Australia apologised on Wednesday to its indigenous people for past suffering in a watershed Parliament vote broadcast at school assemblies, on giant TV screens in cities and at breakfast barbecues in Aboriginal communities in the Outback. Lawmakers unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s motion on behalf of all Australians that, “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.”
Supporters said the apology would open an new chapter in race relations.
The apology was directed at the tens of thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under now-abandoned assimilation policies.
“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry,” the motion said. “And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
In Parliament’s public galleries and at gatherings large and small around the country, victims of the assimilation policies and their supporters listened intently as Rudd spoke. Many wept quietly. In Sydney, traditional cleansing ceremonies were held in the predominantly Aboriginal suburb of Redfern before the broadcast on a giant screen. Parents clutched children on their knees, some waving Australian and Aboriginal flags.
“Sorry heals the heart and it goes deep,” said Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, an Aborigine among the crowd. “This really means a big thing to us _ a weight that can be lifted so that we can start our healing.”
At Australia Street Infant School elsewhere in the city, more than 60 preschoolers and parents watched the speech at a special assembly, and the school planned a giant painting of each child’s hand print to mark the occasion.
Karen Donnelly said she wanted her three-year-old daughter Zara “to be able to reflect later on what happened, and to be a part of history.”
In the Outback town of Broome on the far northwest coast, dozens gathered before dawn at a high school to watch the speeches in Canberra on television via a scratchy feed.
“I’m glad it’s come this far,” local Aborigine Justin Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “But it’s not going to stop here, there is still going to be that hurt.”
Rudd said Australians had reached a time in their history when they must face up to their past to be able to cope with the future.
“To deal with this unfinished business of the nation,” Rudd said. “To remove a great stain from the nation’s soul and in the true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of this great land Australia.”
“It’s great to get behind what the government’s trying to do; bring black and white Australians together,” said William Murray, a non-indigenous 17-year-old student who traveled to Sydney to witness the occasion.
“This is a historic day,” said Tom Calma, who was selected by Stolen Generations organisations to give a formal response to the apology. “Today our leaders across the political spectrum have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our nation’s first people.”
Aborigines lived mostly as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before British colonial settlers landed at what is now Sydney in 1788.
Today, there are about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia’s population of 21 million. They are the country’s poorest group, with the highest rates of jailing, unemployment and illiteracy. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than that of other Australians. From 1910 until the 1970s, an estimated 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were dying out. A government inquiry found in 1997 that most were deeply scarred by the experience.