Ten years ago today, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd made his most notable address to parliament, saying “sorry” to the Stolen Generations. After more than a decade of John Howard’s stubborn refusal, a national apology from government felt like no small victory.
Current day child removal rates remain shockingly high in each state and territory, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people make up nearly 60% of youth detainees.
Closing the Gap statistics remain dismal and incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are through the roof. There is no doubt that the apology was a momentous gesture in the history of reconciliation. Yet, as is often the case with symbolic gestures of government, the political capital gained far exceeds the investment made in changing the day-to-day reality of victims’ lives.
Brian Morley, now 60, was two and a half when he was removed from his family in Dimboola and adopted into a non-Indigenous family. He did not find out his heritage until he was 28 years old, when he received his adoption records and discovered his mother was Aboriginal. Brian says that he is glad that Kevin Rudd made an apology, but that not a lot has changed.
“I still feel the same as I always have. It was a good acknowledgement, a good first step but it seems it is the only step that has been taken.”
With regards to compensation, he says, “it’s not just about the money, it’s about what goes on in between your ears. The major damage that has been done to people is emotional.”
Eva Jo Edwards, now 54, was removed from her parents in Swan Hill as a five-year-old, and transferred to Melbourne, where she was institutionalised for the next 13 years. Her brother was also removed, aged only six months, and tragically committed suicide from the trauma on his 25th birthday.
Reflecting on the national apology, Edwards says it was a time when the nation came together, but not much has been done since. “We would have expected a bit more, especially down here in Victoria — access to healing programs, access to compensation, access to more counselling. You wouldn’t be thinking children would still be being removed. A lot of our kids are still lost due to the generational trauma.”
Like Morley, Edwards says there should be a focus on mental health and well-being.
“We need crisis counselling, but the waiting list is huge. Our kids are waiting to get into counselling. It’s about looking to the future — we don’t have enough parenting programs, the trauma hasn’t been dealt with. You know — we can all say sorry, but the pain is still there. Sorry is only part of it, just a tiny aspect in all of this. I’m still dealing with my traumas every other day.”
A national apology was just one of the 54 recommendations tabled in 1997 as part of the Bringing Them Home report, to be enacted in conjunction with numerous other initiatives, including healing and cultural restitution programs, education and health measures, and redress.
This week, the Labor party announced they would initiate a Commonwealth redress scheme that would cover the Northern Territory and ACT.
And while some states — including South Australia, Tasmania and most recently New South Wales — have offered forms of redress, Victoria is yet to provide any compensation specifically for the Stolen Generations.
However, perhaps even more unjust than the lack of adequate redress, is the repeated mistakes made by successive governments, who continue to ignore not only the recommendations of Bringing Them Home, but also the history contained within.
The impetus for the national inquiry into the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (which led to Bringing Them Home) was, in fact, the revelation that nearly half of the 99 individuals investigated as part of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been removed and institutionalised as children.
As such, the link between child removal, youth justice and adult incarceration — leading in some instances to tragic deaths in custody — has been known since 1991.
Ten years after the apology, the cycle of child removal, youth justice and incarceration still continues to widen the “gap” — a gap Kevin Rudd still insists his apology would help to close.
It is solemn contemplation that in 50 years from now, another apology might well be due.