“I’m Sorry” Is the First Step

(FYI: If you haven’t already, read the post on Australia’s Stolen Generations for more background to this story).

I'm Sorry the First StepIt was 2008, and thousands of Aboriginal Australians gathered in the Australian capital city of Canberra. Across the country, many more thousands of people gathered in plazas and remote towns, where screens had been set up to show a televised address. It was a crucial day in Australia’s history, and people wanted to be a part of it.

That morning, at 9:30 am, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the Stolen Generations apology as a motion to be voted on by Parliament.

That was 5 years ago today (for my US readers), and while many people rightly point out that an apology doesn’t come close to fixing the wrongs done against native people, most also agree it’s the only way to start a process of reconciliation.

I’m amazed at the power of the word “sorry” here in Australia – a word I often think of as empty or insincere. It was first used seriously toward indigenous Australians on May 26 1998, when the “Bringing Them Home” report – a lengthy documentation of the “Stolen Generations” – was tabled in Parliament.

After that, May 26 became known as “National Sorry Day” – a day meant to raise awareness for the plight of indigenous Australians.

Then came Rudd’s formal apology ten years later, which was written in consultation with indigenous elders. After his address, “Sorry” was written on t-shirts, posted on signs, and used as a rallying cry.

It makes sense that hearing “sorry” from a lawmaking body would be moving: it’s done so rarely. Politicians love to claim the good part of their predecessors’ legacies in order to puff up their own greatness; but if they claim the good, then why not also acknowledge the bad?

I’m very happy Australia is grappling with its terrible history. So many other countries, including my own, have suffered more than they needed to by sweeping collective memory under the rug. Of course without action, “sorry” is empty and insincere. But even though it’s hard to follow up on, and even when it digs deep into the past, it’s still always worth saying.

Here’s a video of the apology, with the text below:

I move:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

4 Responses to ““I’m Sorry” Is the First Step”
  1. Jamie Chong says:

    Thanks for following up on this one. That was an eloquent apology, and a great first step. If only Japan could do the same to comfort women…

  2. Leah Thomason Bromberg says:

    Thanks for highlighting this, Joanna. I just learned about Australia’s history with this a few days ago in one of my seminars. I was shocked to hear that this also happened to indigenous peoples in outside of the United States. I’m really sad to have to use the word “also.” My grandparents were taken away to boarding schools, and I’m personally sorting through what that means for my family’s history these days.

  3. Leah Thomason Bromberg says:

    A side note: my Art & Ethnography class watched BabaKiueria (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHK308_MTiU). I found it hilarious but poignant about these issues in Australia.

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