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The Stolen Generations: What is the price of unfinished business?

As the NSW Government announces a $73 million reparations package for the Stolen Generations, we look back at the landmark 1997 Bringing them Home report and the personal stories that informed the National Apology.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's message to the Stolen Generations was one of the report's key recommendations. The Apology helped to shape a new national consciousness surrounding the darkest chapter in Australia's history, supporting the complex and lengthy process of healing and reparations.

Who are the Stolen Generations?

Nineteen years ago the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was tabled in Federal Parliament. More commonly known as the Bringing Them Home report, the 680-page document served to intensify the discourse surrounding the forcible removal of children from their families and communities in the late 1800s until the 1970s – the Stolen Generations.

Australia’s Bringing Them Home report concluded that child removal policies had been in breach of fundamental human rights. It put forward 54 recommendations, of which 34 related to reparations and 11 specifically to monetary compensation.

Bringing Them Home Report Recommendations (Australian Human Rights Commission)

The report helped steer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island organisations and the Federal Government towards collaborative initiatives including the national Closing the Gap strategy and a commitment in 2007 by Kevin Rudd on his election to issue a formal apology to the Stolen generations.

In March 2008 Kevin Rudd honoured this commitment as we witnessed a defining moment in Australian history — the delivery of the National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples and in particular, the Stolen Generations and their families.

The National Apology was widely received as a long-overdue step towards reconciliation, and honoured one of the key recommendations put forward in the Bringing Them Home report.

The former Prime Minister's speech was of fundamental symbolic significance. Never before had any of our nation’s leaders delivered a formal acknowledgement, apology or claim of responsibility and attempt at reparation.

In the new parliament of the new government and before all else, Mr Rudd believed it was time to address the most fundamental act of injustice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“The bottom line is just a recognition in my guts that everything that had gone before on this question was just plain wrong, by which I mean the continued refusal on the part of then Prime Minister John Howard to deliver an apology was just wrong, against any basic ethical judgement — and against any practical judgment really, because you can’t, and you couldn’t dispute the historical record.”

This was also the year that Indigenous ceremony was introduced into the formal openings of Parliament.

In the year following the National Apology and as part of COAG’s Closing the Gap strategy, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation was established to address the harmful legacy of colonisation and in particular the removal of children and the broken ties to family, community and country that have devastated generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Healing Foundation help sheet

On 15th September 2016 the Australian Psychological Society (APS) issued a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People acknowledging psychology’s contribution to the erosion of culture and mistreatment.

Apology from the Australian Psychological Society

The APS identified the need for more Indigenous mental health workers and for more non-Indigenous mental health professionals to become culturally competent and able to work with Indigenous patients. In particular the APS put forward a new model for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “that will be characterised by diligently:

  • Listening more and talking less;        

  • Following more and steering less;

  • Advocating more and complying less;

  • Including more and ignoring less; and,

  • Collaborating more and commanding less.”

(APS apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples read by Tim Carey)

" is unfinished business from my point of view.”

Mr Rudd remains deeply engaged with the process of reconciliation, hoping to see a unified approach to reparations across the states and territories.

“What I do recommend is a national process for looking at how we deal with compensation for the lives affected… We need a national process by which this can be properly analysed and properly concluded… When you run into as I do often, the Stolen Generation themselves and their children, the lasting scars of the experience of being ripped apart from your families are huge. They are in some respects indelible, so it is unfinished business from my point of view.”


Reparations - Reclaiming the healing process

It is the news that has come much too late for many, however the NSW Government’s official acknowledgement of the Stolen Generations will allow surviving members and their families to reclaim control, to have a voice and to embark on their personal and collective journeys towards healing.

Following in the footsteps of Tasmania (2006) and South Australia (2015), the NSW Government announced its recommendations in response to the inquiry into Reparations for the Stolen Generations in New South Wales (Unfinished Business) in early December. Of the 35 recommendations put forward, 30 have been accepted in full and another three with modifications.

The $73 million NSW reparations package is to include:

  • financial redress for individuals
  • funding for organisations to continue their healing work and to guard against repetition
  • specifically targeted supports for older members of the Stolen Generations to recognise, preserve and ensure continuation of their stories; and
  • funding for memorials and keeping places.

Direct compensation to individuals will be capped at $75,000 per person, and a streamlined process will be established to assess eligibility and remove roadblocks for claimants.

"This is I think the first time Stolen Generations have been provided with the opportunity to drive their own healing and to meet their specific needs.”

The key mechanism driving the implementation of this report will be the establishment of a Stolen Generations advisory group that will speak directly to the Premier and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and oversee the government’s response.

Healing Foundation CEO Richard Weston believes this to be of particular significance in the healing process.

“Having Stolen Generations being able to have their voice heard directly into the leadership of the state of NSW is really important… This is I think the first time Stolen Generations have been provided with the opportunity to drive their own healing and to meet their specific needs.”

The Healing Foundation is a national organisation with a focus on building culturally strong, community-led healing solutions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For organisations such as the Foundation, the bigger opportunity here is for the injection of resources into services across NSW to enable them to develop their own structures and measures to affect ongoing healing.

Mr Weston has applauded the process leading up to the announcement.

“They’ve engaged strongly with the members of the Stolen Generations, they’ve kept them up to date on where they were at in the process and even before the announcement there were meetings between the Minister and the Department and Stolen Generations.”

With business well underway, what now for the survivors of the Stolen Generations and their families?

“There’s still unfinished business. There are jurisdictions around the nation that haven’t responded to the Stolen Generations. Religious institutions need to respond, and the Australian government I would like to think would be able to lead some discussion and responses around recognition of the Stolen Generations.”

Read more about forums to help heal trauma for members of the Stolen Generations in NSW


"The pain must stop with us" - Uncle Michael on surviving Kinchela Boys Home

He was eight when they took him. A proud Wailwan man from NSW, Uncle Michael ‘Widdy’ Welsh has memories of dancing around the campfire with his grandparents, just before that life was destroyed.

Uncle Michael is a survivor of the Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Training Home (KBH), run by the NSW Government to house Aboriginal boys forcibly removed from their families between 1924 and 1970.

“We submitted to the way they wanted to treat us because they flogged us and starved us and that type of thing," Uncle Michael tells Living Black.

“I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways because I only had five and a half years in that hell hole."

"I got culturally experienced from my uncle who learned from my grandpa… I know how to live off the land, I know how to hunt for food.

I want to teach my children to have that chance.

"There are a lot of other brothers who never had that and have no idea."

Uncle Michael‘s totem is the black duck, and his connection with that dreaming keeps him strong.

Now a passionate advocate for ending inter-generational trauma, Uncle Michael is determined to pass his culture to his grandchildren and to help reconstruct identity and restore the structure of the family.

This is his life’s mission as a grandfather, as a Wailwan man and in his role as a Board Member of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation (KBHAC).

KBHAC was founded with the explicit aim of encouraging and supporting sustainable healing programs that address both the legacy of abuse experienced by KBH survivors and the inter-generational trauma experienced by their descendants.

Together, KBHAC and the Coota Girls Aboriginal Corporation have commended the NSW Government’s response earlier this month to the Upper House Inquiry into Reparations for the Stolen Generations and the 35 recommendations put forward in its consensus report, Unfinished Business.

The implementation of the NSW Government’s response in the form of a $73 million reparations package has come too late for many. For those who survive and for their families, KBHAC and Coota Girls Aboriginal Corporation look forward to using this new resource to reach out and support the collective healing that only they can provide.

NSW Stolen Generations receive compensation

“I need their help to give my children a better direction in life," says Uncle Michael.

"It’s not just all of us who were removed now. It’s a disease that’s right across this land, I feel."

"They’re passing away pretty quickly.

"The money is a beautiful thing but it’s not the thing that’s going to fix this.

"If we get the recognition, the stories out and the meetings and the gatherings together with our children… they need to meet each other and they need to talk to each other – they need to develop a vision for themselves.

"The pain must stop with us."

Listen to the full interview with Uncle Michael on Living Black Radio below:

Uncle Michael needs his children to understand his culture and to speak his language. It is a language that lives still, despite popular belief.

"So much of it has been lost but there’s so much of it out there that is valuable that we need to hook our families into."

"We love and share. We don’t own and take and possess."

Up to 85 KBH survivors are still alive today, now predominantly in their 60s and 70s like Uncle Michael.

Members of their immediate families number in the thousands, many of whom continue to suffer due to their family member’s internment at Kinchela. They face lack of acceptance by Aboriginal communities, a sense of not belonging, inability to discuss trauma and continued high rates of removal - and the removal of their own children.

Uncle Michael has tasked himself with an immense challenge, and his focus on restoration of the family structure is key to repairing some of the damage.

“Not only are we trying to get our pathway back to our own culture, we’ve got to educate the people who keep on coming in and knocking us down.

"They don’t seem to have the same type of loving and affection for family and land the way that we’ve been given.

"We love and share. We don’t own and take and possess."

Uncle Michael shares his story in Steven McGregor’s documentary Servant or Slave. Watch it now, below, or on SBS on Demand.


Freedom Day Festival: 50 years on, still walking

One morning fifty years ago, our Gurindji elders broke unforgettably from the industry that had taken our land and oppressed us for generations. Envisioning a brighter future for our people, they walked from Lord Vestey’s Wave Hill cattle station into the unknown, and never looked back.

The action they took on 23 August 1966 became known as the Wave Hill Walk-off, and changed the face of modern Australia. At our Dreaming place of Daguragu, they fought for Gurindji land rights and built our new home.

Below: Leaders of Daguragu and Kalkaringi communities in conversation with Living Black Radio:

It is August, 50 years since what Uncle Maurie Ryan Japarta describes as the longest struggle in Australia’s history. He and thousands of others have converged on Kalkaringi and Daguragu land, 600 kilometres south of Darwin (formerly Wave Hill) for the Freedom Day Festival in celebration of the birth of land rights in Australia.

This is perhaps the largest remote Aboriginal community festival we have ever seen. Over three days, locals and visitors come together to re-enact the Wave Hill Walk-off, to hear the stories and to immerse themselves in ceremony, song and dance, cinema, art and photography, tours and forums. The festival also recognises the Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri peoples who are linked through the Walk-off led by Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari.  

Uncle Maurie is a Malngin man, a member of the Stolen Generations and a human rights advocate. In his youth he connected with Mr Lingiari to become part of Wave Hill history.

“It’s great that we are all here and other peoples from all around Australia and the world have come here to celebrate what happened 50 years ago,” Uncle Maurie tells SBS. 

Uncle Maurie spent his first three years on Wave Hill Station before he was taken away to Croker Island, a Methodist mission in Arnhem Land.

“I sit back and look in admiration at all the men, women and children that stood in the face of the hostilities by the station owners,” he says.

“Over the centuries there were about 35-38 tribes that lived in this area," he explains. "There is evidence of massacres all along the river."

"The Victoria River is the biggest river in the Northern Territory. It’s the lifeline of our people, and my tribe is up at the other end… We all relate, we marry into each other, we all have a unique skin system, we have our own totems but we all know how to relate to each other.”

Also attending the festival is Charlie King, Gurindji Elder and founder of the NO MORE Campaign against family violence.

“There is great healing if you go back to your people and find out who your people are and you walk on their land and they extend their hand to you and they say ‘come in, come back,’” says King.

The 50th anniversary event also marks a momentous step forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with a landmark statement against family violence.

Mr King commends the series of meetings held on site across the weekend and the major move coming from the four land councils. In a bid to better the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the Central Land Council pushed family violence to the top of the agenda, determining that it will reject from the Council anyone who has been charged with family violence or who has had a domestic violence order against them.

“It was such a strong statement," he says. "It’s a huge breaking story. It’s a big moment in Indigenous history in Australia.”

Servant or Slave: Viewing Australian history through a new lens

The forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families is a painful truth of modern Australian history, but it is a history half told. The accounts of five Aboriginal women stolen from their families as young girls reveal another agonising dimension to this story.

Steven McGregor’s documentary Servant or Slave looks at the history and legacy of indentured servitude that was prevalent in Australia from the late 1800s until as recently as the mid-70s. Taken from their families, thousands of Aboriginal girls were forced into domestic slavery by the Australian Government, purportedly employed as servants, but denied wages, education and most significantly, their childhood.

Through testimonies and archival footage we now learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wages were misappropriated by governments and used to fund this forcible removal of children, thereby unwittingly contributing to their own disenfranchisement.  

Rita, Violet and the three Wenberg sisters were inmates of the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in New South Wales. They tell their stories of adversity, first hand and unembellished. The film brings to life the tragic experiences that continue to shape their lives and those of their families, their children and grandchildren in what can only be described as living memory.

Director Steven McGregor knew that this story needed to be heard in Australia in order to acknowledge the past and to recognise the systemic injustices suffered by thousands of people.

“I hope this film starts a conversation that Australia was also entrenched in the slave trade and that it didn’t [only] happen in other parts of the world, but right here”.

“I hope this film starts a conversation that Australia was also entrenched in the slave trade and that it didn’t [only] happen in other parts of the world, but right here”.

Rita Wright was removed from her family at the age of two and sent to Cootamundra Girls' Home. She was later sent to work on a property.

“We used to get up and make butter every morning and do the washing. My job was to get the coal to put in the fire and keep the heat going… We did odd jobs around and kept that farm going. Instead of playing like kids we worked – well, I call it slavery work.

“When I was in the bush I had a tree and because it was shaped like the top of a horse back I used to get on that tree and make like I was galloping away from the home. When you’re kids you just hide… you have to keep going. You have to do things that give you the strength to carry on”.

As Rita discovered, freedom comes in many forms. At the age of 15 she fled the home and found herself alone on the streets of Redfern without contacts or any information about her family.

“I went to sleep at the foundation, sneaking into the boys’ hostel just to get a bed… they just kept us girls safe.

“From the home, being locked away all that time, you think you’re right when you run away but you’re not – you have to watch your back all the time to survive. Now I know how all the homeless people go. I feel so sorry – my heart goes out to them.”

Due to the film’s tough subject matter, Steven chose to combine conventional documentary story telling with dramatic re-enactments.

“The intention was to present the film as a poem, so we shot our drama recreations in a poetic, abstract way. I think if the visuals were really tough and gritty and ugly it would have turned the audience off – we had to allow the audience to breathe sometimes and have a sense of relief, and exhale while the story’s being told”.

Now through the recounting of their captivating stories, the five women have come together after so many years in their pursuit of justice and in celebration of their courage and determination.

“There’s a lot to do just to get the film out and it’s a credit to the men. My heart goes towards them for having the patience and the love and showing us how to go about it, because we didn’t know how to get the story out. We never had the education. We didn’t know how to talk. It took a lot of love and laughter and mucking around… now we can sit back and say we did it. It’s a credit to all of them.”

Servant or Slave is available for viewing on SBS on Demand.

Over three consecutive nights beginning Tuesday 29 November, 8.30pm, broadcast simultaneously on SBS and NITV, is the return of Logie-award winning series First Contact. In this second season, six well-known Australians are immersed into Aboriginal Australia for the first time as they embark on a 28-day journey.