‘Sorry’ isn’t the hardest word, so say it for the Stolen Generations

Non-Indigenous Australians should say sorry because they feel sympathy for the plight of the Stolen Generations, not because it was their fault. butupa

As we are about to mark the 14th National Sorry Day and the fourth since the National Apology was delivered by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, I can’t help but wonder if much has changed since the days when Aboriginal families such as mine had our children forcibly removed.

For many Aboriginal people, their lives are still controlled by government and various authorities, just like they were in the early days.

The Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to enable the Northern Territory Emergency Response (aka “The Intervention”) to be enforced by the Liberal government, and the succeeding Labor government has extended its implementation, in my opinion, to the detriment of those Aboriginal people and communities it affects.

But all that is on a national level. Personally, I believe we are all connected by a common thread – some of us recognise this and others don’t. Some of us acknowledge that the pain of others is the distress of all, just as the happiness or contentment of others can be our own satisfaction.

I like to share my experiences as an Indigenous person. Some people find my stories about stolen family members distressing, confronting, challenging. I choose to tell them.

I am not one for tokenism - especially when I am asked to talk about identity, the Stolen Generations and Sorry Day. I have often been asked by students, “But why should I say sorry? I wasn’t there. I personally didn’t do anything.”

My response goes something like this: “When someone dies, we go to a funeral, we mourn the passing of a fellow human being who had a place in this world, and we tell their loved ones we are sorry for their loss. This ‘sorriness’ does not imply responsibility, but it extends remorse that someone is experiencing grief and loss.”

It is not hard to understand really. The other thing I like to point out about Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations, is that it is not an event buried in history.

Removal of children happened as recently as the early 70s.

The 1970s.

In my family alone, I have seven cousins who were, at different times during the 1950s and 1960s, removed from their family, culture and country, including one cousin who was brought up and lives in Holland.

My mother’s parents were both placed at Moore River Native Settlement, just north of Perth – even though they both had one white parent. My great-grandmothers were not suitable parents according to the “Chief Protector of Aborigines” in WA. Ironic, considering many Aboriginal women who had their own children forcibly removed were often placed with white families, their main responsibility being to look after the children.

Every birthday my own mother has is another year that marks the day her son was removed. For years, we couldn’t understand why Mum didn’t like a fuss on her birthday. We later discovered it was because it was also her son’s birthday, and she had no idea what happened to him; no idea where he was.

We finally found out that my brother was adopted by a family from England. He and another Aboriginal boy were not only taken from their families; they were taken from their country, taken half-way around the world to be raised in Stockport.

I took that journey in 1992 to meet my brother, in Preston in the UK. Wow. My brother looks Aboriginal, but sounds like one of the Beatles.

All this happened five years before anyone had heard much of the “Stolen Generations”, years before the Bringing Them Home Report was received by parliament in 1997.

I was later to discover that I had another older sister. That made three sisters instead of two, and two brothers instead of one. My sister was brought up here in rural Victoria with a white family, and also with an Aboriginal brother.

I am so grateful that they each had an Aboriginal sibling to grow up with. We met in 1999 and are very close, but it’s inevitable you get to thinking about what’s been missed over those years.

The story of the Stolen Generations is not simply history. It is not something in the past that we “need to get over”. The time lost between family members is something that can never be replaced.

Personally, the lead up to Sorry Day is fraught with emotion and anxiety. I can only recall how it was to think I was one of four children, only to discover when I was 21 that I was actually one of six.

I never grew up with my big brother, because my big brother was not there. I never grew up with my second-eldest sister, because my second-eldest sister was not there.

My story is just one of many. Our stories can reach into people’s hearts, they can remind people of things they might take for granted, and they can influence the way we might go about addressing some of things that cause disadvantage and exclusion.

This is particularly so in relation to Indigenous people accessing education and educating others about the experiences, aspirations and realities of Indigenous peoples.

I suppose at a local level and personally, I can say I have space for hope working at a university. I am committed to taking on the next stage of our journey through simple communication, genuine engagement, and the awareness that Indigenous students and staff are more than worth the investment.