As most of you will know, yesterday was a historic day here in Australia. The Government and Parliament formally apologised to the Aboriginal people for past wrongs, and specifically for the systematic removal of Aboriginal children from their families, ie. the Stolen Generations.
I started explaining the issue to Ella after I burst into tears last weekend when reading a story of a member of the Stolen Generation (it turned out to be the story that opposition leader Nelson quoted in his speech). Even though at first I found it too harsh to tell her why I was crying when reading the paper, I did eventually explain in very simple terms what it was about and that we should say sorry to the Aboriginal people to show them how sad we are about what happened to their children.
When I asked her a couple of days later if she remembered why we are saying sorry. She said: “Because we are very sad”. When asked why we are sad, she said “Because the white people long time ago took the kids away from their mummies and daddies. And that was very sad. That was a bit naughty, wasn’t it?”.
The same night I interrupted our reading books to listen to the report on the actual text of the apology on the news and the one thing that Ella picked up and repeated to me was: “Mum, we have to say sorry to the sisters!”
Totally coincidentally she also found a book with Aboriginal stories on her bookself a few days ago and now I can explain to her that the Aboriginal people were already living here when the kangaroo did not yet have a tail.
This is an issue very close to my heart. I think some people may find it hard to understand why I feel so strongly about it considering that I wasn’t even born in this country, have only been here for 10 years, am in no way related to the people who supported the forced removal policy then and my background could hardly be more different than that of the Aboriginal people.
You could argue that it is just my passion for social justice and that would definitely have lots to do with it.
But I think just the fact that I am a migrant gives me another reason to feel very strongly about reconciliation with the indigenous people of this country. When I first came out here – knowing next to nothing about Australian history – I got thoroughly confused when I tried to grasp this concept of ‘white Australian’ history only starting 200 years ago. I just could not understand how white Australians dealt with this geographically fragmented history. I grew up in a country where my forefathers were the firts humans to have lived on that land. And when I say ‘land’ I mean a tiny patch of it compared to Australia! That is why I feel I can understand when the Aboriginals talk about their connection with the land.
And that’s why I think Aboriginal history is an important link in our (as in ALL Australians) connection to the land we live on. Personally, I feel that through learning about and connecting with Aboriginal culture I will allow myself (and Ella) to grow deep roots in this land. And so for me saying sorry for this most horrific result of the policy of assimilation is a first step in acknowledging how important their history and culture is to us.
So yes, I felt very excited and emotional when we drove to the lawns of Parliament House early yesterday morning to see Prime Minister Rudd deliver his historic speech on the big screen surrounded by thousands of people from all over the country. The speech and the way it was delivered by Rudd was impressive. It showed great empathy and leadership and a way with words that made Rudd’s predecessors seem like grunting cavemen.
The Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, did somewhat spoil the moment. I heard someone describe his speech as “going all non-sorry”. I thought he was downright insulting. I saw a father trying to cover his 6yo son’s ears when Nelson started to describe the recent rape and murder of a 4yo girld in an Aboriginal community in graphic detail. This was part of his defense of the intervention in the Northern Territory which I – and many with me – regard as barbaric and counter-productive.
I was very dissapointed that I had to leave soon after the speeches. While I was driving Ella to her dance class, my friend sent a text just saying: “John Butler”. I swore. I love him and Ella knows his music too and it would’ve been so moving to watch him perform “From little things, big things grow” in that crowd.
But I’m glad we went and were part of it. I’m glad I will be able to tell Ella about this when she gets older and can understand more of the nuances. I’m glad to be living in Australia and yesterday for the first time ever I felt genuinely proud to be Australian.
I feel hope and yesterday felt like a new beginning for Australia and that makes me extra happy for Ella, who will inherit the decisions we make now.