held on 26 May 1998 – exactly one year after the Bringing Them Home Report was presented to the National Parliament. The Report was an inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families from the mid-1800s until the 1970s. It recommended that a formal apology should be forthcoming along with compensation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the ‘Stolen Generations’ who were forcibly removed from their families by government, welfare or church authorities and placed into institutional care or with non-Indigenous foster families. The impact has been painful, far reaching and enduring across generations.
- May 27th commemorates the national referendum of 1967 that formally included First Nations people in the political affairs of the nation. For the first time, Aboriginal people were included in the census and Parliament was given the power to legislate on behalf of Indigenous Australians. Both had been denied since settlement in 1788: in other words, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did not hold citizenship in a land they had occupied for over 40,000 years. While the referendum was an important political step forward it did not end discrimination: equal pay and conditions for employment was still many years away and equitable outcomes in education, health care and the criminal justice system still remain elusive.
- On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia, following a 10 year struggle by Eddie Mabo, abolished the myth of terra nullius – which literally means ‘nobody’s land’. The colonisation of Australia held that the land was legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited as part of the settlement process and all access to Indigenous rights were subsumed by British occupation. The decision of the High Court recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did indeed have rights to the land – rights that existed before the British arrived and should still exist today. The Mabo decision was a turning point in recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights, because it acknowledged their unique connection with the land. It led to the Australian Parliament to pass the Native Title Act in 1993, which revoked the dispossession and denial of land as the first act in the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Europeans. That accepted, there are still many claims for Native Title recognition before the courts that are yet to be addressed.
This is clearly a time for all Australians to reflect deeply, and in the process to come to a more informed understanding about how to move ahead. This lies at the heartland of where truth and healing co-exist. These messages were conveyed strongly at the Sorry Day Assembly held on Wednesday, with First Nations boys taking the lead via dance, ceremony and cultural expression. Under the watchful eye of Kaleb Taylor and Ezekiel Billy, the young men told their story to educate the school community about the significance of Sorry Day and the importance of a past that must be acknowledged in order for a more unified national future to be achieved. It was a moving occasion that celebrated the richness of First Nations culture in the College, one that we are very blessed and so fortunate to have.
The spirit of reconciliation was captured by the National Apology delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 10 years after the Bringing Them Home Report was released. The sentiments are important for all Australians to acknowledge:
“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians… For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.”
(13 February 2008)
Let this time of year be one of personal and national recognition, for it lies at the heartland of Australia’s future.