Page 225 - Week 01 - Thursday, 14 February 2008

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On a normal weekday at 8.00 am, the pedestrian pathway on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge is a busy strip of concrete and most of the traffic is heading north. Cyclists, walkers, joggers and people in their cars head to Civic, to their showers, desks, phones and emails. Yesterday, at about 8.00 am, something happened on that familiar bridge spanning our beautiful lake in this most beautiful and liveable of cities: the traffic flow reversed; the laws of physics were suspended.

It was a weekday but Canberrans were heading out of the city, away from their desks, shops and mobile phones. They were on their way to their national parliament, on foot, on their bikes and in their cars. They were on their way to be a part of history. They were on their way to play their small part, their roles, in a moment of national healing. They were on their way to hear one word said. They heard it said not once but again and again, for there was more than one wrong to be made right, more than one hurt to be healed, more than one need to say sorry.

I believe that those Canberrans who gathered in Federation Mall did not just come to hear the word said but to hear it said in their name, on their behalf and from their hearts. So, too, it is appropriate that today in this place we reaffirm the apology to the stolen generations first offered more than a decade ago by the then government of Mrs Carnell. In solidarity with those from all sides of politics who yesterday asked for forgiveness of all families and communities wrenched apart by the policies of the past, today we stand by their shoulder and reaffirm that we, too, are sorry—still sorry.

There are images and thoughts that best belong in nightmares, not daylight. One of those for any parent is the prospect of losing a child. One of these for a child is the loss of a parent. It is a dreadful and mordant irony that our dominant white culture. which preaches so feelingly about the supremacy, even the sanctity, of the family as the social unit of most meaning and most value, could not see, during those long decades in which removal occurred, the contradiction in its actions as it set about the deliberate, purposeful destruction of family after family.

You have to think—you almost want to believe—that there was some mass social disconnect at work here, something in the water. You want to believe that those who wrote and implemented those policies of removal must have believed in their hearts that Indigenous parents did not love their children with the same passion as white parents. They must have believed that the love of a black parent was less enduring, that the grief of separation would be less intense and less lasting. For how else could they—how could we—have perpetrated upon these particular Australian families something that, if perpetrated upon our own families, those of our neighbours or our workmates, would have sickened us to our souls?

Let us be clear about the magnitude of these policies. Between 1910 and 1970, somewhere between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities. From Cape Barren Island in the south to the Torres Strait and the Kimberleys in the north, they were taken. Especially vulnerable were those with paler skins, including children with one white and one black parent. Some of those taken would go on to have their own children taken away from them in their turn—an intergenerational horror, the corrosive effects of which are dreadful to contemplate even in nightmares.

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