Beyond Apologies: What Now for the Stolen Generations?

Presentation to the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care seminar: Our Future Generations: National Indigenous Child Welfare and Development Seminar by Dr William Jonas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

24 July 2003


I would like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we meet and to pay my respects to the elders.

It is with mixed feelings that I am here today to talk about the ongoing issues being faced by those who were forcibly removed from their families and communities.

On the one hand I am pleased to be here to participate in this seminar organised by SNAICC. As the national peak body for Indigenous child care, SNAICC have a vital role to play in bringing to prominence and identifying solutions to address the serious needs of our children.

I have to confess that I am feeling a mounting sense of despair and urgency for addressing the needs of our children as we see record, and perhaps unprecedented, numbers of children currently being removed through the care and protection and juvenile justice systems, coupled with a distinct lack of progress in improvements in our people's health status and intolerably high levels of family violence and abuse.

As you no doubt know, each year I produce an annual report to the federal Parliament on the status of the enjoyment of Indigenous peoples' human rights - the Social Justice Report. My staff are currently hard at work undertaking research, consultations and writing for this year's report. The report will provide a state-of-the-nation snapshot of where we are presently at as a nation and more importantly what needs to be done to create healthy, functional and culturally distinct Indigenous communities.

There are small gains which the report will seek to celebrate, but they fit within a bigger picture that on the whole is distressing and which sees nothing less than an absolute crisis existing in Indigenous communities at this time. For this reason, it is vital that organisations like SNAICC are actively seeking to address these issues and so I am pleased to be here to lend my support and to contribute to the ideas that will come out of this seminar.

But on the other hand, you all know as well as I do that when we talk about how far we have come in addressing the needs of people forcibly removed from their families and communities, progress has been much slower than it should have been, is much more limited in scope than it should be and that at every stage of the process there are attacks - even if they are just from the gutter journalists - about the legitimacy of the stolen generations.

And so while I think that this seminar is of vital importance, I also wish that we would be able to meet and be able to rejoice in the knowledge that things were getting better across the board and that our community's needs were being listened to and taken seriously.

The question in the title of this workshop is 'what now for the stolen generations?'

I see two main areas for discussion. First, is the large gap that continues to exist where the needs of members of the stolen generations have simply not been addressed. And second, though related, is to focus down on what is actually being done and to ask whether it is being done well enough.

On this first issue, it has now been six years since Bringing them home was released. It is clear that many of the needs of people forcibly removed from their families have not been met in this timeframe. Worse than this, significant and necessary components of reparations are not on the government's agenda. There remain grave difficulties for achieving healing in absence of a national apology and an appropriate framework for the provision of reparations.

Much like reconciliation, we face a situation where the government's current approach to forcible removal policies is reductive and narrowly confined. I very strongly believe that we must continue to condemn the narrowness of the Government's approach to stolen generations issues and to continually identify those issues that are not on the agenda but which should be, because the failure to address these issues is of itself an ongoing source of grief and trauma to Indigenous people across the country.

The main gaps that I think continue to exist at the present time are as follows:

  • The failure of any government to provide an holistic package of reparations for members of the stolen generations, including measures aimed at healing at both the collective and individual levels;
  • Limited and extremely uncoordinated efforts for commemorating the experiences of the stolen generations;
  • The very poor focus on programmes to reconnect people forcibly removed with their culture; and
  • Of course, a national apology.

There is also a further major gap in implementing the recommendations of the Bringing them home report. That gap is the lack of focus on addressing contemporary forms of removal.

On these gaps in addressing the needs of the stolen generations I want to give a few examples which I think highlight different aspects of both the problems that currently exist but also of the potential solutions.

The first example is to reflect on an event that happened earlier this year. The New South Wales Government had decided to host a special dinner in Parliament House to commemorate the experiences of the men who had been removed as children to Kinchela Boys Home. The Government was paying all costs for the dinner. The problem was that there was no funding available from the Government to get the men to Sydney or accommodate them once there in order to attend the dinner. The organisation which represents the men scrambled around for many weeks trying to piece together funding in order for the men to get to Sydney and for the men to be able to spend a few days together.

Funding was sought from all the main bodies - ATSIC, DAA, Land Council etc and it became apparent that the grant processes and funding sources were clearly not designed to meet the needs of the men. I understand that ultimately some funding was received from a patchwork of organisations and the men were able to make it to Sydney for the dinner.

While in Sydney, the men had the stories of their experiences of growing up in Kinchela videotaped. They then sort assistance in obtaining funding to edit and preserve the testimonies, and to do so in a manner that would preserve the integrity of the material and see control over the materials retained by the men. Again, there was no obvious source of funding for the men.

It seemed to me that the purpose of the exercise was primarily a healing process. Of secondary concern was the creation of some sort of official documentation of their experiences or an archive. And yet when my office made a number of inquiries as to potential funding sources for this project, it appeared that the focus of those organisations or agencies that we contacted who might be a source of funding were almost incapable of funding the process as a healing exercise and without ultimate control of the materials being retained by the men.

Now the Commonwealth Dept of Health and Ageing had, under its Bringing Them Home Innovative Projects Program, funded a reunion of the Kinchela men in Kempsey the year before so I am not suggesting that there is no funding opportunity for reunion style activities. But overall this example illustrates to me a very real and practical problem with the current situation whereby the current funding arrangements and process are not geared towards addressing the needs of the stolen generations in a lasting or ongoing manner.

I want to contrast this with a second example to which my office has made much reference over the past few years. Many of you may be familiar with the experience of Canadian Indians through the residential schooling system. There are many similarities between the experiences of children sent through the residential schools and hose of the stolen generations in Australia.

The Canadian government has adopted a three pronged approach to addressing the issues faced by people sent to residential schools. The first stage was the creation of an independent Aboriginal organisation known as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation which was to promote community healing projects for residential school survivors. The Foundation was required to fully allocate $350million to healing projects for residential school victims. This funding had to be allocated over a 5 year period and expended over a ten year period.

HREOC has maintained a close relationship with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and watched its development over the past five years. Some of you may recall that we brought the Executive Director of the Foundation, Mike Degagne, to Australia for the Moving Forward conference in 2001.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with the Foundation when I was in North America. The Foundation has now fully allocated the $350million in programmes and is essentially winding down its operations so that it will operate at a basic level over the next five years to ensure that accountability requirements are met for the funding. They will be convening a major conference next year where they will bring together residential school survivors to discuss all the projects that they have funded and to share their experiences of what has worked and what has been hard.

The Healing Foundation experience has been an extraordinary process. They have mapped the histories of each of the residential schools, promoted reunions and assisted communities to develop the capacity to run their own programmes which address the needs of those who were sent to residential schools. A major focus of this work has been dealing with the consequences of sexual abuse and violence - from both the perspective of being victims and for many people later perpetrators. It has been a confronting process and ultimately a cleansing one.

In Australia we have had discussion about an adaptation of this model through a reparations tribunal. The Canadian experience demonstrates to us the vital importance of the healing process. It appears to me to be a primary need that must still be faced if we are to ever effectively and justly address the legacy of the stolen generations.

It is a huge gap that currently exists here in Australia that could be addressed through a variety of processes. The reparations tribunal is one model; other include earmarking funding through state agencies such as Indigenous Affairs Departments, Stolen Generations Taskforces where they exist and other agencies; as well as through better coordination with agencies such as the Indigenous Land Corporation. This agency, as you know, was established in the wake of the Mabo decision to address the impact of dispossession. There can be no greater impact of dispossession that removal from family and community and yet there has been limited if any attention given by the ILC to working with stolen generations groups to address their needs.

The second stage of the Canadian government's response to the residential schools has been the creation of a national languages maintenance initiative of $170million over the next decade. The third stage, still being negotiated but announced in December last year, is a claims settlement process - known as the Resolution Framework - whereby those who were mistreated through the residential school system can make an application and participate in a mediation process to be conducted by a former judge of Canada's highest court and ultimately be awarded monetary compensation on a sliding scale according to the harm inflicted. The process is intended to be finalised within 7 years and the Canadian government has earmarked $2billion for this process as an alternative to litigation.

I would note that there is a compelling reason for the Canadian government to make such a settlement - it presently has thousands of cases in the court system about mistreatment through the residential schools which it estimates will cost over $2.3billion in legal fees - ie$2.3billion before a cent is awarded to the victims. This incentive does not exist in Australia as we have to date only had one successful case, that of Valerie Linow (who is a fellow panellist this morning) and court options remain limited.

Incidentally, while the primary purpose of this example is to show that we can learn much from the approach in Canada it is important to note that they have also sought to learn from the experiences in Australia. Last year in Canada they observed for the first time their version of Sorry Day, which they had adapted from the Australian experience.

The second main issue that we also need to look to is whether what is actually being done by governments is being done well enough?

It is important to acknowledge where there are things happening. The federal government finally enabled the National Sorry Day Committee to conduct consultations for the design for reconciliation place on the stolen generations and has made some positive acknowledgement of the plight of the stolen generations in the agreed wording for the design. The national Library's oral history project has now wound up and has produced excellent work. The Victorian government's response to the report in 2002 and creation of a Stolen Generations Taskforce is also heartening.

There remain, however, serious questions about the implementation of the existing funding and approach.

Many concerns were identified by the National Sorry Day Committee last year in their document Are we helping them home? Surveys of progress in the implementation of the Bringing them home recommendations, as well as by the Central Australian Stolen Generations & Families Aboriginal Corporation in their report Where is the $63million?

Many issues were also highlighted at the conference convened by HREOC, ATSIC and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in August 2001, titled Moving Forward - Achieving reparations for the stolen generations. The resolutions of that conference included recommendations that:

2. That governments and churches ensure the effective participation of Stolen Generations members in all decision making that affects them.

12. That Commonwealth funding for reunion and counselling services be the subject of adequate consultation with Stolen Generations members to ensure that it better meets the specific needs of members of the Stolen Generations. Participants were concerned that current funding arrangements do not ensure that resources are being allocated to the appropriate organisations (particularly for counselling services).

14. That the Federal Government provide recurrent funding to Link-up for counselling services, family reunions and annual reunions of people removed to the same institutions.

These concerns remain current.

There remain concerns that programmes are poorly targeted and sometimes don't even reach stolen generations peoples. I am also concerned at the lack of processes to involve Indigenous people forcibly removed from their families and their representative bodies in decision making and in determining the priority areas and appropriate outcomes. And I remain astounded at the inaction of governments to create more workable links between family tracing / Link Up services and counselling services.

It is expected that each of these factors would be highlighted through an adequate monitoring and evaluative framework. It is manifest that such a framework is still non-existent. HREOC has, alongside the Sorry Day committee and other organisations, critiqued the lack of effective monitoring and evaluation of funds and programs dealing with forcible removals.

I have been particularly concerned about this monitoring role being relegated to a responsibility of the Ministerial Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (MCATSIA). MCATSIA have been conducting a review of programs relating to forcible removal policies for several years now. It is simply unacceptable that they have not publicly reported the review within a reasonable period of time.

HREOC remains willing to undertake this monitoring role, as envisaged in recommendation 2b of Bringing them home. However, it requires a funding commitment from the federal government in order for us to do so.

In conclusion, there is a need for governments to recommit or commit for the first time to healing for the stolen generations and for adequate consultation and monitoring mechanisms to be put into place. Governments presently are not sufficiently accountable for the programmes that do exist to members of the Stolen Generations. And there continue to exist large gaps in the programmes that do exist.

Thankyou

Last updated 29 October 2004.