Education International
Education International

Australia apologises to Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children

published 5 June 2008 updated 5 June 2008

Australian teachers are wholeheartedly applauding the new federal government’s formal apology to indigenous Aboriginal people for past injustices and human rights violations.

On 13 February, the first day of taking office, newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rose in the Parliament and apologised in an emotional and magnificent speech to all Aborigines for past laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss.” He specifically apologised to the “Stolen Generations,” thousands of Aboriginal children who were taken away from their families through a policy of forced assimilation which lasted from the 19th Century to the late 1960s. “For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry,” Rudd said. In a statement signed by AEU Federal President Angelo Gavrielatos and Federal Secretary and EI Vice-President Susan Hopgood, the Australian Education Union called the apology “a significant moment in Australia’s history.” “It marks the beginning of a journey which sees a painful and tragic period of Australian history acknowledged,” the statement said, and pledged the AEU to stand in solidarity with the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. Hopgood noted that students and teachers in schools across the country watched the ceremony and were moved by the eloquent apology. “It was a day of high emotion -- tears, laughter, sadness for the past wrongdoings, but also an overwhelming hope for the future,” she said. The AEU statement urged the government to go beyond today’s apology: It said “all levels of Australian governments must further acknowledge and urgently act to redress the significant and unacceptable gap between the educational outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.” The union also welcomed the government’s announced commitment to prioritise provision of early childhood education for Indigenous children. “Countless studies show that quality early childhood education is crucial to future learning and educational achievement,” Hopgood said, adding that AUE figures show that as many as 7,500 Indigenous children are missing out on pre-school education in the Northern Territory alone. The apology comes in advance of the World Indigenous Peoples Conference, slated to be held on the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation in Melbourne, Australia from 7-11 December 2008. “Indigenous Education in the 21st Century: Respecting Tradition, Shaping the Future” is the theme of this year’s conference, which will attract Indigenous peoples from around the globe to celebrate and share diverse cultures, traditions and knowledge. EI and its affiliates from the Australian Education Union (AEU), the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU) are hosting a seminar prior to the conference. It will look at how education in today’s world economy may be a major actor in the continuing process of assimilation, colonisation, cultural and linguistic genocide of indigenous peoples. It will also examine the role of education unions in addressing these issues, and share models of unions working positively with indigenous peoples. Access to education was also stolen In 1995 the Australian Government commissioned a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Their report, entitled Bringing Them Home, contains testimony from hundreds of members of the Lost Generations. Witnesses told of receiving little or no education, and certainly little of any value. In their own words: “The authorities said I was removed from my parents so I could receive an education but the fact is the nuns never gave me that education. I didn't receive an education. I was very neglected.” “I wanted to be a nurse, only to be told that I was nothing but an immoral black lubra, and I was only fit to work on cattle and sheep properties ... I strived every year from Grade 5 up until Grade 8 to get that perfect 100% mark in my exams at the end of each year, which I did succeed in, only to be knocked back by saying that I wasn't fit to do these things ... Our education was really to train us to be domestics and to take orders.”

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 26, June 2008.