Saying sorry and …so when did you know?

I listened to the entire “Sorry” speech by Prime Minister Rudd of Australia over on Justine Larbalestier’s blog and shed a tear. So many bad things are done in the name of governments – even in the name of doing good, that every now and then it is great to hear an apology for one of these policies. No one can make it right for anyone, even if they are still alive. But saying sorry is the correct thing to do. It’s a start.

Back in 1964 while all this was still going on — that is, forcibly taking children away from their indigenous parents and communities, literally dragging them out of their mother’s arms in some cases, simply on the racist basis of them having some white blood, then carting them off to mission schools where the level of care and education was patchy and their religious denomination was decided by chance — back then, I was in university taking a course in elementary anthropology. The course included a unit on the culture of the indigenous peoples of Australia. It was all pretty basic.

I knew children were being taken, even then, to mission schools for education. In my humungous naivety, I assumed their parents had consented and that the children returned home for holidays. I assumed they could write letters to their families. I assumed that this was the best way for them to get an education and therefore to have a choice in their future lives. What did I know – I assumed all this, because the people who surrounded me in my youth were reasonable rational and kind and would never have treated me in any other way.

It never occurred to me that not only was permission not granted, but that these children were quite literally being stolen, and that the paper trail was obscured by name changes or obliterated, or perhaps never existed in the first place, so that when children and parents tried to find one another as adults, it was never easy and sometimes impossible.

To this day I wonder about those professors and tutors I had at university – they must have known. They did field research, after all. Why did they not tell us just how iniquitous the system was?

When I found out, I was outraged, but by then I was already living in Malaysia. And that was when I started to wonder what I could do to say sorry. Not much, really. When the previous Australian government refused to say sorry, I was furious.

And of that outrage, of that fury, one of the elements in Heart of the Mirage was born – and I wrote a fantasy novel about a woman stolen from her people and raised to despise her own culture.

The acknowledgments in the book say, in part:

Many years ago, when my own children were very young, I heard for the first time two stories, from opposite sides of the globe. One told the tragedy of (…) how several generations of children were forcibly taken from their loving, caring families to be raised by strangers. They were told to forget who they had been and where they had come from, to forget their language, their culture and their people; indeed to denigrate their very origins.

Ligea’s story is my way of saying sorry to all those mothers and their children; my way of paying homage to (…) the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Australia. As a mother, I have wept for you.

After the book was published, the best fanmail I have ever had came from a Koori woman living in Western Australia, to say thank you. I cried then too.

There is so little one can do to repair the past.


Saying sorry and …so when did you know? — 6 Comments

  1. I have problems with these public apologies by governments … but maybe that’s because they’re political statements made by politicians, and I’m always wary of those. :

  2. Certainly it is rare to have it happen if it is not politically expedient at the same time. However, I still think it should be said, because it gives legitimacy to the rights of those who suffered, and recognition of their trauma.

    Without that acknowledgment, bitterness can never be lessened, let alone disappear. Look at the Armenians re Turkey.

  3. I take your point about the legitimising by formal reocgnition, yes. Whether it helps in lessening the bitterness, I don’t know. What concerns me in such cases is ‘where do we go from here?’

  4. One hopes it is a new beginning. Trouble is, the damage was so widespread and so deep – generations of children raised by people who thought doing God’s work meant splitting up families and destroying cultures and raising kids in an institution – one wonders how you repair the damage.

  5. Another group was the thousands of kids taken out of Greece to Albania at the end of the second world war, and that didn’t have the veneer of “doing right”. However, it would appear that religious fervour of one kind or another has a myriad of crimes committed in its name, this being one of them, witches another. Must be your theme lately “religious atrocities”. I wish I thought apologies could make a difference. There have been apologies made in this part of the world to various ethnic segments who were mistreated, as far as I am aware, it hasn’t made one damned bit of difference.

  6. I originally thought the same as you Glenda. I thought that the stolen children would receive a good education and stay in contact with their parents.
    The bubble burst when I saw a documentary that revolved around four (now adult) indigenous peoples who had been stolen as young children.
    This group were housed in spartan, crowded dormitories and controlled and educated by nuns. Many were brutalised for minor infractions and lived a life of hell.

    The Sorry day in parliament was a great step forward towards reconciliation.

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