What Happens After You Say Sorry?
01 August 1999

John Bond describes progress towards healing a deep hurt in the soul of Australia.

Two years ago, a national enquiry presented its report to the Australian Government. It had looked into the effects of removing Aboriginal children from their families, a practice which went on for 150 years into the 1970s and aimed to assimilate Aborigines into Western culture. The report, Bringing them home, exposed the immense harm this policy had caused.

The Government received the report with little enthusiasm. But the reaction in the Australian community was very different. According to the Associated Press correspondent in Canberra, it was the biggest news story of the year. Soul-searching discussion went on for months, culminating in a national Sorry Day when hundreds of thousands apologized to the 'stolen generations'--as those who were removed are now known (see FAC Vol 11 No 1).

This massive expression of community empathy touched the hearts of many who have suffered as a result of the removal policies. As one woman--who had been removed from her family, and whose children had been removed from her--said on ABC TV, 'At last we are coming back into the family.'

This year the stolen generations responded by launching a Journey of Healing 'for all who want to help the healing process among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, and in the relationship between us'.

As with Sorry Day, events took place all over Australia, developed by small groups, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who enlisted others, raised the money and organized publicity.

Most cities chose a procession to symbolize the launch. In Adelaide, a thousand people walked to forgotten places such as the site of Piltawodli, an Aboriginal school opened by German missionaries in 1839. School children sang there in the local Aboriginal language, perhaps for the first time since 1845, when troops demolished the buildings and the children were moved to an English school which banned their language.

In other city centres, hundreds took part in colourful processions, beginning and ending with commemorations. Many suburbs, country towns and rural centres organized their own events, as did hundreds of schools, churches and community organizations. There was plenty of music, with two new CDs launched. And two national TV stations screened programmes about the Journey.

On Sorry Day the focus was on the removal policies. This year the media also carried stories of the foster parents to whom the children went, and of the pain and joy of separated families linking up. Medical journals got involved too, with articles aimed at helping doctors better understand the continuing effects of the removals.

There is a long way still to be travelled. Health and social statistics show that many Aboriginal people are still alienated and in despair. Many of the recommendations of Bringing them home have yet to be implemented. But Aboriginal leaders say that since Sorry Day they have noticed an increased respect for Aboriginal people among the general community.

Perhaps this is particularly due to the stolen generations, who have continually kept the focus on healing rather than blame. At the Journey's launch in the Great Hall of Parliament in Canberra, a thousand voices joined in the theme song, written by two Aboriginal people who have suffered from the removal policies:

Come join the journey, Journey of Healing
Let the spirit guide us, hand in hand
Let's walk together into the future
The time has come to make a stand
Let's heal our hearts, let's heal our pain,
And bring the stolen children home again
For our native children to trust again
We must take this journey together as friends.
John Bond