Mother’s Day for me is rewarding and brings me so much joy. But it's been a hard road getting here.
As a member of the Stolen Generations, I am asked all too regularly ‘what are you healing from?’
I am one of some 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had their childhood stolen.
I am the fourth generation of women from my family to be forcibly removed from land, culture and loved ones.
In 1938 my whole family, including my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mother who was only four years old at the time, were forced off country and sent to Barambah and then to Woorabinda Aboriginal Reserve. I regard these places as detention centres that were used to comprehensively control the lives of our people.
My mother was sent to the children’s dormitory and both my great grandmother and grandmother were trained and sent out as domestic servants on properties.
Once inside the dormitories all cultural practice ceased.
Contact with families and speaking language was forbidden and punishable. Thus began the assimilation process.
One generation later, mum’s five children were forcibly removed from her care.
I was five when we were taken by government men to an orphanage in Townsville and later raised in a white foster home.
My mother was no longer able to cope with the trauma and grief she’d experienced. Her mental health deteriorated and she attempted suicide. I was 21 when I became her carer, whilst also caring for my own children.
It was the moment when I first started to understand the impact of forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their homes.
Given my history, you might think it strange that I hadn’t thought much about the Stolen Generations before adulthood. But sadly my story and my mother’s story of forced removal, trauma, grief and pain is our story. It’s our lived experience and not something you view from the outside in.
That was the start of a journey, where I learnt about a long history of unimaginable horrors for my family. It was then I developed what’s become a lifelong passion for breaking the cycle of trauma through healing and education.
There are still many children out there who don’t understand why mum or dad is angry, why they behave the way they do.
Trauma has led the stolen children to grow up creating protective barriers. For many, that meant burying the pain and the truth of their childhood.
It’s hard work to mend the damage of Intergenerational Trauma but it can be done. We believe that in order to heal you have to take time out to reflect on the past because what happened in the past still lives within us today.
Breaking this cycle has allowed my kids to benefit from my healing. One of my daughters is currently studying at Harvard University. Seeing all my daughters achieve great things in their lives makes all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.
The question ‘what are you healing from?’ astounds me and is one that I’ve been working to change through education.
I recently spoke to students and teachers at the launch of The Healing Foundation’s Stolen Generations Schools Kit at Trangie Central School near Dubbo.
The Healing Foundation has developed a suite of new resources for teachers and students, including professional learning tools and classroom activities, to promote awareness and understanding of the Stolen Generations.
Cultural consultation and guidance from Elders and Stolen Generations members has been an important part of this project and one that I was personally involved in.
It’s obvious from the question ‘what are you healing from?’, that few Australians understand the ongoing impact of unresolved trauma. Even Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are sometimes unaware of their own Stolen Generations link.
Teaching young people about our stories, as I have done with my family, is the best way to make sure something like the Stolen Generations never happens again.
In turn this contributes to the healing of Stolen Generations members like me, because we know the truth of our history is being shared and remembered.
Florence Onus is a proud mother and grandmother who is also a survivor of the Stolen Generations. A descendant of the Birri-Gubba and Kairi/Bidjara clans of north-east Queensland, Florence was the inaugural Chairperson of The Healing Foundation and chaired its Reference Group until early 2018.
Alongside other community leaders, Florence led the establishment of Healing Waters Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Counselling & Wellbeing Service in Townsville.