Hard to Say Sorry: Indigenous Australia's Reconciliation Movement

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Author: Sonia Benson
Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Nancy Matuszak , and Meghan Appel O'Meara
Date: 2002
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,651 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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Beginning in the nineteenth century Australia had assimilation policies under which aboriginal children (the "Stolen Generation") were separated from their parents, to be raised in institutions or foster homes. Although the practice of separating children from their families ended in the 1970s the devastation to the indigenous individuals and communities has continued. The reconciliation movement was established in the early 1990s to familiarize Australia with this aspect of its own history, to ensure honest and equal relations in the future. Prime Minister John Howard, elected in 1996, has refused to offer an official apology to the aboriginal people and reconciliation has not been achieved.


  • Australia is the only former British colony that never signed a treaty with its native peoples. Because of this, many feel that aboriginal rights are at the whim of each elected administration.
  • Among Australians striving to advance indigenous rights, some believe that the symbolic gestures of reconciliation—such as the official apology and public awareness of history—will pave the way for the more substantial changes in legislation that are needed.


  • Aboriginal and Torres Islander Australians, forced from their traditional lands and marginalized from European society, have been impoverished, and live in conditions well below those of non-indigenous Australians.
  • Many believe that John Howard refuses to apologize for the stolen generations from a fear that such an apology could lead to compensation payments to all the people who were victimized by the governmental policy.


• Assimilation for Australia's aboriginal children and children of mixed descent was expressly seen to involve the destruction and elimination of the cultural heritage, languages, traditions, and family history of aboriginal peoples. In attempting to stamp out all traces of the aboriginal cultures, the Australian government was committing genocide.

On December 15, 2001, in Canberra, Australia, a large group of indigenous Australians and supporters gathered to protest the government's new US$2.9 million monument commemorating aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. Some aboriginal peoples of Australia reject the terms that are used to identify them, such as "natives," "aborigines," and "indigenous peoples." Most aboriginal groups refer to themselves in native language words referring to their own specific group. The word "Koori" is often used to mean all aboriginal peoples, but the term used by the government and most journalists and academics is "aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders." Torres Strait Islanders live in islands to the northeast of Australia, and have a distinct culture and language. The commemorative monument, Reconciliation Place, had been built in the midst of federal government buildings in Canberra to "acknowledge the history of the nation's first peoples, our shared history, and our desire as a nation to move forward together and share a harmonious future," in the official words of the government. It was built just in time for the November elections, in which Australian Prime Minister John Howard won another term in office.

The protestors believe the monument whitewashes the history of the "Stolen Generation," the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 aboriginal children separated from their families by force under an Australian assimilation policy that ended in the 1970s. Many believe the Australian government's past actions constituted genocide; they were aimed at the extermination of a culture, and the long-term effects are still devastating to the victims and the aboriginal communities. The monument's display of the separation policy, however, depicts happy children in comfortable and facilitating Page 25  |  Top of Article Page 26  |  Top of Article
MAP OF AUSTRALIA. (© Maryland Cartographics. Reprinted with permission.) MAP OF AUSTRALIA. (© Maryland Cartographics. Reprinted with permission.) environments, either with foster families or in schools.

The demonstration protesting the monument is just one indication of the deep conflict between the Australian government and the country's growing reconciliation movement, which strives to elicit significant symbolic as well as practical changes in future relations between aborigines and the government. The belief behind reconciliation is that the past wrong must be officially acknowledged and repented—history must be accepted, and then the nation can move on.

It has only been in recent years that the practice of taking aboriginal children away from their parents—which began in the late nineteenth century and peaked from about 1910 to the late 1960s—has openly been reviled by those in power in Australia. For decades the policies were generally regarded as charitable efforts to provide aboriginal children with better homes and opportunities. In August 1995 Australia's Labor government commissioned an investigation into the "Stolen Generation." In May 1997 the human rights commission report Bringing Them Home was tabled in Parliament after a lengthy and emotional investigation headed by Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson. The 680-page report concluded that the assimilation policy was not just wrong but genocidal, with an aim to eliminate aborigines as distinct Page 27  |  Top of Article groups. The report included hundreds of firsthand reports and was widely read throughout Australia. A passionate argument that an apology was due to the victims of the government's past crimes and that reparations were in order was part of the report:

The actions of the past resonate in the present and will continue to do so in the future. The laws, policies and practices which separated Indigenous children from their families have contributed directly to the alienation of Indigenous societies today …. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation.

The native inhabitants of Australia number about 400,000 people in a total population of 19 million. It is said that almost every aboriginal family in Australia today has suffered from the forced separation of children from their parents. Indigenous communities, too, have experienced tremendous disruption to health, education, and economic development because of the assimilation policies, adding one more obstacle to the recovery of an already severely disadvantaged group. Poverty and unemployment among aboriginal peoples are rampant. Life expectancy is 15 to 20 years lower than for non-indigenous Australians. Family breakdowns, drug and alcohol abuse, and the highest suicide rate of Australia plague modern-day aboriginal society. Aboriginal juveniles are 30 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous youth.

Like that of the United States, Australia's colonial history is one of devastation for the indigenous people. Disease and violence at the hands of the mainly British settlers wiped out vast numbers. Those who survived most often lost their traditional lands and were treated as second-class citizens or worse. Australia was slow to grant basic rights to the indigenous groups, who did not gain the rights of citizenship until the 1960s.

For some Australians, viewing history through the light of "white guilt," rather than the rugged heroism of legend, is uncomfortable. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in a 2000 speech sums up the struggle in store for the non-indigenous Australian public in grappling with its national history:

It is hard to realise that the history we were taught of a great empty land being settled by brave explorers was largely false. It is hard for us to understand that the real history of Australia was quite different from that which we were taught as children. It might be harder still for some of us who have known people of influence and respect, who participated in policies which today we regard as outdated, barbarous, cruel and racist.

John Howard, elected prime minister in 1996, has been an outspoken opponent of what he calls the "black-armband view of history," in which the heroic deeds of white settlers are forgotten in the process of viewing the damage they did. Howard does not believe that shame can attach from one generation to the next and will not apologize for the acts of Australian governments before him. He does not support compensation for the sufferings imposed by a past government. Many observers believe that he equates an official apology with an admission of guilt, and fears that the government of Australia could be held financially accountable for the theft of life, family, and income for the "Stolen Generation" if he were to make an apology. In fact, Howard, his Aboriginal and Torres Islander Affairs Minister John Herron, and other members of his coalition government have denied that the Stolen Generation exists.

Howard has expressed his preference for "practical reconciliation." Some steps were planned within his government to advance living conditions for aborigines, particularly in terms of helping separated families to find lost members, get counseling, and participate in oral history projects. In 1997 Howard promised $63 million in funding for these and other projects, but critics later claimed that only a small portion (in 2000, about $13 million) of these funds were put to use. Howard and many of his ministers have remained steadfast in their refusal to grant special awards or treaties to the indigenous for any past events.


Scientists believe that aboriginal occupation of Australia reaches back to about 50,000 BCE or earlier, the longest continuous cultural history known to humankind. Before the eighteenth century there were hundreds of distinct groups of people living on the continent, speaking as many as 200 different languages. All of the groups had their own customs, but there were many shared traits among Australia's first peoples as well.

The traditional life style was nomadic, and most lived as hunter-gatherers. Social networks among the various groups demanded a certain amount of multilingualism. Tribes held their own traditional lands, and territorial boundaries were respected. Among the many aspects of art and culture in the pre-contact indigenous societies, knowledge of The Dreaming or the Dreamtime Page 28  |  Top of Article stands out. The rules for living were set down in The Dreaming: relationships, law, spirituality, history, and caring for the land. It was and still is a central social feature of aboriginal groups in Australia.

When the first Europeans arrived in Australia from Portugal and Holland, there were an estimated 300,000 aborigines in about 250 tribal groups. In 1770 British explorer Captain James Cook (1728-79) landed in Botany Bay, a short distance from the location of the city of Sydney today. He named the land New South Wales and claimed it for Britain. The British then decided to make Botany Bay a penal settlement. In January 1788, a fleet of eleven ships landed there with a mission to colonize the land and a strange group of settlers: 759 unwilling convicts from England, along with guards and crew and provisions. There were almost immediate conflicts between the indigenous groups and the settlers. The aborigines had no immunity to diseases brought by the Europeans, and epidemics swept through the tribes, bringing many near extinction.

In the 1850s gold was discovered in Australia and a tremendous influx of Europeans arrived in the ensuing rush. At the same time, the industrial revolution was increasing England's demand for Australia's natural resources, and more colonists arrived to make their fortunes. The colonists did not honor the aboriginal territories, declaring the continent to be terra nullius, or free and uninhabited by humans. The aboriginal groups resisted, but the Europeans took most of the fertile lands and forced the indigenous groups into Australia's harsh interior. Deprived of their traditional means of subsistence and finding few alternatives, many aboriginal people were impoverished. They suffered from hunger, disease, alcoholism, and the continuing violence of the settlers.

"Protectionist" Measures

To the settler population in the mid-to late nineteenth century the sick and hungry aborigines who often dwelt on the fringes of towns were an uncomfortable sight. As the United States had done, the government set aside reserves for aborigines to live in. Because the indigenous people had been decimated by violence and disease, it was easy for the European population to forecast their ultimate extinction. Under the then-popular principles of social Darwinism the law of the "survival of the fittest" was at play, and the colonial theory was that the weak—the aboriginal people—would simply die out within decades. A significant number of settlers were more than willing to help them go: the massacres and atrocities toward aboriginal people in the nineteenth century were appalling. One of the practices of the early colonists was to abduct aboriginal children from their mothers. A profitable trade in children arose. Among settlers, stockmen, drovers, and teamsters, there were significant numbers who bought young boys or girls to serve them and sometimes to provide sexual services as well.

In 1837 the British investigated the treatment of indigenous people in all British colonies and found the Australian colonies to be particularly abusive. The British recommended that the Australian government appoint protectors of aborigines. Accordingly, in the 1860s the Board for the Protection of Aborigines was established to look after the interests of indigenous Australians. This board had the power to remove aboriginal children from families, generally to place them in reformatories or industrial schools where they were trained in skills considered useful to European settlers.

At the turn of the twentieth century six states of Australia (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania) federated under the new Federal Constitution of Australia. The constitution excluded the indigenous population from being counted as part of the new nation. It also excluded the federal government from enacting laws in regard to the indigenous population, thereby shifting the governing of aboriginal people to the state governments.

Within ten years all of the states except Tasmania had a form of what was called "protectionist legislation." Chief protectors in each state had extreme control over indigenous people, in some states becoming the legal guardian of all aboriginal children. In New South Wales, for example, the Aborigines Protection Act was passed in 1909, giving the chief protector power to take custody of an aboriginal child if neglect was determined. In 1915 the Aborigines Protection Amending Act in New South Wales gave the chief protector the power to remove children from their homes and families without any determination of neglect. One by one, the states adopted similar measures.

As forecast, the aboriginal people were indeed dying out under the harsh conditions they were forced to endure. There was a growing population, however, of mixed-descent children of indigenous mothers and European fathers. This group was troubling to the European-based population. Over time the states formulated policies of assimilating Page 29  |  Top of Article the children of mixed descent and forever disconnecting them from aboriginal traditions. Bringing Them Home provides a quote from the May 1937 Brisbane Telegraph describing the policies' intent. It begins by noting that Auber Octavius Neville, the Chief Protector of Western Australia, believed that the "pure black" would be extinct in one hundred years. Half-castes, however, were increasing every year. The idea behind the policies, then, was to segregate the pure blacks and take the half-castes into the white Australian population. "Sixty years ago," the paper noted, "[Neville] said, there were over 60,000 full-blooded natives in Western Australia. Today there are only 20,000. In time there would be none. Perhaps it would take one hundred years, perhaps longer, but the race was dying. The pure blooded Aboriginal was not a quick breeder. On the other hand the half-caste was. In Western Australia there were half-caste families of twenty and upwards. That showed the magnitude of the problem."

The Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference of 1937

The first national referendum on aboriginal affairs, the Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference of 1937, resolved that "the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end." From that time the Director of Native Welfare was the legal guardian of all aboriginal children. According to Bringing Them Home, this marked a turning point in Australian policy. Assimilation was the national goal for the "aboriginal problem," and the new destiny of the children of mixed descent was expressly seen to require the destruction and elimination of the cultural heritage, languages, traditions, and family history of aboriginal peoples. It was clearly assumed by the white Australian policymakers that there was nothing of value in the aboriginal culture.

Australia's former assimilation policies have been defended in modern times by the belief that those who carried them out were well intentioned and did not know of the potential harm in what they were doing. Many historians point out that this was not the case. From the early 1800s many spoke out on the cruelty and injustice of separation policies. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission notes, "From as early as 1874 warnings were sounded about the threat to family structures and systems; the links were clearly identified between the removal of young girl children for domestic work, and slavery; about the lack of
AN ABORIGINAL WOMAN IS ARRESTED BY POLICE IN A SYDNEY SUBURB KNOWN AS "THE BLOCK." MANY ABORIGINES LIVE IN POVERTY. (A/P Wide World. Reproduced by permission.) AN ABORIGINAL WOMAN IS ARRESTED BY POLICE IN A SYDNEY SUBURB KNOWN AS "THE BLOCK." MANY ABORIGINES LIVE IN POVERTY. (A/P Wide World. Reproduced by permission.) responsibility, authority and supervision of those involved in the forcible removal of children, and about the repressive conditions in which children were held."

The children of mixed descent were by far the most targeted for separation. The states differed on the most optimal ages to take the children from their mothers. Some felt it was best at birth, some at four years old, and many children were taken at older ages. Mothers were often deceived into giving up their children, or the children were just forcibly taken from them. The children were, when possible, taken far from home and further contact was usually not allowed or strongly discouraged.

Poor or no records were kept of the separated families, so that finding one's family after separation could be nearly impossible. Many of the children were told that their parents were dead. The children were taken to schools run by churches or charitable organizations, or to foster homes. Overall, the institutions that cared for removed children were grossly lacking in funding and could not adequately care for the children. Although Page 30  |  Top of Article there are reports of children ending up in loving homes and being well cared for, there are many reports of terrible abuse: malnutrition, neglect, forced servitude, sexual assault, physical abuse, and much more.

Children from full aboriginal families were less targeted for removal, but frequently taken from their parents as well. They were more often sent off to schools where they could learn to perform cheap labor for the European-based society of Australia.

From 1910 to 1970 it is believed that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 children were taken from their families. Because records were not kept, the true figures will never be known. The official figure is that 10 percent of aboriginal children were removed, but many estimate that it was as high as 30 percent. Somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 indigenous children were taken from their families. Some communities were harder hit than others; in some places, the number of aboriginal children taken from their parents approached 100 percent.

In the 1940s the states began to use an assimilationist-welfare model in their efforts with indigenous children. The removal of children began to be handled by state welfare departments, and a cause for removal, such as neglect or abuse, had to be determined. But it was evident that aboriginal children were being taken away from their families under very different circumstances, and far more frequently, than non-aboriginals. A third Native Welfare Conference held in 1951 reaf-firmed the national mission to assimilate the aboriginal children. During the 1950s and 1960s children removed from their families overflowed the institutions. More and more were placed with white foster families and some were even adopted at birth. Many of these children would never know their family name, the language or traditions of their parents, or even where they came from.

Because of strong racial discrimination in Australia, many aboriginal children who grew up in institutions and foster homes were to find a world that was unwilling to accept them, no matter how much of their culture had been erased from their memory. As adults they found themselves alienated from both the white and the black social worlds.

1967—Part of the Population

In 1967 a national referendum amended the federal constitution. For the first time, indigenous people were to be counted in the census. The federal government was given the power to legislate on aboriginal issues, and established the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Soon the term "assimilation," which was losing favor as it became clear that aboriginal people and their culture were not going to simply disappear, was replaced with the word "integration." Removal of indigenous children from their families continued. By the early 1970s various groups had begun to represent aboriginal families in court to challenge the removal of their children. Once it became apparent that the removals might have to be answered for in court, they decreased significantly. Although removal continued into the 1980s, a new surge of activism on the part of the aboriginal population that had begun in the 1960s was having a positive effect.

Connecting with the Past

By the end of the 1970s Australian policies slowly turned away from full-scale attempt to eliminate the cultures of the indigenous populations by the removal and reeducation of children, but the Australian public remained largely unaware of the magnitude of what had happened to the stolen generation and their families. Hundreds of thousands of aboriginal people had gone through the disruption of being separated from parent, child, or sibling without acknowledgement from the public or the government that something terrible had been done to them. The trauma experienced by several generations of indigenous families became cyclical, as psychological turmoil created in the past crossed into new generations.

Indigenous activists spoke out on the issue of the stolen generation and by the late 1980s the Australian government finally heard them. In 1991, through a unanimous agreement of Parliament, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was created to promote harmony between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians with a specific mission to make the public aware of the history of the stolen generations. One of the council's goals was to achieve reconciliation by 2001, the Australian centenary.

In 1992 the eight-year-old Mabo case brought international attention to Australian aborigines, when the High Court of Australia determined that a man named Eddie Mabo owned his own land—land that his family had been on for generations. The ruling was historical in that it overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, which had been clearly established in Australian law. The new judgment found that a native title to land did in fact exist in 1788 and could still exist if it had not been extinguished by later acts of the government. Page 31  |  Top of Article

After this important decision, the year 1993 was made the International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples. Prime Minister Paul Keating launched the Australian celebration of the year with words that paved the way for the reconciliation movement: "Mabo is an historic decision—we can make it an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between Indigenous and non Aboriginal Australians. The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include Indigenous Australians."

Bringing Them Home

In the early 1990s the government ordered an investigation on suicides committed by aboriginal people in jail: it turned out that 43 out of 99 suicides examined had been aborigines removed from their families as children under the government's assimilation policy. This was a startlingly clear indication that the psychological repercussions of the governmental policy were by no means over.

In 1994 representatives from all Australian states met in Darwin, Northern Territory, for the Going Home Conference, to discuss the plight of the stolen generation and the avenues available to connect the Australian public with the history of the assimilation policies.

In 1995 Australia's Attorney General, spurred on by the investigations into the suicides, commissioned a formal inquiry entitled "The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families" to be conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The inquiry had a four point objective: (1) "to examine the past and continuing effects of separation of individuals, families and communities"; (2) "to identify what should be done in response, which could entail Page 32  |  Top of Article recommendations to change laws, policies and practices, to re-unite families and otherwise deal with losses caused by separation"; (3) "to find justification for, and nature of, any compensation for those affected by separation"; and (4) to examine "current laws, policies and practices affecting the placement and care of Indigenous children."

Two men took charge of the inquiry, the commission president, Sir Ronald Wilson, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson. They appointed indigenous staff and advisors to help them. The two-year investigation throughout Australia was to bring in evidence from indigenous organizations, state and church representatives, non-government agencies, and mission and government employees, as well as confidential evidence taken in private from hundreds of members of the stolen generation through oral and written testimony.

For many of the members of the Stolen Generation who were asked to share their most painful memories, providing testimony was traumatic, and the commission had a counselor at hand to help them through the experience. As much as they suffered, though, many of the witnesses expressed relief at finally being able to tell their tale, as this letter of thanks from a participant indicates: "There is some good news I would like to pass on to you. Everyone I have spoken to has said it is like the world has been lifted off their shoulders, because at last we have been heard. For me I have grown stronger and now am able to move forward. You have played a significant part in my journey back …"

In 1996, during the two years while the investigation took place, John Howard of the Liberal Party was elected prime minister. From the start he took a harder line on aboriginal issues than the Labor Party administration before him. In May 1997 Bringing Them Home was tabled in the Australian Parliament. It provided nearly 700 pages of testimony, analysis, and recommendations for the future. The report firmly stated that the past government policy of separating children from their parents had constituted genocide: its aim was to eliminate the aborigines as a distinct group of people, in clear violation of the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia ratified the Convention on Genocide in 1949, which specified "forcibly transferring children of [a] group to another group with the intention of destroying the group" as an act of genocide. Bringing Them Home recommended many measures for remedy, including an apology from the federal government. For months Howard's administration did not respond.

The Australian public, however, was very interested. Tens of thousands of copies of an abridged edition of the report sold throughout the country and the media took up the subject in force. Sir Ronald Wilson, a former Justice of the High Court, is quoted in For a Change magazine describing the highly emotional content of the report: "This Inquiry was like no other I have undertaken….for these people to reveal what had happened to them took immense courage and every emotional stimulus they could muster…. We heard the story, told with that person's whole being, reliving experiences which had been buried deep, sometimes for decades. They weren't speaking with their minds, they were speaking with their hearts. And my heart had to open if I was to understand them."

Their testimony was to provoke deep and painful self-scrutiny among Australians. Sir Ronald goes on to describe his own reaction to what he was hearing: "I was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Western Australia at the time we ran Sister Kate's home, where 'stolen children' grew up. I was proud of the home, with its system of cottage families. Imagine my pain when I discovered, during this Inquiry, that children were sexually abused in those cottages."

Sorry Day

As a direct result of the report, Bringing Them Home, Australia celebrated the first National Sorry Day on May 26, 1998. The day was set aside for apologies, and they were plentiful. As church bells rang and children prayed, church leaders, state governments, and institutions publicly and often tearfully apologized for past mistreatment of aboriginal people. Communities staged a variety of events and activities. Thousands of people signed Sorry Books. Schools focused on aboriginal issues. National attendance at the Sorry Day activities estimated to be over a million. Howard, however, held out; no apology was heard from the federal government.

On Friday May 26, 2000, Australia celebrated its third Sorry Day (also called Journey of Healing Day), and thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous marchers flowed through cities throughout Australia. The next day "Corroboree 2000," a conference sponsored by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, was held in Sydney. The council presented a Declaration for Reconciliation and proposals for future action to the federal Page 33  |  Top of Article government. On Sunday more than 250,000 people in Sydney took the "Walk for Aboriginal Reconciliation," crossing the Harbour Bridge to show their support for the council's proposals. It was the largest march of its kind in Australian history. Again, the prime minister did not make an appearance. Later in the year the city of Melbourne held a similar walk.


1947-and 1950-Indigenous activists, statesmen, and brothers Patrick (1947-) and Mick Dodson (1950-) have worked tirelessly on the reconciliation movement in their efforts to raise awareness and promote change. They are members of the Yawuru peoples of the Broome area of Western Australia. Patrick was born in Broome; Mick was born in Katherine, a small town in the Northern Territory. Their family history, like most indigenous Australians', revolves around Australia's removal policies.

Their grandmother was the daughter of an Irish man and an aboriginal woman. Under assimilation policies she had been taken from her home and placed in a mission. Around the time of her grandsons' births she applied for citizenship under the Native Citizen Rights Act of Western Australia. Despite her enforced education she was denied citizenship, the judge telling her that she "had not adopted the manner and habits of civilized life."

The Dodsons' mother and later two older sisters were also placed in the same mission, and the sisters went to an orphanage, although their parents were still alive. When the Dodsons' parents died in 1960, Patrick was made a ward of the state. An aunt and uncle successfully battled in court to keep Mick out of state guardianship, having been brought up in the mission themselves and wishing to spare him. Both brothers got scholarships and went on to successful university careers. Patrick studied to become a Catholic priest, but left the church in 1981 because it did not allow for his belief that aboriginal and Christian rites celebrated the same spiritual force. Mick got his law degree.

Both brothers then went to work on indigenous issues. Mick worked with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service from 1979 to 1981. He served as senior legal adviser for the Northern Land Council in 1984, becoming its director in 1990. Patrick worked for the Central Land Council in Alice Springs and then became the chair of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1989. Mick worked with his brother as counsel to this commission from 1988 to 1990. He then became an active participant in drawing up the 1993 Native Title Act. Patrick went on to become the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. Because of his advocacy, he is known as the "father of reconciliation."

In 1993 Mick became Australia's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity. The same year he was named Co-Deputy Chair of the Technical Committee for the 1993 International Year of the World's Indigenous People. The job that he said affected him most, however, was to come in 1995, when Australia's Attorney General commissioned a formal inquiry entitled "The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families" to be conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In 1997 he and Sir Ronald Wilson had completed the landmark investigation and released the report Bringing Them Home.

As chair of the Reconciliation Council, Patrick was a long-time proponent of a treaty enshrining indigenous peoples' rights in Australia. The Council was a federally supported organization, and after John Howard was elected prime minister, it became clear to Patrick that the administration would oppose him on almost all fronts, so he stepped down from his position in 1997. Mick, in the meantime, served his 5-year term as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and was not appointed to a second term. He went on to work with the United Nations, helping to determine international standards for indigenous rights in the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Patrick continues to be involved in issues relating to the maintenance of Yawuru culture and language. Both brothers, though disgusted with the setbacks that have occurred under the current administration, have continued traveling through the nation and speaking on aboriginal rights and reconciliation. The Dodson brothers are charismatic and insightful commentators and have made a tremendous difference in keeping the urgent issues and plight of aborigines in the public eye.

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In July 2000 the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a formal censure to Australia and the Howard administration for its handling of the issues involved in the Stolen Generation controversy. In November 2001 Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology from the Vatican for the past actions of members or organizations of the Catholic Church in connection with the stolen generation. By that time all of Australia's state governments had offered official apologies for past abuses as well. Howard offered regrets, but still refused to make an official apology. Although he faces strong opposition from the large reconciliation movement and its supporters nationwide, Howard was reelected for another term in 2001.


There are two prominent strains within the indigenous campaign for reconciliation. Since 1997 and the release of Bringing Them Home there has been strong support for the symbolic gestures of healing: apologies, support, public awareness, and righting history. The many proponents of reconciliation between the indigenous and the non-indigenous believe that the knowledge of history and the spirit of apology, forgiveness, and acceptance, will pave the way for more substantial changes in the form of legislation or treaties.

Other indigenous activists, however, have repudiated the symbolic or spiritual nature of the reconciliation movement and want to work on the practical issues at hand. The indigenous population of Australia is impoverished and faces tremendous hurdles of racial discrimination, violence, drug and alcohol addiction, disease, and welfare dependency. Having lost their traditional manner of survival and having been marginalized out of the mainstream occupations for more than a century, many aboriginal people have lost the skills and structures of self-reliance. Rather than dwell on what some call "liberal guilt," some indigenous activists would prefer to concentrate on economic, community, and political change that will remove the barriers to self-sufficiency.

The need for solid change is agreed upon by both groups of activists. The centenary of the Australian Federation came and went without reconciliation; John Howard never relented in his refusal to apologize. As soon as Howard came into office, he pledged to undo some of the Mabo decision on native title. The results were his Native Title Act Amendments, which extinguished significant indigenous rights to traditional lands in favor of Australian farmers. In March 1999 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) sharply criticized the Australian government for these amendments, saying that they discriminated against indigenous landholders in favor of the non-indigenous in a variety of ways. Thus, the steps forward for aboriginal communities have been at the mercy of the elected leaders and can be reversed with a change in administration.

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Australia is unusual in that it was the only British colony that never signed a treaty with its native peoples. Most native rights activists agree that a treaty between the government and the indigenous people is now in order, one that would specify indigenous rights to land, culture, language, self-determination, social justice, and equity. Further, it could stipulate that indigenous people be represented in Parliament, provide for reparation and compensation for cultural dispossession, and establish conditions for independent law and economic structures. Besides the lack of a treaty, Australia operates under a constitution that lacks acknowledgement of the special status and rights of indigenous people. The constitutional amendment of 1967, according to some, is not compelling in ruling against discrimination against aboriginal people. Many would like to see an amendment or a Bill of Rights.

Because the Howard government has been so oppressive in its dealings with indigenous affairs, many indigenous rights leaders and spokespeople have felt obliged to step down from prominent positions, notably including the two brothers Patrick Dodson, the chair of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation (known to some as the "father of reconciliation") and Mick Dodson, the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity, who co-chaired the Bringing Them Home investigation and report with Sir Ronald Wilson. As the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation finished its 10-year term, it left behind a report recommending a treaty or other legislation to enshrine aboriginal rights in Australia—despite knowing that Howard opposed the idea of a treaty. After 2000, however, there was no longer a federally sanctioned reconciliation agency.

There are many issues to be resolved over the next years in connection to the reconciliation movement. The first court cases in regard to compensation for damages inflicted on children who were removed from their families by the government have been tried. In 1991 the courts ruled against the stolen generation, finding the government not responsible to pay reparations, but more cases will be brought before the courts. Land reforms for indigenous people will continue to be sought. Organizations have formed to help victims of the separation policy in a variety of ways; others strive to restore indigenous arts, languages, and cultures that have long been pushed aside.

There is a strong international effort to advance the interests of indigenous peoples worldwide. The United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, developed by indigenous peoples from around the world, should Page 36  |  Top of Article advance the rights and interests of indigenous people. But the conditions of life among Australia's aboriginal people remain far below the Australian standard. Along with coping with the grief and loss that lie behind, many challenges clearly lie ahead.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Available on online at http://www.atsic.gov.au/default_ie.asp [cited 2-08-02].

Austin, Tony. I Can Picture the Old Home So Clearly: The Commonwealth and "Half-caste" Youth in the Northern Territory, 1911-1939. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993.

"Australian Reconciliation," Australian Department ofForeign Affairs and Trade. Available online at http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/reconciliation.html [cited 2-04-02].

"Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families," Australasian Legal Research Institute, Reconciliation and Social Justice Library. Available online at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/stolen/ [cited 2-06-02].

"Bringing Them Home: The Stolen Children Report,"Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice. Available online at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/stolen_children/ [cited 2-7-02].

Edwards, Coral, and Peter Read, eds. The Lost Children: Thirteen Australians Taken from Their Aboriginal Families Tell of the Struggle to Find Their Natural Parents. Sydney: Doubleday, 1989.

Haebich, Anna. For Their Own Good; Aborigines and Government in the Southwest of Western Australia, 1900—1940. Nedlands, W.A., Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 1988.

"Out of the Shadows, Paul Keating Speaks," HoriZons, the Journal of Community Aid Abroad, Vol. 1, 3, 1993, p. 10. Available online at http://www.caa.org.au/publications/reports/MABO/shadows.html [cited 2-06-02].

The Past We Need to Understand: Malcolm Fraser's Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture. Sydney Morning Herald. August 25, 2000. Available online at http://www.smh.com.au/news/0008/25/update/news3.html [cited 2-06-02].

Read, Peter. The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales, 1883 to 1969. Sydney: Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs, 1983.

Reconciliation Australia. Available online at http://www.reconciliationaustralia.org/home.html [cited 2-01-02].

Reynolds, Henry. Aboriginal Sovereignty. London: Allen and Unwin, 1996.

"Stolen Generation," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.Available online at http://www.wikipedia.com/wiki.phtml?title=Stolen_Generation [cited 2-05-02]

"Sir Ronald Wilson," For a Change, January 1998. Available online at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/sorry/status.htm [cited 2-02-02]

Sonia Benson

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1770 Captain James Cook claims the east coast ofAustralia for the British, naming the territory New South Wales. There are an estimated 300,000 aborigines in about 250 tribal groups at this time.

1788 The first British settlers arrive in Australia.

1850s With the gold rush and natural resources to be mined in Australia there is a great influx of European immigrants. The non-indigenous population reaches over one million people.

1860s The Board for the Protection of Aborigines is established with the power to remove aboriginal children from families.

1901 Six states of Australia federate under the newFederal Constitution of Australia, which excludes indigenous people as part of the new nation. The states control aboriginal people and each institutes its own forced separation program.

1910-70 Efforts at assimilating indigenous children are stepped up; it is believed that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 children are taken from their families in this period.

1937 The first national referendum on aboriginal affairs, the Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference, resolves that children of mixed aboriginal and European descent be "absorbed" into the white community.

1940s The states begin to use an assimilationist-welfare model in their efforts with indigenous children, under which the removal of children is handled by state welfare departments, and a cause for removal, such as neglect or abuse, has to be determined.

1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the United Nations. Australia supports the bill.

1949 The Convention on Genocide, which specifies"forcibly transferring children of [a] group to another group with the intention of destroying the group" as an act of genocide, is ratified by Australia.

1967 A national referendum amends the federal constitution, allowing for indigenous people to be counted as part of the population. The federal government is given the power to legislate on aboriginal issues and establishes the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

1989 The government orders an investigation of suicides committed by aboriginal people in jail.

1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths inCustody reports that of the 99 deaths it investigated, 43 were people who had been separated from their families as children.

1991 The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is created to promote harmony between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians with a specific mission to make the public aware of the history of the stolen generations.

1992 In the Mabo case, the High Court of Australia determines that native title to land did in fact exist in 1788 and could still exist if it has not been extinguished by later acts of the government, overturning the doctrine of terra nullius.

1993 The International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

1994 Representatives from all states meet in Darwin, Northern Territory, for the Going Home Conference, to discuss the plight of the Stolen Generation and the avenues available to connect the Australian public with the history of the assimilation policies.

1995 Australia's Attorney General commissions "TheNational Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families," to be conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

1996 John Howard of the Liberal Party is elected prime minister.

May 1997 Bringing Them Home, the 700-page report of the inquiry into the separation of indigenous children from their families, is tabled in the Australian Parliament.

December 2000 The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation finishes its ten-year term.

November 2001 John Howard is reelected as prime minister.

December 15, 2001 A group of indigenous Australians and supporters gather to protest the government's new US$2.9 million monument commemorating aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia.

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We, the peoples of Australia, of many origins as we are, make a commitment to go on together in a spirit of reconciliation.

We value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original owners and custodians of lands and waters.

We recognise this land and its waters were settled as colonies without treaty or consent.

Reaffirming the human rights of all Australians, we respect and recognise continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions.

Through understanding the spiritual relationship between the land and its first peoples, we share our future and live in harmony.

Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past so that we can move on together at peace with ourselves.

Reconciliation must live in the hearts and minds of all Australians. Many steps have been taken, many steps remain as we learn our shared histories.

As we walk the journey of healing, one part of the nation apologises and expresses its sorrow and sincere regret for the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apologies and forgives.

We desire a future where all Australians enjoy their rights, accept their responsibilities, and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

And so, we pledge ourselves to stop injustice, overcome disadvantage, and respect that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the right to self-determination within the life of the nation.

Our hope is for a united Australia that respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all.

The Declaration was produced by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation after an extensive consultation process amongst the Australian people, and was handed to national leaders and to the Australian people as a whole on May 27, 2000, at Corroboree 2000. Australian Declaration for Reconciliation: Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Available on online at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/car/2000/12/ [cited 2-03-02].

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3410600137