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Colours: Australia's stolen children


Something remarkable is taking place across Australia. Thousands of Australians have decided that they cannot leave others to heal the wounds of our past, and are taking on the job themselves.

It is a huge job. British settlement of this continent devastated Aboriginal society, and today the Aboriginal community struggles with appalling rates of ill-health and addiction, the symptoms of a culture of despair. If this situation is to change, the despair must be replaced by hope. This is where a significant new trend is emerging.

In 1991 the Government established and funded a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Under the leadership of a distinguished Aboriginal, Pat Dodson, the Council went to work. Before long, all over the country, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians were meeting each other in `study circles'. In those circles, many have begun to see our history through Aboriginal eyes for the first time.

One issue kept emerging in the discussions: the policy under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in white foster-families and in white institutions. The policy began around 1900--a time when the number of full-blood Aboriginal people was declining fast, and it was widely believed that they would die out. But the number of people of mixed race was growing and, because practically all the mothers were Aboriginal, they were mostly being brought up in Aboriginal communities. The Australian authorities looked on Aboriginal culture as worthless and wanted these children brought up in a Western cultural tradition, with the aim of making Australia a wholly Western country. So in many differing ways, often simply sending the local policeman to grab the children, children were removed. This went on into the 1970s, has left deep wounds in the Aboriginal community, and had never been seriously investigated.

So the Government set up an inquiry, chaired by a former High Court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson. `This inquiry was like no other I have undertaken,' he said. `Others were intellectual exercises, a matter of collating information and making recommendations. But for these people to reveal what had happened to them took immense courage and every emotional stimulus they could muster. They spoke not from their minds but from their hearts. And my heart had to open if I was to understand them.'

When the report was tabled in Parliament in 1997, it shocked the nation. It told of children subjected to abuse of all kinds, and immense suffering. The policy was not just wrong, the report stated. It was `genocidal'. This was not a judgement on the families and institutions in which the children had been placed--some were well cared for, though many were not. But the policy's aim was the disappearance of Aborigines as a distinct group; and this was genocide, as defined in the Convention on Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949. A national apology and measures for reparation were called for.

By the time the Inquiry reported, however, a new Australian Government had been elected. This Government's view was that Aboriginal interests had won too many concessions thanks to an undue sense of guilt among white Australians. They tried to ignore the report.

But the people of Australia did not. `Bringing Them Home' sold far more copies than any comparable report, and provoked soul-searching debate all over the country. According to Alan Thornhill, the Associated Press correspondent in Canberra, it was one of the two biggest news stories of the year. Many began to understand aspects of our past which had passed them by and wanted to express their pain. `Sorry Books' were created and circulated. Hundreds of thousands of Australians signed them and wrote messages which are deeply moving.

The report recommended that there should be a Sorry Day when the whole community could grieve together for the harm done. All across the country community groups, schools, churches started planning. On the Day, people of all races came together in cities, towns and rural centres. Many Aboriginal people found this outpouring of community empathy profoundly healing. As one woman--who had been removed from her family, and later her children had been removed from her--said on ABC TV, `At last, we are coming back into the family.' It was the biggest event for racial reconciliation that had ever been held in Australia, and received massive media coverage.

It showed that there is an extensive network of people throughout the country who want to make amends. So those of us who organised last year's Sorry Day, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, decided to go on. The first step in restoring a relationship is to grieve together and say `sorry' for the harm done. The next step is to overcome the continuing consequences of the wrong.

So a `Journey of Healing' was launched. Again, it caught the imagination of thousands of people. Events took place all over Australia, developed by small groups, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who enlisted others, raised the money, and organised publicity as their contribution to healing.

The first event took place at Uluru, the monolithic rock at the heart of the continent. Many `stolen generations' people feel keenly their estrangement from their Aboriginal roots. So the Aboriginal community at Uluru offered to hold a ceremony of `welcome back'. On 5th May, representatives of the stolen generations from every State and Territory gathered there and were invited by the Uluru community to join them in a ceremonial dance. The Uluru elders then handed them music sticks painted with messages expressing healing.

Music sticks had been chosen to symbolise the Journey because two are needed to make music, just as Australia needs its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. The `stolen generations' shared them with non-Aboriginal participants. Together the music sticks were brought back to the States and Territories, where they featured in events launching the Journey on 26th May.

Most cities chose a procession to symbolise the launch. In Adelaide, a thousand people walked to forgotten places such as the site of Piltawodli, a Kaurna school opened by German missionaries in 1839. School children sang there in Kaurna, perhaps for the first time since 1845, when troops demolished the buildings and the children were moved to an all-English school which banned their language. In Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, hundreds took part in colourful processions through their city centres, beginning and ending with commemorations. Many city suburbs, country towns and rural centres organised their own events, as did hundreds of schools, churches and community organisations. There was plenty of music, with two new CDs launched. Two TV stations screened programmes about the Journey.

Whereas last year the focus was on the removal policies, this year the media also carried stories of the foster parents to whom the children went, and of the pain and joy of separated families linking up. Medical journals got involved too, with articles aimed at helping doctors better understand the continuing effects of the removal policies.

There is much yet to do. Many Aboriginal people have taken steps on their journey of healing. But health and social statistics show that many are still alienated and in despair. The non-Aboriginal community can help, if we recognise that the arrogance and blindness which led to the forced removal policies are in us still, and we need healing too.

Coming together across racial divides and listening to each other is a vital first step towards healing our communities, and we will be encouraging this in coming months. We will also focus on the `Bringing Them Home' report, many of whose 54 recommendations can be implemented by local governments and community groups.

But already Aboriginal leaders say they have noticed a greater understanding of the problems their people face. The stolen generations have contributed significantly to this, with their determination to focus on healing rather than blame. At the Journey's launch in the Great Hall of Parliament in Canberra, a thousand people joined in the theme song, written by two Aboriginals who have suffered from the removal policies:

Come join the journey, Journey of Healing

Let the spirit guide us, hand in hand

Let's walk together into the future

The time has come to make a stand.

Let's heal our hearts, let's heal our pain,

And bring the stolen children home again

For our native children to trust again

We must take this journey together as friends.

The journey will not be easy, particularly when it enters contentious territory such as a fair division of land. But it can lead us to a society where there is mutual respect and appreciation between our first peoples and the wider community. That is a goal worth striving for.

John Bond, Australia

Last update: 2000-02-12 19:41:29 (EEST).
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