Tuesday, February 12

On the eve of the Apology

A few years ago, after a ceremony which first saw the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly alongside our other flags outside the Gosford City Council building, I joined the group of Aboriginal and white people and listened to stories of the Stolen Generations.

One told of her mother's life, scrubbing floors in the convent school in a big town in the west of NSW to pay for her children's education. As a girl, the speaker had wondered at the lack of a wider family, and after some determined inquiries discovered her mum had been removed from the Taree region on the mid-north coast

One man introduced himself as coming from Bree [Brewarrina, in the northwest of NSW], then broke down, sobbing. Others rushed to comfort him.

Me? I'm standing behind the speakers, praying those cameras from NBN3 are pointed elsewhere as I touch a handkerchief to my eyes.

Damn, I thought. Now I'll never make Quadrant editor. I seem to recall that when the Quadrant board ousted Robert Manne as editor because of his sympathy to Aboriginal people, incoming editor Paddy McGuinness promised there would be no more mawkish sentimentality.

But I'm a journalist, and I've got a responsibility to check these stories before I recount them. Could I be witnessing some form of mass hysteria?

After all, it doesn't take much thought to recall other ideas in which many Australians suspended their normal commonsense. The notion, now seen to be laughable, that Joh was a decent man who'd make a fine prime minister. The belief that anyone who'd used a typewriter had been crippled for life. That aeroplanes would fall from the sky as computer clocks failed to recognise the new century. That share prices would rise for ever, without pause.

So I did check what I could, and I believe the stories were true. With the woman who discovered her extended family around Taree, I was able to offer extra information about some of her relatives from John Ramsland's history of Aboriginal-European relationships in the Manning Valley, Custodians of the Soil (published by the Greater Taree City Council, 2001).

Yet there are problems in assessing the nature and the impact of the policy of removing light-coloured children from Aboriginal mothers. I can turn to oral histories in where Aboriginals agree they were removed from dreadful situations. I hesitate to do so because it sets off that chorus from over Quadrant way: "Saved generations . . . saved generations . . ."

Should we also distinquish between those children snatched from the arms of their mothers and those whose mothers handed them over believing it would give them a better future. Did white Australia betray the trust of mothers who handed over their children?

Why did governments remove the light-skinned children? Was it to remove them from squalid living conditions -- in which case, why not do something about the appalling shanties in which the dark children remained? Or was it to reclaim them as white people, and breed out their aboriginality?

Here's another reason, related by Ted Fields: "Many white men had children with Aboriginal women and some of these children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers and placed into white institutions from 1883 until 1969. Sometimes the fathers did not want the children close to their homes . . . "

George Fernando remembers his mother saying that sometimes the respectable white men didn't want little black children saying, "There is my daddy", when their white wives returned to the farm.

These stories are taken from oral histories recorded by Cilka Zagar, a long-term teacher at St Joseph's in Walgett, and published in Goodbye Riverbank (Magabala Books, 2000). In the same book, Lucy Murphy says: "White people have always been nice to me and I am grateful to them for saving my life."

How good, or how bad, were institutions like Cootamundra Girls Home or Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey? Most former residents have bad memories, but Ms Murphy said she found a protective and nurturing environment.

As with so many issues on which Australians disagree, the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, my reading, my discussions with Aboriginal people and what I believe to be my understanding of the history of European-Aboriginal relationships convince me our nation owes a heartfelt apology to Aboriginal people.

I'd like the apology to cover all the damage inflicted on Aboriginal people (while acknowledging that often, but not always, this damage was done without evil or genocidal intent), but if it's to be just for the Stolen Generations, it will still be worthwhile.

We should learn the text of the apology after 5pm today (Tuesday, February 12) and it's to be delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson tomorrow.

This may be a good place to pause. I had planned to offer thoughts on a scornful, and to my mind cheap and nasty, article in the Weekend Australian by the new Quadrant editor, Keith Windschuttle. I probably will soon, but I'd like to check some information first. Please come back.

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