It was Sorry Day in Australia this week, the day we recognise the impact of the forced removal of children from Aboriginal families. I’m gonna argue its Sorry Not Sorry Day.
Non-Australian readers may be unaware, but the British attempted genocide of the original inhabitants of this country. Aboriginals were not even classed as people until 1964 which gave the government the freedom to completely control their lives. Even after 1964, the Aboriginal people were subject to horrifically cruel, racist policies including the forced removal of children from their parents.
Here’s one story.
Trisha* was born the year of the referendum, in the sand hills of Charleville to an Aboriginal mother and white father. Her mother had been born and raised on a mission, sleeping in a dormitory separate from her parents, being trained for domestic servitude. Her only escape was to marry a white man, so she did.
They lived in poverty in the sandhills, in tents and shelters builts from scrap metal and timber, her father scraping a living where her could. There were 5 children by the time the government came in the night and took them away to a children’s home in Toowoomba. It was 1971.
When her mother died, Trisha found a document saying that she and her siblings had been assessed and should be returned to their family within 4 weeks. They lived in the children’s home for 6 years. They were told their mother didn’t want them, then that she was dead. In 1977, out of the blue they were told they were allowed to go home.
Trisha is the same age as my partner: my peer. It’s impossible for me not to compare our lives. In 1977 I used to play being ABBA with my friends. I quit ballet lessons to devote more time to it. I went to Brownies and listened to radio plays on a Saturday morning. I was scared of bees. The thought of someone taking me from my parents in the night at that age? Terrifying. Then the emotional impact of believing that your mother rejected you then died, then discovering she is alive and you have to live wih her? Unimaginable.
I doubt anyone who hears Trisha’s story can fail to understand that childhood experiences like this have a lasting psychological impact on people. But we like to believe that it’s ‘in the past’. Australian Prime Minister John Howard even said “we must not take a black arm-band view of history”, not only suggesting there’s something positive about traumatising children but firmly placing the issue in the past as though Trisha and the others affected aren’t living with those impacts every day.
Trisha speaks openly of her healing journey and when you hear her speak you realise that the journey continues every day. She’s still suffering the impacts. For one, not all of her family were as resilient as she’s proved to be. There are new personal griefs to suffer and endure…and we keep inflicting cruel, racist policies on them and arguing over whether they deserve recognition in the documents that constitute our nation on their stolen lands. I don’t think we’re acting like we’re really sorry.
Sorry Day is hugely important to Trish, it’s part of the healing process, a chance to be heard anew. A chance to come together with the rest of the community in grief. I understand that. But it seems to me much of Sorry Day is about patting non-Aboriginals on the back for saying Sorry. Without action, it’s pretty hollow. I want us to do better.
* Not her real name